Rock stars, factory farmers, and two gifts to the food bank

Farm Sanctuary www.farmsanctuary.org

Sister-in-law Lisa called from the Ozarks recently to suggest that we change our Christmas routine. Let’s just make donations to a good cause, she proposed. Instead of the seasonal madness of obligatory gift-giving–frenzied shopping trips, needless consumerism, looming mailing deadlines–we’d simply contribute something meaningful to someone who needed it. We decided on our local food banks–theirs in Missouri, ours in Montana.

We’ve frequently contributed to our food bank, and I’ve volunteered there a few times in years past. As vegans, though, it gave us pause to consider that this year’s larger-than-usual contribution might purchase meat from factory farmed animals who suffered their entire lives. Doing a good turn for one shouldn’t mean suffering for another. I called the food bank and spoke with a delightful woman who confirmed my suspicion–if we wanted to know that our money would in no way support animal suffering and slaughter, we’d need to purchase the food ourselves. She suggested high protein items–peanut butter, cereal and the like, and added that personal care items are much appreciated, too.

Off I went to Walmart. Yes, I know. I know. And had I read a Treehugger piece first (“Are Walmart’s Eco-Efforts Enough? Balancing Sustainability & Social Responsibility at America’s Largest Retailer”), I might have driven the extra miles to Target–for a heftier carbon footprint. There’s always a trade-off! But I knew I could maximize our donation at Walmart, which I had to pass on my way into town.

The shopping was fun, and I was even able to find an increasing number of mainstream shampoos indicating “this product not tested on animals,” but things get a little dicey here. I know this means only the final product wasn’t tested on animals, but the individual ingredients very well might have been. What could I do? No, I did not search the Walmart shelves for the cruelty-free leaping bunny logo, and doubt that I’d have found it there anyhow. And how practical would it be, given my mission, to pay a premium price for just one leaping bunny item when the same money would buy three or four conventional brand name items? I glanced around somewhat furtively, but seemed to be the only one having a moral crisis in the shampoo aisle. Sigh.

In the end I simply accepted that I’m an unwilling participant in a status quo not of my making and schlepped what turned out to be 70 pounds of mostly food (and some shampoo) to the food bank. Client hours had just ended and shelves were being restocked. The woman I’d spoken to on the phone told me she had relied on the food bank herself at one time; it’s easy to understand how that personal connection creates an atmosphere of compassion and respect for the clients she now serves. Thank goodness for the people who do this work.

But thank dog for animal activists, too, the people who keep reminding the rest of humanity that compassion knows no species, and that–in a just world, anyhow–the heinous suffering in factory farms is not a necessity for healthy, hunger-free living. Seattle’s Food Justice Program defines food justice as:

“…the right of communities everywhere to produce, distribute, access, and eat good food regardless of race, class, gender, ethnicity, citizenship, ability, religion, or community. Good food is healthful, local, sustainable, culturally appropriate, humane, and produced for the sustenance of people and the planet.”

Aging rock star and factory farm giant team up for Montana

But food justice isn’t the first concern when the shelves are bare. As Thanksgiving approached, the food bank ran short of turkeys and put out an urgent request for additional donations so needy families could enjoy a traditional dinner. On the heels of a renewed community effort came the stunning announcement that rocker Huey Lewis, a part-time Bitterroot Valley resident, called on his friend, mega-factory farmer John Tyson, to lend a hand. In short order, 15 tons of factory farmed chicken arrived from North Carolina, a road trip of 23oo miles. (And I was fretting about MY carbon footprint?–ha!) Delivered to the Montana Food Bank Network warehouse in Missoula, the chickens will be distributed for Christmas meals in Big Sky country, according to the Missoulian. Said the network director, “Maybe a small family can use chickens (as) opposed to a turkey for Christmas.”

Tyson Foods is the world’s second largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef and pork (42.5 million chickens slaughtered and packaged each week in 54 plants, according to Wikipedia). But in spite of the company’s Bill of Rights for employees, Tyson settled a racism lawsuit in 2006, and just this year settled both a sex discrimination lawsuit to the tune of $2.25 million and a violations of Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuit for a whopping $32 million.

The company’s core values include striving “to be honorable people,” to “operate with integrity and trust in all we do,” and to “serve as stewards of the animals, land, and environment entrusted to us.” In 2003 Tyson pled guilty to 20 violations of the Clean Water Act. Earlier this year, OSHA issued 10 safety violations at one Tyson plant. Pick a year–you’ll likely find a list of violations. (And then some– google Tyson Foods violations.)

As for the animals themselves–how much stewardship do you suppose 42 million chickens are treated to in a week? Virgil Butler, a former Tyson employee, talks about his former employment (which ended in 2002) in a Compassion Over Killing video (3:30 minutes). His observations are corroborated in this undercover video (3:49 minutes; strong language and slaughter images) filmed in two Tyson plants, according to the narrator. “PETA’s investigator caught on videotape a supervisor telling him that it was acceptable to rip the heads off live birds who had been improperly shackled by the head.” (More text documentation here.)

Further corroboration can be found in a 2011 article appearing in The Pacer (“Independent voice of the University of Tennessee at Martin):

A Tyson employee who spoke to The Pacer on condition of anonymity because employees are not allowed to speak with the media said investigators and Tyson corporate attorneys were at the Union City plant after PETA’s investigation was made public…

“They told us the shock baths were humane, but the problem was apparently in the evisceration department, where they hang the chickens up by their feet,” the part-time employee said. “When you put people in there who are bored and hate their job, there’s no telling what can happen.”  The Pacer

Yeah, there’s just no telling. But even on a good day, physical and mental suffering for billions of warehoused chickens is business as usual. It’s probably safe to say that those who encounter the death machine by the millions on any given day are the lucky ones, the ones for whom the torment finally ends.

Putting a righteous & responsible spin on suffering

John Tyson, a born-again Christian (according to an article on religious CEOs by Justin Rohrlich), “…employs 120 chaplains who ‘walk through the food production plants and offices of Tyson Foods, Inc. where they listen to, encourage, and sometimes pray with some of the more 117,000 [Tyson employees].’ ” In 2007, Tyson won an award from The Center for Spirit at Work, “…an organization for companies that integrate spiritual values such as kindness, compassion, and integrity, into the workplace,” according to Rohrlich. Wait a minute–kindness, compassion, and integrity? Oh, my achin’ head.

But if there’s an image-enhancing ticket out of factory farm shame and into the golden realm of corporate social responsibility, Tyson has found it with its Know Hunger relief program: “Since 2000, Tyson has donated 78 million pounds of much-needed protein to hundreds of food banks, food pantries, and relief agencies in 48 states” (see Our Commitment). (Note also that animals aren’t even meat at this point–they’re protein.) The pay-off? Tyson was chosen one of four examples of “social responsibility done right” by Socialbrite (“social tools for social change”).

Tyson news releases tout their contributions to hunger relief, completing the cycle of altruism born of institutional cruelty: Billions of sentient beings endure lives of abject suffering, bereft of any comfort or kindness, hidden from a public who doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know. Although each is an individual with intelligence and distinct personality, in aggregate they are production units; next, plastic-wrapped protein; and finally, an enormous corporate profit. Some become donations to grateful food banks, feeding people caught in their own cycle–of poverty. Big wheel keep on turnin’…

But this is not to criticize food banks for accepting donations from the likes of Tyson, for they, too, are hostages in an unjust status quo–caught in the voracious, manipulative animal industrial complex that denies animals their lives and human animals their humanity. When will food justice–and justice for animals–be won? What will it take to arrive at the place where people helping people offer humane, sustainable choices rather than factory farmed anguish? Where “traditional meals” and food bank donations never rely on the bodies of suffering, sentient fellow animals?

“Every generation needs a new revolution,” said Thomas Jefferson. This one could be ours.

This post also appears at animal law blog Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.

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