Happy Meals

As a child growing up in the city of Chicago, I never gave much thought to where the food I ate came from. While I knew it came from an animal, the meat in the butcher’s glass cases seemed a world apart from the cats and dogs I knew intimately as pets. And I loved my pets very differently than I loved food.

But moving to rural Pennsylvania as an adult challenged the difference between animals I loved and animals I ate. With a grant to interview farm families in western New York and north central Pennsylvania, I met countless families who loved their animals. At a Highland beef cattle farm, steers came running when their names were called, and young calves hurried over to be bottle-fed.

But the farmers never forgot that these animals were ultimately food. One sociology major, who also happened to be the local “dairy queen” at her county fair, brought me to her family farm and introduced me to Sweet Pea, whom she described as “a big fat pig that has a good life.” As she told me, “We got Sweet Pea from a shelter. He’s our beloved pet.” I sat with Sweet Pea for a while; he was like a big dog.

Later, she informed me that Sweet Pea bit her grandfather. “We slaughtered him and ate him for dinner,” she said.

How could someone eat a pet? On a small farm, it is part of the deal. Livestock may ultimately be food, but they need love to thrive. Again and again farmers told me that their animals led pleasant lives until they were slaughtered—a juxtaposition that may seem strange. Most of us see nurturing and killing as emotionally incompatible with one another.

But as I watched families care for animals that would ultimately end up on someone’s plate, I came to wonder whether a hamburger from a beloved cow was any better—ethically superior, and tastier, than meat from an unloved one?

Some observers, such as food critic Michael Pollan writing in his best-selling book Ominivore’s Dilemma, suggest that livestock which are treated as pets may be healthier and tastier than that which is raised in the crowded anonymity of large-scale farms and ranches. They are less likely to subsist on corn and suffer from diseases, and more likely to get the exercise that develops a better-tasting product. They’re also likely to be free of antibiotics and steroids, which most experts agree is dangerous to consumers’ health.

Livestock that is loved is also more marketable to “green” consumers. Labels like USDA Organic, Third-Party Certified, Hormone-Free, and now “Certified Humane Raised & Handled” help to resolve any potential indigestion a consumer may suffer as they contemplate their meal’s past life. Perhaps that’s why the California Milk Advisory board spent over $18 million to create an ad campaign featuring “happy cows.” In one ad, a herd of Holsteins leaving the Midwest on foot welcome a California earthquake—and the foot massage it will give them—and discuss what they find most attractive in bulls.

For growing numbers of meat manufacturers, it seems, burgers from happy cows go down much, much better.

Further Reading

Read Helene Lawson’s full-length article on this topic: The Experience of Existing: small family farms in the Northeast United States.