SEVERAL YEARS AGO I WAS AT A PARTY WITH A FRIEND who had recently become a vegetarian. As she moved through the buffet line, avoiding the meat and piling on the fresh fruit, another friend asked about the motivation for her new lifestyle. Had she adopted vegetarianism for perceived health benefits--or was this some sort of animal-rights kick?
"Both," the new vegetarian responded. She certainly cared about her own health, but she also loved animals and cared about their welfare as well.
"Well, did you ever think about the working conditions of the person who picked those grapes on your plate?" the other friend asked. "Do you care more about animals than people?"
Taken aback, my friend admitted that she hadn't really considered the farm laborers who had picked the grapes or the workers who processed them for sale at the grocery store.
Even though I was an outside observer, that incident made me think about the entire notion of the ethics of food, from its production all the way to its consumption. I soon discovered that I could purchase grapes grown organically, an agricultural method that respects both the person harvesting the food and the environment in which it is grown.
As I educated myself more and more about the food I was purchasing for my family and me, I became convinced that, as the National Catholic Rural Life Conference says, "eating is a moral act." As Catholics, we must care about what we eat, and we ought to change eating habits that may have unintended immoral consequences.
Most of us know that the nutritional choices we make every single day affect our own health and well-being. That is one good reason for eating healthful food. Most of us also know that our natural resources are affected by our food choices. This concern for God's creation is why some of us look for tins of "dolphin safe" tuna or purchase organic food. Many of us are unaware, however, that our food choices, made every single day, also affect the human dignity of many others. As Catholics, we should care about what we eat for that reason most of all.
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTIONS TO ASK OURSELVES when we sit down to the table every day is "How did this food get to me?" In past generations, when a much higher percentage of people grew most of their own food, that question was easily answered. Today it is not so easy.
Because of that difficulty many good and moral people go strictly for convenience. They pick up shrink-wrapped packages of precut meat at the grocery store without bothering to find out how the meat was processed--and by whom--before it arrived there. Children and adults alike casually eat junk food loaded with unnatural ingredients, overlooking the obesity epidemic in our country and other detrimental effects of highly processed food because all junk food is convenient, some of it tastes good, and it is hard to say no to our kids (and to ourselves). Families pressed for time stop at fast-food restaurants and never consider the impact this industry has on so many other human lives and the environment.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about one quarter of all workers in the meatpacking industry suffer illness or injury as a result of their work, making it the most dangerous job in America. This is primarily due to the emphasis in slaughterhouses on speed, which of course equals profit. At IBP, which along with ConAgra and Excel is one of the three meatpacking giants, only one third of the workers are unionized, and most nonunion workers are recent immigrants.
The inhumane working conditions under which meatpacking employees labor have been meticulously researched and well documented in Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (HarperCollins). Schlosser also describes the mistreatment of those who work in the fast-food service sector and explores the entire question of food safety.
Although I would never accept one book as the source of all my information, it was after reading this one, and in conjunction with other information I discovered, that I decided (much to my three children's chagrin) that I could no longer eat at McDonald's or any other major fast-food chain in good conscience. …