There I was. It was Sunday afternoon, and I and my two mangos and my steak sauce (don't get the wrong idea—it's great on seitan) were all in the Express Check Out line at the grocery store. Actually, that was wishful thinking. It was more like the "Slow Crawl" line.
As I waited I couldn't help but notice that the "14 items or Less" [sic] being purchased by the guy in front of me included three particularly large and particularly grisly looking pieces of meat. What joy, I thought.
Then I noticed something peculiar. I saw that each of these offensive items bore a label with the title "Special Handling Instructions." Looking closer, I found that these labels warned buyers of the bacteria in meat and gave them instructions on how to handle it, lest it poison them and their families.
Now, I realize this is probably old news to most people. I may be the last guy in America to discover that meat contains these warning labels. The reason for this, other than my being dim-witted of course, is that I can't stand to be around the stuff. Whenever I find myself anywhere near the meat section of a store my standard procedure is to divert my eyes, hold my breath, and walk in the opposite direction as quickly as possible. I haven't been up close and personal with a package of meat since that night 20 years ago when a vegetarian friend and I took gag photos at an A & P in Chicago. (Trust me, you wouldn't want to know the details.)
In any event, I was pleased to discover these new meat labels. I assume, without really knowing, that they are the result of the infamous Jack-in-the-Box scandal a few years ago. Somebody's lawyer probably talked to somebody else's lawyer, and everyone suddenly realized that meat was crawling with E. coli and other bacteria, and that these labels better go on before people started filing lawsuits.
The "Special Handling Instructions" labels are a step in the right direction, and maybe they'll even save a few lives. It's doubtful, though, that they'll change anyone's purchasing habits. Rather, it seems to me to be a tribute to meat's addictive properties that people will continue to buy the stuff and feed it to their children despite the fact that it advertises itself as being covered with harmful germs.
Of course, we vegetarians know that exposure to potentially deadly bacteria is just one of the hazards of eating meat, and a small one at that. The current labels don't go nearly far enough in our opinion. Everyone gripes about cigarettes (and rightly so), but meat has long been the most under-labeled product in existence.
Considering the mountain of damning evidence and the almost universal agreement that this product kills more people than handguns, it's incredible that we don't even insist on nutrition information on the package, much less any serious health warnings. What if a six-year-old wants to buy a package of bacon with her allowance? Any butcher in the country will hand it over the counter in a brown paper wrapper—no permit, no waiting period, and no questions asked.
I want to change this outrageous state of affairs. I'd love to see the meat industry come to us vegetarians and ask us to redesign meat labels. (Yeah, this is likely!) We could come up with some great ideas. Here are a few examples of the "Special Handling Instructions" I'd like to see on meat packages. You can probably think of lots more.
- WARNING: CONTAINS BLOODBORNE PATHOGENS—HANDLE ONLY WITH LATEX GLOVES
- MAY CAUSE DROWSINESS. THIS EFFECT IS INTENSIFIED BY USE WITH ALCOHOL
WARNING: BIOHAZARDOUS WASTE—PLEASE DISPOSE OF PROPERLY [preferably by burial with full honors]
- DO NOT USE IN OR NEAR OPEN FLAMES—THIS INCLUDES BARBECUE GRILLS
- WARNING: REPEATED USE CAN LEAD TO HEART FAILURE, DEATH AND OTHER UNPLEASANTRIES
- CAUTION: SLIPPERY WHEN WET
- KEEP OUT OF CHILDREN'S REACH
- MAY CAUSE SEVERE GASTROINTESTINAL DISTRESS. IF THESE SIDE EFFECTS PERSIST, DISCONTINUE USE
- AVOID CONTACT WITH SKIN OR BREATHING OF VAPORS
- WARNING: PESTICIDES APPLIED HERE
- DO NOT USE NEAR FOOD OR DRINK
- CAUTION: USE AS INTENDED MAY CAUSE INJURY OR DEATH
- INDUCE VOMITING IF SWALLOWED
If we put all these very truthful labels on meat packages maybe the public will finally get the idea that meat doesn't only require "special handling." It requires no handling at all.