The Locavore Movement's Mistake: Deregulating Animal Slaughter

Inexpertly killed animals suffer immensely. Better to keep this ugly process confined to slaughterhouses kept at a "graceful distance."

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Over the past ten years the United States has undergone a revolution in the way we eat. Communities throughout the country have localized food systems, placed power back in the hands of local farmers, and shortened the distance between farm and fork. The benefits of this trend have been considerable. Consumers have become more critical of overly processed food, better aware of the connection between diet and health, and more appreciative of eating seasonally. I've been critical of this movement from the start, but I admit it has been a cultural achievement of historical significance.

An account by a farmer about killing a chicken for the first time has the homesteader wringing the bird's neck repeatedly, only to find it still breathing.

That said, the movement is pursuing an idea that could undermine everything it's accomplished. Up to this point, the bulk of the locavore movement has focused on fruits and vegetables grown on local farms. Now, however, food reformers are working to localize meat production as well. Central to this goal is deregulating an act necessary to bringing local animals to the local plate: the slaughter. Should this happen, should everyday citizens be entrusted to kill animals, the consequences would be dire -- not only for the animals, but for the locavore movement as a whole.

Organized pressure to deregulate animal slaughter began several years ago in Oakland, California, the epicenter of urban homesteading. Bay area locavores have persuasively argued that deregulating animal slaughter would help alleviate the "food deserts" afflicting impoverished residents. After years of raising and slaughtering animals in quasi-legal conditions, they have successfully lobbied Oakland's planning department to recommend including animals in their new policy amendment.

As matters now stand, Oakland could very well alter its urban agriculture code in order to allow virtually any urban homesteader not only to raise goats, chickens, rabbits, and ducks, but to slaughter them on site. And what happens in Oakland -- a test case of sorts -- is bound to be replicated elsewhere.

Such a deregulatory policy might seem perfectly consistent with the locavore vision of agricultural decentralization. But it's actually a recipe for disaster. For one, just because a consumer enjoys local meat doesn't mean she has the skills required to properly slaughter and process it. As one poultry specialist explained to me, "Most amateur slaughterers don't know a carotid artery from a jugular vein."

Blogs kept by urban farmers confirm this ignorance. An account by a San Francisco farmer about killing a backyard chicken for the first time -- which she openly admitted to having no idea how to do -- has the homesteader wringing the chicken's neck repeatedly, only to find it still breathing. In the end, this women "settled on covering her nostrils with my fingers" and suffocating the bird. Needless to say, an inexpertly slaughtered animal experiences immense suffering.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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