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Tobacco and Meat: A False Comparison?

by on October 29, 2015

Dr Garth just wrote about his dislike of the word “moderation” when it comes to food. That is, when people justify eating junk food and meat at every meal by saying, “Everything in moderation.”

He compares animal foods, shown to cause cancer even in small amounts, to tobacco. And he dreams about a day when restaurants will carry predominantly plant-based dishes, with one or two meat dishes that come with warning labels.

Or, dreaming even more boldly, when restaurants will not carry any meat, and the carnivore has to crack open a Slim Jim in the alley behind the restaurant.

Second-hand Meat?

But there the analogy breaks down, because when we smoke, we’re endangering the health of others. When we eat meat, it’s just on us. There’s no health cost borne by the other diners in a restaurant if I choose to order a tenderloin.

But wait a minute.

Is that really true? Are there no costs to anyone but the consumer?

It turns out that meat eating generates a serious amount of what economists call “externalities.” That is, costs to society that are not borne by the one generating them. Here are three:

  1. Antibiotic resistance
  2. Airborne pathogens from preparing meat in our kitchens and restaurants
  3. Occupational hazards of working in the meat industry

Antibiotic resistance

Animals in factory farms have to been pumped with antibiotics just to keep them alive in those squalid, deadly conditions. The vast majority of antibiotics (about 80%) used in the US are given to animals, not people. And the superbugs that learn to resist the antibiotics are now wreaking havoc in our hospitals.

Airborne Pathogens

You can get sick from just being in a room where chicken is prepared. The pathogens aren’t killed by cooking. In fact, you don’t need to eat the chicken. Just breathing the air can cause bladder infections.

Occupational Hazards

You wouldn’t knowingly buy clothes made by slaves in sweatshops, would you? Even if the clothes looked nice and were cheap and felt good.

Factory farmed meat comes to us cheap partly based on the terrible working conditions of the underpaid, vulnerable laborers who work at feedlots, slaughterhouses, and processing plants.

As we report in Proteinaholic, one study found that workers at a chicken processing plant developed cancer of the penis at nine times the rate of the general population.

And Oxfam USA just released a report, Lives on the Line, that documents the risks of illness and injury in chicken industry workers.

To say nothing of the psychological toll inflicted on people who are forced to kill thousands of creatures a day; who must treat thinking, feeling, beings like the inanimate products of an industrial assembly line.

I’m never surprised at the hidden camera exposés of animal cruelty at stockyards and meat processing plants – the cognitive dissonance of doing their jobs and being human is simply too great to maintain for long. I couldn’t do it.

Second-hand Meat

It’s clear that what most people view as an entirely “personal” decision actually has significant and negative public health consequences. And that’s not even considering the toll of animal agriculture on the environment, through global climate change, deforestation, and aquifer pollution and drawdown. Or the miserable lives of the animals enslaved and killed in the billions to satisfy our personal cravings.

So yeah, Dr. Garth. You’re right. Meat is more like tobacco than I first thought.