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More free-range options do exist

Published: September 29, 2006
Section: Opinions


Since coming to Brandeis University this fall, Ive eaten only vegan and vegetarian foods. I am already bored with these limited options, but I make sure to eat a protein-rich food every day, and so far, no health crises have resulted. However, it would be wonderful to no longer poke at cold tofu day after day.

My own principles and Aramarks unwillingness to serve free-range and grass-fed chicken and beef have conspired to push me into vegetarianism. Before I came to Brandeis, I ate only free-range chicken and grass-fed beef. The environmental damages and harm to animals caused by the mechanized slaughter of modern factory farming had convinced me that continued participation in the dominant system of meat consumption in the United States was not possible. However, Im Argentinean, so meat-eating is a cultural necessity. The most fitting compromise I could find was continued consumption of meat and chicken, but only in its free-range and grass-fed forms.

The existing network of factory farms oppresses both the animals that it contains and the humans who must continuously cede resources for its prolonged existence. A combination of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetic manipulation, and crowded conditions has resulted in a variety of health problems for chickens and cows. The wastes generated by factory farms pollute farmland and rivers, and ever-increasing amounts of water and grain are devoted to feeding factory-raised livestock.

Chickens have been genetically altered to grow twice as fast and to twice the size they would reach under normal conditions. These new chickens grow so quickly that their hearts, lungs, and legs can no longer keep up with the rate of growth of the rest of their bodies. Congestive heart failure is not uncommon, nor are leg disorders and cancer. Each chicken is given approximately half a foot of space in its cage. In order to alleviate the damages to chicken meat caused by this overcrowding, chickens beaks are routinely cut off without anesthesia, and sometimes their wings are clipped as well. Chickens are specifically excluded from the Humane Slaughter Act, which means that they are often fully conscious when slaughtered.

Cattle are fed hormones that include estradiol, testosterone, trenbolone acetate, and zeranol. In 1999, an official scientific panel of the European Union determined that estradiol should be considered a complete carcinogen. In normal conditions, cattle eat grass, but since corn is cheaper for producers in the U.S., cattle are routinely fed antibiotics that overcome their resistance to eating corn. Cattle are confined to spaces so small that their leg muscles atrophy from lack of exercise and some cattle never reach the slaughterhouse because they cannot be made to walk after spending eight months or more in feedlots.

The inhumane treatment of cattle in slaughterhouses has direct impacts on consumers as well as on slaughterhouse workers. In the U.S., 70 percent of food-borne illnesses are caused by contaminated meat. Unsanitary conditions in slaughterhouses make it more likely that beef will come into contact with cattle feces, thereby facilitating the transmission of salmonella and listeriosis.

Slaughterhouse work is one of the most dangerous professions in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in a typical year, 29 percent of workers in meat processing plants receive injuries that require treatment beyond first aid.

The environmental casualties of factory farming include 35,000 miles of polluted rivers and contaminated groundwater in seventeen states as a result of inadequate waste management and disposal techniques. The manure of cattle raised in factory farms contains a high percentage of heavy metals, which can be absorbed by the soil or groundwater. Meat is also one of the most inefficient ways to produce protein, because every cow that is slaughtered has consumed approximately ten times its weight in biomass, primarily from corn and other grains. The average American receives two-thirds of his protein from meat, while the worldwide average is only 34 percent. This consumption model is unsustainable.

There are ways for Brandeis to stop or at least limit its participation in such a devastating practice. Dining halls could at least offer the option of free-range and grass-fed products alongside factory-farmed options. Beef could be purchased from small-scale local farmers rather than large-scale producers. This change would give students more choice in food consumption, support the growing free-range and grass-fed movements, and put into practice Brandeis Universitys rhetoric about social justice and community activism.