I had an existential crisis in the meat section of Trader Joe’s.  I was staring at all chicken: chicken pieces packaged separately, chicken pieces in a big bundle, whole chickens, chicken boobs, “natural” chicken, “free-range” chicken, cheap chicken, less-cheap chicken.

On the one hand, I guess you could say, wow! what bounty! Look at all that protein so readily available to me, sparing me from having to get out to the back pasture with an ax and be all with the plucking and whatnot.

On the other hand, wow! look at all that cheap protein, farmed god knows where, killed god knows where by who knows what methods in who knows what layers of shit.

What should I buy? Or should I not buy it at all?

I’ve just finished reading Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer (not to be confused with Jonathans Lethem or Franzen; this Jonathan is the Everything is Illuminated guy).  The book is brilliant; it should be required reading for every human on the planet and excerpts should be plastered on billboards, buildings, and in the subway, forcing us to confront our eating habits.

We all sort of know about factory farms (those huge muddy shit pits that call themselves hog farms, chickens in cages not much bigger than this laptop screen) but many of us–okay, maybe only me–seem to close our eyes when it comes time to doing the grocery shopping.

Because really, who wants to know–really know–the conditions under which most of our proteins (beef, chicken, pork, fish) are produced?

Foer’s  book takes a lot of information that’s already been circulating out there, from Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle, and others, and distills it into a central question: how can we allow ourselves to eat meat (and poultry and, yes, fish) that has almost certainly been produced under inhumane conditions (at best) and torturous, environmentally disastrous conditions (at worst)?

In the paperback version, Eating Animals has sixty pages of footnotes documenting its sources, but the book reads like a novel; there isn’t a dull moment.  Instead it’s a jaw-dropping account of the infuriating (dangerous, violent, corrupting, polluting) methods used in this country to produce animal protein at relatively low costs, at least in the short term. Long-term costs, of course, include environmental destruction, toxic waste, and tainted food supplies, but heck. What’s that to keeping the price of chicken at under two bucks a pound?

What about my free-range chicken, I hear you say (as I thought to myself, rather smugly, as I read).  Bwhahahaha!  Foer says that “the free-range label is bullshit. It should provide no more peace of mind than “all-natural,” “fresh,” or ‘magical.'”  Free-range, you see, is not defined by the USDA. Free-range simply means access to the outdoors–which can mean that a shed housing 30,000 chickens has one little door open to a five-by-five patch of dirt.  And the door is usually closed. Further, free-range has nothing to do with how those chickens are handled, in either life or death.

We eat lots of seafood, though, a friend of mine said when I told her what I was reading. So that’s better, right? (She sounded anxious).  Well, sorry kids, there’s no Santa Claus there, either.  Let’s choose just one factor in “farmed fish,” shall we? How about…sea lice, which thrive in the filthy water of farmed fish.  Sea lice create open sores and can sometimes eat right down to the bones.  Yummy!  And “wild-caught” fish? Let’s say your fish is caught on so-called “long lines,” which can reach out a distance of seventy-five miles.  The targeted fish are caught, sure, but so are about 4.5 million sea animals, called “bycatch”: sea creatures caught up by the long lines but not used: 3.3 million sharks, 1 million marlins, 60,00 sea turtles, 75, 000 albatross, 20,000 dolphins and whales.

So much for fish.

I’m not even going to talk about beef or pigs. Let’s just say it’s not pretty and leave it at that. I won’t say anything about shit swamps so toxic they can (and have) killed people who have had the hellish misfortune to fall in; I won’t say anything about slaughtering methods so haphazard that the cows are frequently alive even as their skin is being stripped off.

After I finished the book, I was talking to the boys about our eating habits and that we needed to make things like bacon, for instance, a “special treat” instead of an everyday occurrence (sayonara Trader Joe’s microwave bacon). That led to Caleb asking me, the first time we had “special treat” bacon, if the bacon came from a good pig or a bad pig that had been “all stuffed full of that chemistry stuff.”

But enough about bacon and bad pigs.  Let’s talk instead about … a little personal health problem I’ve had for the past few weeks.  As so often happens with us daughters of Eve, I got myself a wee UTI last week, which followed very quickly after a similar infection less than two weeks earlier. I went off to the doctor, who said no no, absolutely not, couldn’t be the same infection, had to be a new infection. She gave me more of the same antibiotic she’d given me the first time and so I started once again popping my 500mg pills twice a day.  One day, two days, three days…no relief.  Four days. No relief. I’m thinking, maybe I have cancer of the kidney or some deadly parasite eating away at my nether bits. I make an appointment to see a specialist.  I try not to pee because it, well, you know, it hurts.

Then day six. The doctor calls.  Seems the particular type of infection I have is immune to this antibiotic.

Eh?  Howzzat? Immune?

Another statistic: scientists calculate that 24.6 million pounds of antibiotics are pumped into farmed animals every year–antibiotics that aren’t to treat illness but are put into the feed so that the animals won’t get sick. Anticipatory antibiotics, we could call them. A number of studies have shown that this antibiotic usage has led to increased antimicrobial resistance, which is why a whole lot of acronyms–AMA, WHO, CDC–have called for a ban on this process. In other words, filling our animal proteins with unnecessary antibiotics is creating strains of bacteria that are…say it with me…immune to antibiotics.

We all know the phrase “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,”right?  It’s great if you’re at the gym or dealing with your children. But it’s not exactly what we want our little germie bacteria friends to be thinking, is it?

Call me paranoid if you want to but I think eating factory farmed meat led led to my delicate lady parts being decidedly out of sorts for quite some time. And when the lady parts are out of sorts, everybody is out of sorts.

Tomorrow is grocery day. Once again I’m going to wrestle with my conscience in the meat section at Trader Joe’s: chicken is one of the few things my kids will eat; I don’t have an unlimited budget; no one in the family (except me) is happy with vegetarian dinners.

And god knows, I don’t have any answers.  Just another bottle of antibiotics.