The significance of meat in American society is widespread and multifaceted. Its meaning, for many people, extends beyond the scope of health, nutrition, or that of a mere dietary supplement; meat bears social connotations that range from cultural traditions to gender standards and associations to animal rights issues.
It is no wonder why America has come to produce and consume more meat than any country in the world, taking the cake when it comes to beef, veal, and broiler meat and coming in third next to the European Union and China when it comes to pork, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
An even more profound example of the significance of meat in American society would be the growing vegetarian/vegan demographic within the United States; the basic manifestation of the rejection of meat in America. The principles and practices on which vegetarianism is built and the many reasons why people would choose to pursue such a lifestyle make a strong statement about what meat has come to represent to many Americans today : a less than savory truth about what I'll call the Meat Process; its production, preparation, and consumption in contemporary America.
When presented with the idea of meat, many people would automatically think of wings, drumsticks, steak, cutlets, chops, bacon, and ham instead of chickens, cows, lambs, or pigs.1 Hopefully, in all seriousness, when all is said and done, we have the basic knowledge that our meat does indeed come from animals; but this immediate perception of meat demonstrates an almost deliberate lack of basic understanding of the origins of meat. Given this perspective, the amount of meat the nation consumes is quite alarming. Steak, hot dogs, buffalo wings, and hamburgers can be considered iconic American foods that many people eat almost on a regular basis. McDonald's has a strong and deeply rooted presence in the nation and its staple menu items primarily consist of meat. Yearly quotas for meat industry kingpins must be increasing for a reason. To be consuming so much of something we effectively know so little about should be a major concern for everyone.
Many vegetarians claim that their decision to become such was driven by an affinity for animal rights. Animal rights issues need to be addressed because they are indirectly related to human health in terms of the consumption of meat. The actual killing of an animal for food cannot necessarily be deemed animal cruelty because it happens everywhere--between humans and animals and between different animal species--and it's out of an objective biological necessity. However, treatment of the animals and respect for their natural behaviors and processes is a different issue. This is where the definition and enforcement of animal rights is crucial and ultimately in our best interest. Society generally looks down on athletes who use steroids and other drugs to enhance physique and performance. It is a practice that is considered unfair, unhealthy, and dangerous. However, many people (albeit unknowlingly) eat meat derived from animals that have been injected with growth hormones, antibiotics, and other potentially harmful drugs. As the old saying goes, you are what you eat, aren't you? On top of this, animals bred for slaughter spend most of their lives in dismal, unhealthy, illness-inducing living conditions2 and are often fed rendered feed mixtures consisting of animal remains, animal feces, corn, soybeans, and other ingredients alien to their natural diet.3 All these factors provide the perfect opportunity for harmful and resilient bacteria to multiply and thrive.
Sometimes new technologies and practices are factored into the Meat Process in response to food-borne illnesses. These include introducing new antibiotics to combat bacteria mutations that resulted from developed resistance to old antibiotics4, soaking meat in ammonia to kill bacteria, and irradiation to sterilize harmful bacteria.5 But these 'solutions' have every potential to introduce many new and potentially worse problems. If key players at the early critical stages of the Meat Process exercised respect for an animal's natural existence, promoted animal health, and re-evaluated and reconfigured their share of the Meat Process accordingly, many of the modern human health concerns associated with meat would be 'nipped in the bud', so to speak.
Vegetarianism is not necessarily the solution to all the meat problems in America and it certainly is not well-suited for everyone. While a vegetarian lifestyle works for some, many people are healthy omnivores that count meat as an essential component of a healthy and balanced diet. But some of the philosophies and principles behind vegetarianism do have something useful to offer us in terms of rethinking our consumption of and attitudes towards meat. Demonstrating a basic respect for nature and living organisms is a fundamental vegetarian concept. Pairing this practice with that of being well-informed about the food we eat and what is necessary to sustain our health and well-being can help people become healthier and stay healthy without having to resort to extremes.
1. A Sociology of Food and Nutrition (pg. 289)
2. Food, Inc. (pgs. 61-64)
3. Fast Food Nation (pg. 202)
4. Fast Food Nation (pgs. 199-200)
5. Fast Food Nation (pgs. 215-218)