Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from “MeatLess: Transform the Way You Eat and Live—One Meal at a Time” by Kristie Middleton. Copyright © 2017. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
By Kristie Middleton
In December 2009, my husband, Mark, received an email from an animal sanctuary where he’d volunteered. The email requested that a group of us help transport several dozen “spent” egg-laying hens, who had been discarded by an egg factory farm, to the sanctuary.
Mark explained that we’d leave early on a Saturday morning to meet the rescue agency, move the birds from their transport crates to comfortable boxes we’d prepare for them in advance, and then drive them a couple hours north. He asked if I’d like to come along but warned that I’d be seeing animals who had been through hell. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to help deliver these animals to a safe haven, but in spite of Mark’s warnings, I wasn’t fully prepared for what I would encounter.
When I saw these hens, I couldn’t help but think of the time I was nine years old, and my older sister taunted me about the eggs I was eating:
“You know what that is, don’t you?”
“What?” I asked.
“Dead baby birds.”
As a nine-year-old, eggs happened to be the only food I knew how to cook. My uncle Rodney, who’d once stayed with my family for a month, taught me how to make scrambled eggs; to me, it was magic watching them go from liquid to congealed to cooked within moments of hitting the hot skillet. That was when I fell in love with cooking.
It took a moment for my sister’s comment to hit me. Dead baby birds? I stopped eating eggs immediately.
Though I later learned that my sister was wrong—that the eggs we eat are actually unfertilized—as a child who loved animals, my sister’s ribbing was sufficient to turn me off eggs for good. Twenty years later, during that rescue, I came face to face with the actual ugly truth behind the egg industry.
Having been involved in animal advocacy full time for many years, I knew that the majority of egg-laying hens are confined in wire mesh cages with up to seven other birds. I knew that virtually all of their natural behaviors are denied—dustbathing, perching, and even spreading their wings. But I was still shocked to see the condition of the birds.
On the cold winter day when we transported the hens, they arrived, stuffed into tiny plastic crates with several other birds. Many were missing feathers, exposing raw, pink skin, and some had malformed beaks from botched debeaking (when factory farmers cut their beaks off with a hot blade to prevent them from pecking). They all had overgrown toenails from standing on wire for the last year or more, and some were too weak to even stand up on their own.
Retirement for egg-laying hens typically means being gassed to death then sold as low-grade meat for pet food or farm animal feed. These fortunate birds would experience something much better. Upon arrival at the sanctuary, the hens were gently removed from the crates and placed inside a barn that had been prepared for them. At first they were tentative, but a few brave souls began exploring their surroundings.
Watching the birds explore the solid ground under their claws instead of the cage wire to which they were accustomed was deeply moving. Some slowly scratched at the hay that had been placed on the ground while others pecked at it, and there were a few hens who were so weak they never stood up while we were there.
Slowly, the birds who had never properly exercised extended their wings, flapping them for the first time ever without touching the sides of their cages or one of their cage-mates. A few began taking dust baths, flinging the straw and dust up around them and relishing in the experience of cleaning their feathers. This, I thought, is why I work every day to help animals.
Caring about animals is something I’ve done from the time I was a young girl.
I grew up in suburban America with a typical childhood: spending time outdoors with my friends riding my bike, and vegging out watching cartoons on Saturday mornings and MTV after school. And my pets were always at my side—they were family members who I loved dearly.
My diet was also typical. I grew up eating Kraft macaroni and cheese, McDonald’s hamburgers, and Chick-fil-A nuggets. At one point, in my early teens, I considered becoming vegetarian. I bought a container of water-packed tofu, drained the water, and tried eating the blob for dinner—plain, unadorned, and flavorless. And there ended my first experiment with vegetarian eating. (If I could share but one gem of wisdom, it’d be this: don’t try eating plain tofu for dinner!)
Later in life, my college marketing professor discussed the concept of euphemisms—how words can make unpleasant things sound more appealing. She asked how appealing it would be to eat chicken nuggets if we instead called them “processed flesh of dead animals.”
Her words affected me. I’d sit down to eat a sandwich and think about eating the “flesh of dead animals.” I couldn’t do it, so I became a vegetarian.
Around that time, I started volunteering for an animal protection organization and became aware of the myriad ways humans use animals—for food, research, entertainment, and more. So, I decided to work full time to help animals, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
Today, I’m senior food policy director for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)—the nation’s largest animal protection organization. And in the nearly two decades I’ve been working in this field, I’ve seen tremendous progress: the number of animals euthanized in shelters has decreased dramatically, cruel farming practices once considered standard are now illegal in some places, and animal cruelty and dog-fighting are now felonies in all fifty states.
These transformations are happening because, as a society, we care deeply about animals. From the time we’re young, we’re taught to have compassion for animals. We’re exposed to animals throughout childhood in seemingly endless ways. Who didn’t have a favorite stuffed animal as a kid? We watch animals on cartoons, wear animal print clothing, and read stories prominently featuring animals such as Charlotte’s Web and The Tale of Peter the Rabbit.
And we live with lots of them. According to the American Pet Products Association, nearly 80 million U.S. households—65 percent of us—have animal companions. Forty-two percent of those homes with animals have more than one.
And as it turns out, our animal affinity extends to those raised for food. Technomic, a foodservice industry research and consulting firm, found animal welfare to be the third most-important social issue to restaurant-goers.
But while we want animals to be treated humanely, there remains a cognitive dissonance in which our daily actions don’t necessarily align with our values. According to 2015 polling by the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG), only 3.4 percent of Americans are vegetarians—the same percentage of Americans who reported to be vegetarian in 2009.
However, VRG also found that 47 percent of us eat meat-free meals at least one day a week. In fact, USDA figures indicate that we’re eating 10 percent less meat now than in 2007. So while the number of us becoming vegetarian or vegan remains consistent, the number of us actively reducing the meat we eat is growing. As a society that loves animals, we haven’t succeeded in rectifying our love of animals and how we eat. Yet that’s beginning to change with more of us desiring to eat less meat—for animals, our health, or for the planet.
Transitioning to vegetarian was easy for me: I was exposed to information that I found compelling and made simple changes to what I ate; I continued cooking my favorite meals but made them without meat; I sampled new vegetarian products at health food stores and ventured to new restaurants to sample food that was brand new to me.
While I’d stopped eating shell eggs as a child, I still consumed them in baked goods. As a new vegan, I experimented with baking with egg replacers. I sampled a variety of dairy-free milks and swapped my cow’s milk for soymilk. And I explored ice creams made from almonds and rice milk instead of dairy.
While the shift from omnivore to vegetarian to vegan was a slow process for me, I have friends who became vegan overnight, and others who are enjoying more plant-based meals while still eating meat from time to time. Everyone is at a different place in their transition: Maybe you’re thinking of committing to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, or maybe you want to be more of a flexitarian and reduce the amount of meat you eat while eating meat occasionally. Whatever path you chose, we can all eat healthier and more in alignment with our values.
Kristie Middleton is the senior director of food policy for The Humane Society of the United States and the author of MeatLess: Transform the Way You Eat and Live—One Meal at a Time.