Oprah and Proposition 2: It's What's for Dinner

9 years ago

In a valiant effort to explore both sides of the controversial Proposition 2 in California, Oprah's show yesterday was entitled: "How We Treat the Animals We Eat." With the globe-trotting Lisa Ling by her side, Oprah spoke to folks from the media, the Humane Society of America (sponsors of Prop. 2), industry organizations and chicken/veal/pig farmers - both factory and organic. Valid points were made on both sides of the issue - it was not as black/white as I had imagined.

First, it is glorious that this issue is FINALLY being discussed in the mainstream. While it has long been a concern of animal rights activists, vegetarians and vegans, the truth is, nothing is going to change in the animal processing industry until that average family of five in Ohio or Missouri starts to ponder their food, questions the origins and demands changes with their dollar. Fact is, humans are not going to stop eating meat but we can certainly be nicer about it.

As a woefully imperfect human gradually easing into vegetarianism (going cold turkey only made me crave turkey), I often wrestle with our spotty relationship with the animal kingdom. (My current awareness began with Eric Schlosser's brilliant expose, Fast Food Nation, which is a must for anyone who has already read this far.)

Here in the U.S., we have doggie therapists, LOL cats and Animal Planet and yet, we as a nation support a factory system that soundly rejects pigs, cows and chickens as thinking, feeling beings. As Michael Pollan eloquently stated in his 2002 New York Times Magazine piece:

"There's a schizoid quality to our relationship with animals, in which sentiment and brutality exist side by side. Half the dogs in America will receive Christmas presents this year, yet few of us pause to consider the miserable life of the pig - an animal easily as intelligent as a dog - that becomes the Christmas ham."

Oprah's show explored the realities of Proposition 2, California's Confining Farm Animals initiative statute. The proposition would add a chapter to Division 20 of the California Health and Safety Code to "prohibit the confinement of certain farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. The measure would deal with three types of confinement: veal crates, battery cages, and sow gestation crates."

Plenty of videos were shown of cramped animals, alive but certainly not living, in their cages or pens and patiently awaiting death on our behalf. These are the factory facilities that produce the bulk of meat and the 75 billion eggs per year for the nation. This is big business and there is nothing cuddly or forgiving about it though few of us pause to consider that when we are BBQing or making omelettes.

Videos were also shown of organic farmers and ranchers who let chickens run and peck freely outdoors or their cows and babies hang out together in a pasture. The contrasting images are seemingly impossible to argue with. OF COURSE the animal would prefer a free range lifestyle - who wouldn't want to be free? Unfortunately, most of the animals that Americans consume do not live in spaces that allow them to move around or spread their wings. Rarely, if ever, do they set a hoof on the actual ground.

Oprah mentioned one of her favorite movies, "Babe", as an example of idealized family farms that are no longer the norm. As noted in the 1/21/04 Los Angeles Times article, "The High Price of Cheap Food":

"When we picture a farm, we picture scenes from Old MacDonald and Charlotte's Web, not warehouses with 10,000 chickens ... When we look, it's shocking. Our rural idylls have been transformed into stinking factories."

However, as the co-owner of a family farm (in North Dakota, no animals), part of me truly empathizes with the plight of these modern farmers, many of whom are continuing the farm after several generations. Like it or not, farmers and ranchers are at the mercy of what the market demands and these days, it demands mass produced food that can get to the table as cheaply as possible.

When one of the farmers mentioned that the family had been pig farming since 1850, Oprah pointed out that surely the man's great-great-great grandfather farmed free range/organic since there were no other options. Doesn't that mean he could return to this method? The farmer politely pointed out that "back then, America also did not have 300 million people who are now used to getting their eggs and meat at a certain low price."

Point taken. For the factory farmers, it comes down to space; free-ranging 10,000 pigs is no small feat. And I have some concern for the economics of my home state should the chicken/egg industry be hard hit. (The five largest egg producing states represent approximately 50 percent of all egg production - California is #5.) This is why the LA Times wrote a 9/25 editorial rejecting the ballot measure.

However, I gotta admit, my concern for the farmers situation decreased somewhat when Ling casually mentioned near the end of the show that the statue would not go into effect until 2015! Perhaps I'm being naive but surely seven years is enough time to sort it out and make the necessary changes especially after egg-eating consumers have voted for these changes.

The most encouraging comment I heard during Oprah's show came from an unlikely source, the rep guy for the veal industry. I'm paraphrasing here but he basically said, "With or without legislation, our industry is already heading in this direction as people become more aware and customers demand it." And this is the point to make here: While it may cost more initially, the more that consumers demand better animal living conditions with our choices, the cost of these products will inevitably come down. I've now made it a habit to purchase cage-free eggs and some stores, like Whole Foods, now offer no other alternatives.

No matter the outcome of Prop. 2, times they are a changin'. Even the final paragraph of the LA Times editorial came with a warning to the industry:

"Although Proposition 2 isn't the answer, the egg industry is due for an overhaul, and chicken farmers should take heed. Polls indicate that this measure has wide support. If it passes, that will be in part because the egg industry either has been oblivious to consumer concerns or recalcitrant about coming up with its own solutions. Proposition 2 is proof that if farmers insist on mistreating animals, people will act."

There are many insightful posts out there on this issue, Oprah's show and Prop. 2 but I have to say, there also seem to be a ton of anger about Oprah's show and what it left out. To this, I have to ask, do you really think this complex issue can be adequately covered in less than an hour? Or in a single blog post, for that matter? Personally, I'm celebrating the fact that this long-overdue discussion is finally underway because it is going to take a long time to sort it out. So, y'know, grab your carrot sticks and settle in. 

Dr. Mary Martin over at Animal Blog offered some terrific insights and debunked a buncha stuff. (Check out her points on what "cage free" and "free range" actually mean - color me enlightened.):

"For those for Proposition 2, this election couldn't come at a worse time, as when Americans are worried about their bank accounts, it appears that they might take on a new set of values. It's American to care about the jobs of Americans. And it's American to be able to choose how much suffering you're going to cause the least of us. I just wish the show presented the options and their consequences more thoroughly and honestly. It's disingenuous to present the issue as factory farms versus farms of Old McDonald, and though that presentation might not have been intentional, the damage is already done. Whether Oprah's audience chooses to purchase happy meat and happy eggs or not, or votes for Prop 2 or not, they definitely don't have the whole story about what's involved in animal farming no matter who's doing it."

BlogHer's very own Elisa Camahort Page also pondered Prop. 2 on her personal blog, Animal Rights:

"I'm not jumping up and down with joy thinking this Proposition will solve the problems, and it certainly in no way would send me off to order a burger, or even an omelet. But I think it's an incremental step that we should take if we can get people to actually think about it and agree to it. I hope it can be the start of more consciousness and more action. I'm sure some think I'm naive."

Stephanie Ernst gives us a "reaction preview" to the Oprah broadcast on her blog, also named Animal Rights:

"I am glad that farmed animals are getting attention on a national, respected program such as Oprah's, but I am livid and disappointed by what was—and was not—said on today's program and what misconceptions were allowed to stand or even promoted as truths in the interest of getting Proposition 2 passed. Wayne Pacelle and the HSUS betrayed the animals today, on a grand, nationally televised scale when they had a chance to both promote Prop 2 and offer a truly humane alternative and did not take it."

Finally, Paula Crossfield over at Slow Food Nation had a great post on the show, deftly reminding us that Oprah was the same gal who announced she was no longer eating meat after mad cow disease broke out. Remember that? Whooowee! Did she piss off the beef industry! Paula also made a few other observations, including:

"The most interesting moment, arrested by a commercial break before it could come to fruition, was when the free-range pig farmer reached out to the confinement operator and said that he used to think that putting the pigs free to roam outside would be too hard, that they would be cold in the winter or would be difficult to breed and maintain. But that now he has come to realize that it just isn’t so. I really hoped Oprah would let him go on, but the schedule of daytime television was set in stone."

More to come on this issue? Count on it. 



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