The Veal Deal

Maybe she read Charlotte's Web one too many times as a kid. Maybe she got a bad slice of veal shank. Whatever the reason, Kari Nienstedt is devoted to saving cute little farm animals (and big, ugly farm animals) from being mistreated on their way to slaughter. Kari's the Arizona spokesperson for Farm Sanctuary, the nation's leading farm animal protection group, and if she had it her way, our only interaction with a pig would involve bringing him flowers on his birthday. As she and her fellow farm animal activists gear up for the annual Phoenix Walk for Farm Animals on October 11, Kari joined me to discuss life without meat, turkey adoption, and why milk is murder.

New Times: So you're a farm animal rights activist. What kind of person does this sort of work?

Kari Nienstedt: Anyone with a conscience. It's a matter of becoming educated about farm animal cruelty and then acting on it. A lot of people don't put much thought into where food comes from, but once you start investigating and you understand what goes on behind the scenes, you have to take action to alleviate the suffering.

NT: How is it that we never think about cute little barnyard faces when we eat steaks?

Nienstedt: There's a lot of money spent on encouraging us not to think about where the meat was before it showed up on that little Styrofoam tray. We've even been given a language that keeps us from thinking about how we're eating flesh: We call it "beef" when it's really a cow. It's "pork," not a pig.

NT: I'm guessing you're a vegetarian.

Nienstedt: Right. I found out about the process called factory farming, which involves confinement and terrible amounts of cruelty, and I went vegetarian almost immediately. Three years later I went vegan, which eliminates the other animal products from your diet.

NT: Are farmers just plain evil?

Nienstedt: People who work in slaughterhouses aren't necessarily bad people. They love their pets, and their families. But they've become desensitized; trained to think of the stuff on their plates as something other than an individual. It's some sort of product, not an individual who can feel pain or fear.

NT: But they're farm animals! They're there to provide meat or to produce milk!

Nienstedt: The animals would disagree with you. They have every right to live free from suffering, every right to their own bodily integrity. They have the right to not be murdered. There's a huge difference between growing plants and growing animals for food. Plants don't have a central nervous system; they're not capable of feeling emotions. Animals do.

NT: Is that what it comes down to? A head of lettuce doesn't have a central nervous system, and so there's no cruelty involved in eating it?

Nienstedt: Pretty much. If the being can suffer, it's up to us to make sure that it doesn't.

NT: Should we just wait until animals die of natural causes, and then eat them?

Nienstedt: I guess if you really needed meat that bad, you could do that. But many would argue that you can live more healthily without meat. It's an easier solution to work away from a meat-centered diet than to figure out a way to convince factory farmers to be kind to sheep.

NT: You don't eat eggs or cheese. But is it really harmful to the animals when they lay eggs or give milk?

Nienstedt: Actually, it is. I mean, there's no moral dilemma in having a pet chicken and eating her eggs, although it's kind of gross. But with cows, there's a certain amount of cruelty. Cows are kept impregnated, which keeps them producing milk, and then after the mother gives birth, the baby is taken away so that it won't drink her milk. The female calves are put back into the milk industry, and the males become veal. The dairy and veal industries are inseparable, and so a great amount of suffering is caused by the milk industry -- more than steak or chicken. Sorry.

NT: Do you guys just call the cops on Farmer John when there's blatant, documented farm animal abuse?

Nienstedt: No. Farm animals are exempt from the Animal Welfare Act. Turkeys and chickens are also exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act. So pretty much anything goes with farm animals.

NT: The Humane Slaughter Act?

Nienstedt: It requires that animals be stunned before they're killed. Which is difficult to enforce when you're talking about 10 billion animals a year.

NT: But domesticated animals are protected.

Nienstedt: If you did to a dog what is routinely done to farm pigs today, you'd be put in jail for it. But you can do whatever you want to farm animals.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela