For a person with dietary restrictions, food in America is like a dense minefield of things he or she cannot eat. Meat and cheese are everywhere, sneakily stuck in the most unsuspecting locations. Cheddar thinly cut onto cauliflower, or Parmesan gently grated onto kale. Bacon bits hidden at the bottom of salads or sprinkled in soup. Types of food that appear benign and abundant, meat and cheese are part of a cruel and often destructive industry that clever advertising and powerful lobbying hide. But the ubiquity of meat and cheese betrays their unsustainability; we cannot keep eating them in the quantities that we do today and not expect to do irreparable harm to the Earth and to ourselves.
In 2012, Americans consumed 50 billion pounds of meat, and you can tell. Meat is everywhere: sprinkled into salads, placed onto pizzas, stealthily sliced and dropped in the spaghetti. Television commercials show huge, gleaming hunks of it drizzled in some unidentifiable sauce. There’s hardly a culinary culture without meat at its core. It’s the backbone of barbecue and the staple of sushi. (And yes, fish is still meat.) Like some interstellar spacecraft returning to Earth, disembodied and decontextualized pieces of wings and ribs land on screens and in mouths across the country. If Americans had been lost in the desert instead of the Israelites, they probably would have asked God to rain down barbecue chicken-flavored manna.
It takes 53 gallons of water to make one hamburger, though you would never know based on the advertisements and the sheer quantity of meat consumed each year. Multiply that by the number of hamburgers consumed every day in Burger Kings and McDonalds and that is enough water to prevent any human being from dying of thirst. The global misallocation of water does more than deprive the world’s poorest people from drinking what they need to survive. The industrially produced meat that is sold at fast-food places, cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables, becomes one of the only options for those stranded in urban food deserts in developed countries. It is a sad contemporary irony that the poorest Americans have the highest rates of overweightness and obesity, while members of the salad-eating, organic-buying, treadmill-owning class endeavor to be as skeletal as possible.
Dairy products are nearly as prevalent as meat. There is hardly a sandwich not made with “cheese.” Overpriced “healthy” wraps are stuffed with Swiss. Garlic bread is laden with mozzarella shavings. The difference, though, is that most cheese in America isn’t even cheese—it’s called “cheese product” because there isn’t enough natural material in it to qualify as real cheese. The state of the different forms of American coagulated milk protein is so dire that the European Union is looking to ban U.S. cheese producers from using the names of European cheeses—Parmesan, Gouda, feta, etc.—for their products. And while that sounds like a joke, it shouldn’t be surprising. Much of the cheese the average American consumes bares little resemblance to its fancy French cousins. Instead, it oozes out of dispensers like orange extra-terrestrial goop, scooped in absurd quantities onto dry tortilla chips.
Industrial agriculture’s detrimental effects are well-documented, from the pollution caused by factory farms to the absence of proper protocol for animal waste disposal to the dangerous chemicals and growth hormones used to make animals more productive and more efficient. PETA and other animal rights groups have successfully penetrated the public consciousness to the extent that even the most voracious carnivore is willing to admit that meat can be cruel and unhealthy. And yet, we rarely ask ourselves what it means that two of the most common types of food reach our tables only through a process that requires violence. We know what it does to animals. We have seen the video clip of the cattle, seemingly aware of what is to come, drag their feet on the way to the slaughterhouse. But do we recognize that skirt steak was once part of a cow that, even if it was grass-fed and had a name, was killed so that it could appear on our plate? Or when we bite into a sharp cheese, do we understand the gruesome process—of growth hormones, artificial insemination, and mechanical pumps—through which the milk was extracted by force from another living creature’s body?
Our ability to ignore violence when it comes to food has become habitual. Bacon bits are practically invisible and secret cheese abounds. We do not see it. We do not acknowledge it. Perhaps that is why other kinds of violence, done to humans instead of animals, against those who look different than we do, have become so easy to ignore.