Animals and Us: Notes of an Omnivore
As we pulled the car up to the barn where we buy free-range eggs, our farmer was busily involved in a different kind of farming task. He was plucking turkeys for a customer—looks like an early Thanksgiving, she had three freshly harvested and plucked turkeys in the back of her car and was waiting for at least one more.
People can have strong reactions when they stop to think about the process of animals being harvested (killed) to become the food on our table, and I understand a wide variety of reactions. I also think it’s worthwhile to look at the whole process of raising food through the lens of evaluating animal well-being.
The farmer we saw at work today is a skilled butcher. His animals enjoy a nearly idyllic life: all their basic needs covered (free health care and protection from hawks) and free access to whatever they can find of interest in a fenced pasture. One day they are swooped up by their feet, held securely, and quickly “pithed” in a way designed to end their lives swiftly and painlessly. The cartoon version of a decapitated chicken continuing to run around the yard is not funny but cruel to the chicken. (Which, parenthetically, means it’s not so good for your chicken breasts either: a stressed animal burns through their stored muscle sugars which in turn diminishes the lactic acid available to flavor the meat well.)
It turns out that (warning: graphic details ahead) the most egregious animal mistreatment actually happens in the process of raising row crops like beans, corn, and grains, on a large-scale farm. Soil that is prepared by tractor is home to many varieties of field-dwelling creatures, and entire animal communities are dispatched without warning as the field is plowed. (A field of corn grown by a farmer who does not plow the field considers rodents unwelcome, but doesn’t devastate entire communities at once.)
We will all be looking at a particular turkey this fall as the US President ceremoniously “pardons” a turkey, sparing it from the dinner table. The worst reason for the pardon is that it gives the false message that caring about animals means not eating them. The best reason to follow through with his pardon is that turkeys are actually pretty low on the list when it comes to the nutrients contained in their meat; we’re much better off eating deer, lamb, and free-range beef.
As a doctor, I value the nutritional benefits of eating meat (meat, eggs, fish, and even fowl), as it provides the best-absorbed forms of nutrients either not available or not easily obtained from plant sources, namely vitamins A and B12, the mineral zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. We can absorb less potent forms of these nutrients from plants, and depending on our own physiology, may or may not be able to fully activate them. So, for health reasons, I recommend people choose the omnivore path as best, vegetarian as second choice, and vegan only for spiritual reasons and hopefully well-supplemented!
At the other extreme from animals terminated by tractor rampage would be those animals who get to live an open-pasture (cows, lambs) or open-water (wild fish) life up to that last moment, which ideally happens swiftly, mercifully, and without the trauma of a lengthy confined transport. We are lucky in this area to have farmers and butchers who value humane treatment of animals, while they live and when they are destined for our tables. You can find these farmers at our Growers’ Markets and through Thrive or an independent butcher!
Read more of Dr. Deborah’s healthy insights at www.DrDeborahMD.com.