The Ethics of Eating Meat 

This is the season for predicting trends for the coming year. Often when these predictions come to pass, they're more fads than trends but there is one a growing school of thought that you may be vaguely aware of but which I think is at about the point the organic food trend was six years ago: humane meat production.

This trend toward humanely-raised meat tends to get tossed into the whole organic food thing and that's certainly where its roots were, but I think the motivations for it have diverged and will continue to do so.

Most people choose to eat organically because they consider it a healthier alternative to produce doused with herbicides and grown in soil that's adulterated with petroleum-based fertilizers. A few also like the fact that "organic" just seems better for the planet. And lot of folks started seeking out organic meat for the same reasons. But even vegetarians don't form emotional bonds with their broccoli. Meat-eaters, on the other hand, can imagine a bond of some sort with a steer or even a pig. Remember the pot-bellied-pig-as-pet fad a few years back?

This identification with animals means that thoughtful meat-eaters must find a philosophical basis for their choice. In The River Cottage Meat Book, English chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall refers to the issue frequently in the book's 500 pages. My friend, Chef Bob del Grosso (a professional charcutiere) addresses it often in his blog, A Hunger Artist. Our relationship to the meat we cook and eat is becoming more and more a subject of discussion among food professionals and foodies.

When I was growing up my mother would often invite her students from at the University of Tennessee out for a day of horseback riding and dinner. It never failed to freak the new ones out when we'd sit down to a plate of beef stew and compare how tough the meat from Brown Cow was compared to Mayberry. The concept of eating an animal with a name was hard to get past for many of our guests. And back then most of us were closer to our source of meat than most of are today. So how do you justify eating a steak that had a name, or even, as in the case of Mayberry, whose birth you'd been part of?

Some (the less-thoughtful, I would assert) believe we have "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." Even many non-religious folks embrace this fundamental right to do as they please with non-human species. To me, that's a phenomenally arrogant attitude - an example of supreme hubris.

My take is that I too am animal, different in ability but not in kind, from cows, sheep, lions, dogs, chimpanzees, and pigs. Cows and sheep evolved to eat grass, lions and dogs to eat cows and sheep, and baboons and pigs to eat grass and cows. I'm no more obligated by any absolute moral stricture to avoid meat than a lion or pig.

But I have different abilities from my fellow animals and two of them appear to be a more general sense of empathy and the capability to apply that empathy to abstract concepts such as ethical behavior.

The cattle we raised and ate when I was growing up lived good lives. They had plenty to eat and plenty of choice (given the opportunity cows will eat spring twigs, sassafras bark, and other things one might not expect). When the time came to butcher an animal it was prodded gently (more or less, cows are big and stubborn) into a truck, hauled to the meat processor, painlessly killed, and converted to steaks, roasts, and hamburger.

Did the cow's life end early? Compared to what? Animals in the wild constantly face predation and being eaten alive by a lion can't be much fun. Parasitic disease is far more common among wild animals than domestic animals raised on pasture and winters are brutal. Even though our cattle spent the entire winter outside we never lost one due to weather because they were uniformly healthy and were fed hay all winter. They had a good life and no being knows when it will die.

The majority of animals destined for supermarkets aren't so lucky. A side effect of breeding lean pigs is a linked gene that promotes aggression - so industrial pigs have their tails unceremoniously cut off as piglets. Industrial chickens have their beaks cut off. Both live on a wire mesh floor that allows their waste to drop through to a holding area - they may not be laying directly in their waste (as industrial cattle do) but they can't escape it either. A few months ago, in "No Prevention, No Cure" I linked to a video showing sick cows being abused with fire-hoses and forklifts at a commercial processing plant. This is probably more common than many of us would like to think.

Pigs and chickens and cows aren't human and anthropomorphizing them diminishes rather than enhances their dignity. But they are my fellows on this planet and as such are entitled to respect. And so as part of my New Year's resolution, I make at 25-mile round trip to buy some meat and plan to continue doing. I've seen Tracy Monday's farm and it reminds me of where I grew up. And if I were one of his cows, I'd be tempted to trade a short good life his farm a longer but miserable existence.

Copyright (c) 2007, SteelWill, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Spot On is a trademark of SteelWill, Inc.

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