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Monday, October 24, 2011

"The Last Poultry Farmer" Tells It Like It Is

In my last post (which was, unbelievably, two months ago), I posted a clip with the brilliant author and conscious eating enthusiast, Jonathan Safran Foer.  I am still currently reading his book, Eating Animals when I came across a section called "I Am The Last Poultry Farmer".  This chapter is about a man named Frank Reese, a lifelong poultry farmer and bird lover (  I'll skip the sermon about how he prides himself on being the last poultry farmer to actually let his birds run free (unlike self-professed "cage free" farms) and exercise without the restraints of wing-clipping and de-beaking.  I'll get right to the reason I wanted to mention him in this post.  This is Frank Reese himself explaining, in layman's terms, the health risks involved in eating meat today:

Just the other day, one of the local pediatricians was telling me he's seeing all kinds of illnesses that he never used to see.  Not only juvenile diabetes, but inflammatory and autoimmune diseases that a lot of the docs don't even know what to call.  And girls are going through puberty much earlier, and kids are allergic to just about everything, and asthma is out of control.  Everyone knows it's our food.  We're messing with the genes of these animals and then feeding them growth hormones and all kinds of drugs that we really don't know enough about.  And then we're eating them.  Kids today are the first generation to grow up on this stuff, and we're making a science experiment out of them.

Being someone who's eaten tons of meat his whole life and someone who would like to start a family in the not-too-distant future, I've thought about this paragraph for a few weeks now.  I haven't even read past this section of the book in that time because I keep coming back to this one chunk.  Drugs are given to these animals so that they grow bigger and more quickly than ever before.  They are enormous by the time they are thirty-nine days old and are then killed, processed, sold, and eaten.  Fast and cheap is the name of the game.  Anti-biotics, growth hormones, vaccinations go into the animal; the animal goes into us.  It's undeniable.  Those of us who have been camp counselors know what it's like to have a bunk of children with a laundry list of allergies for you to be aware of and remember (from dust to bee stings to peanuts to freshly cut grass! - not to mention keeping track of all their inhalers).  And, if you haven't noticed, children are growing (or not growing!) at a much more alarming rate than they have in the past.  How could it not be linked to the way we are feeding ourselves and the way the food industry has been changing?

Example...  Football players are big dudes.  They've always been big dudes.  But doesn't it seem like these days kids are sprouted from the ground at 6'4" 250lbs. cradling a football?  These monsters seem bigger and stronger than ever.  They are bred to win high school state championships, get scholarships to Division I schools, and then go be millionaires in the NFL.  From day one they are told to bulk up and eat your protein.  So, the more protein they need, the more meat they eat, the more genetic altering material goes into their body, the bigger, stronger, and potentially unhealthier they get.  Here are some stats to chew on:

  • From 1920 to 1984, there were NEVER more than 8 players in any season who weighed 300 pounds or more.  In 2006, there were 570(!), nearly 20% of all players.
  • Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, the average player is nearly 25 pounds heavier, averaging 245 pounds.
  • Over the same period, the average offensive linemen is 62 pounds heavier; defensive linemen, 34 pounds; quarterbacks 26, pounds; running backs 17, pounds.
The numbers are staggering.  And now the players are huge which can net them tens of millions of dollars - so they're happy.  The offensive line is impenetrable - so the quarterbacks and coaches are happy.  The team dominates - so the owners and fans are happy.  Everybody wins!  But at what cost?  The player plays for 10-15 years, retires, and develops all kinds of physical ailments stemming from the abuse on and off the field throughout their career (see Reggie White: most feared defensive lineman of his time - dead of cardiac and pulmonary failure at age 43).

Can we draw the line all the way back to the way meat is being produced and consumed?  I'm not saying  that.  But my question is this: would we knowingly take a syringe and inject ourselves and our children with hormones and genetics-altering material at every meal?  I know my answer but I'll let Mr. Reese leave you with the final thought for the day:

I use the old genetics, the birds that were raised a hundred years ago.  Do they grow slower?  Yes.  Do I have to feed them more?  Yes.  But you look at them and tell me if they're healthy.  The industrial birds?  It's like putting a broken down Honda on the Autobahn and saying it's a Porsche.  KFC chickens are almost always killed in thirty-nine days.  They're babies.  That's how rapidly they're grown.  It can't be allowed to live any longer because its genetics are so screwed up. ... When I grew up, the animals were taken care of first.  You did chores before you ate breakfast.  We were told that if we didn't take care of the animals, we weren't going to eat.  We never went on vacations.  Somebody always had to be here. ... It had to be done no matter what.  If you don't want that responsibility, don't become a farmer.  Because that's what it takes to do it right.  And if you can't do it right, don't do it.  It's that simple.  And I'll tell you another thing: if consumers don't want to pay the farmer to do it right, they shouldn't eat meat.


  1. This reminds me of a friend of my husband's from college. He was a vegetarian, but for a unique reason. He felt as though humans had to respect for the lives that they took when they are meat. Seeing meet lined up in Styrofoam containers causes a complete disconnect between the square-shaped product on the tray and the animal who gave its life to provide the sustenance. He always said that he wasn't against eating meat; but if he ever ate it, he'd only eat what he'd caught, killed, and cooked. He felt he had no right to eat the meat if he couldn't stomach the idea of killing the animal it came from.

    I have two feelings about this post. I love the idea of a farmer truly caring about his product, and I completely respect his position. Unfortunately, I think if all farming was done that way, the cost of poultry might be too high to make chicken an affordable option for most people (which may be the point; if less people could afford it, we'd eat less meat). I'm always a little hesitant to attribute some of those things mentioned to food. Athletes take a lot of enhancers - legal and otherwise - to help them bulk up, so I think that needs to enter into the conversation. I also think that, when it comes to the health of children, we have to look at our mothers as well. Women are having children so much later now than they did when we were born, and with advanced maternal age can come compromised health for children, in many ways.
    That said, I completely agree that we need to take more consideration regarding what we're feeding our children. My husband and I are dye freaks, and try to avoid anything possible that contains artificial dyes - all the way down to her tylenol (have you ever seen non-dyed baby tylenol?! It looks chalky and gross, but she doesn't care). We also try and give her as little processed food as possible, but it's hard. That's certainly no excuse, but it has to be a conscious decision to work harder to take care of your body; society makes it so easy not to!
    Great post - obviously, it got me thinking. :)

  2. You hit the nail on the head! The disconnect is really amazing. For years I honestly never put two and two together. The meat under the plastic was not real to me. It just "happened" and that was that. No killing. No pain. No genetically engineered material added. It just appeared - and, even more importantly, I didn't want to know anything else. I was blissfully unaware, as many tend to be.

    Ah, now we're debating. I love it! True, the meat may then become a bit more expensive. And yes, that would probably mean less meat consumed. I don't want to suggest that people not eat meat. But it's important to eat food that won't make you sick. If you're going for pure cost-efficiency, then we should eat Top Ramen and meals off the McDonald's dollar menu at every meal. We'd save tons of money! We could also save tons of money by purchasing goods from sweat shops and companies that hired children or migrant workers on the cheap. But at what cost? Why is one completely unfathomable while the other seems like no big deal.

    People like to argue that eating healthy is much more expensive. Maybe slightly. If you buy prepared meals or meat substitutes, then it's true. However, fresh produce is MUCH less expensive than meat products. It depends what you buy and where you buy it - just like anything else. True, athletes do take a lot of enhancers but you can't tell me that food has nothing to do with the fact that 500 NFL players are over 300lbs. in 2006 vs. 8 in 1984. Maybe not the sole reason, but it has to play a part.

    Good call about women having the kids later in life. Age does mess with body chemistry which can be passed on to the children. I didn't even think of that. Thanks for bringing it up! And thanks for bantering with me!

  3. I actually don't think eating healthy is more expensive; I think it's more work, and that's why we like to say it's more expensive, because then we feel justified in saying we can't cook that way. I have more to say but company just got here, so I'll be back! :)

  4. Hi,

    I have a quick question about your blog, do you think you could email me?