Let me get this out of the way–this is not an anti-vegetarian treatise. Nor is it a pro-vegetarian one. I eat meat, and plan to do so for the foreseeable future. No, this installment of FemiNoshing is for those out there who–like me–for whatever personal reason, like to make meat part of their diet, but want to do so as ethically and responsibly as possible. The issue is, how do you eat meat in such a way? It’s not an easy question and through my research I haven’t been able to find one single answer. However, responsible carnivors should consider the following things:
1) Recognize that death equals dinner. I apologize for being blunt, but meat comes from a dead animal. It doesn’t have to, I suppose, but isn’t death kinder than keeping a creature alive only to remove edible parts as needed until there’s nothing left? Now, there may be plans afoot to grow a steak in vitro (I will be thrilled once that happens), but until scientists perfect it, make sure it’s safe and so on, any meat you eat means a critter had to die. I’m not trying to be brutal, but it’s so easy to forget an animal’s sacrifice when walking through the meat department at the supermarket. Pre-packed meat bears so little resemblance to the animal in question. Nor does cooked meat, be it a chicken nugget or salmon fillet, usually conjure up a chicken or a salmon.
My point is, if you can’t eat meat unless you’re in denial about where it came from, then don’t do it. And if you’re able to acknowledge where the meat came from, stop for a moment and just be thankful to the creature involved. And try–most of all–not to waste any of it. Not that wasting food is ever a great idea, but when an animal does for your dinner, it deserves the respect of being fully and properly utilized.
2) Realize that the kind of meat you eat is heavily influenced by your culture. Westerners like to assume people around the world eat for the same reasons, but it’s not so. For example, in China and other parts of Asia, cats and dogs are farmed for food. Europeans and Asians love horse meat. And in Peru, guinea pig meat, also known as cuy, is a delicacy.
Ewww, right? But before you get all in a flutter over the barbaric meat-eating habits of foreigners, consider this: one in six people on earth think your hamburger is a blasphemy and an abomination. Yep, in India (population 1.1 billion), cows are sacred and there’s no such thing as a Big Mac.
As for those delicious baby back ribs, you likely won’t find many of them in Israel, the Middle East or in any Muslim country. Pork is considered unclean there. As for that yummy shrimp cocktail, many cultures consider shellfish unclean too. The Old Testament even calls for a ban on it.
And back to China for a minute: While eating dogs and cats is actually losing favor in that country, as people start seeing them as pets, not food, the reality is that the majority of people in this world (China boasts 1.3 billion of the world’s 6.7 billion population) don’t think eating Fluffy is disgusting. So if you eat meat, be open to the fact that all animals–whether you would ever consider eating them or not–are a food source for someone.
3) Being a pescetarian doesn’t get you off the hook. Full disclosure: I have been a pescetarian. So have the two lovely women who started this magazine. What I am about to say is not directed at them. It is directed, rather, at people like a former colleague of mine. Let’s call him Bill. Bill would harangue his coworkers for daring to eat beef, chicken or pork. It was wrong, he would rant, to kill such creatures for food. Then in the next breath, he would dig into some salmon. When I would point out that a salmon was an animal also, he would snort derisively. He couldn’t argue that it wasn’t, of course, but it was clear he felt his food choices were far more virtuous than ours.
But here’s the thing: The fishing industry is pretty damn brutal. Most cows die far kinder, quicker deaths than fish do. Fish, after being caught, are left on decks to die. This can take awhile. Imagine being asphyxiated for half an hour. Doesn’t sound fun, does it? Also, depending on the fishing technique, a lot of other sea creatures are fished up along with the desired species, and also left to die. Does anyone remember all those dolphins that used to die with the tuna? It still happens, albeit far less often with modern regulations.
There is also the sustainability angle. Our oceans are overfished, and demand for seafood is outstripping supply. Yes, there are fish farms, but it’s not as simple as only buying farmed fish. Some farmed fish are grown in unhealthy conditions that not only pollute waters but also interfere with wild fish. Fortunately, organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium are there to help fish eaters eat responsibly. Which leads me to my next point.
4) Buy meat that’s been grown in an ethical and humane way. But what does that mean, exactly? Unless you’re in complete denial, you’ve heard the horror stories of factory farming. Animals are crammed into small spaces in stifling barns, fed cannibalistic diets, (Unwanted parts of cows, pigs and chickens were processed and fed back to still-living animals. This practice has been made illegal in many countries due to mad cow disease.), abused from the day they are born to the day they’re slaughtered. But thanks to public awareness, there are more and more farmers who know there’s a market for humanely raised meat, and are trying to provide it (albeit for a higher price), especially to chains such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
But here’s the rub: Terms like free-range, cage-free and cruelty-free don’t mean much, at least not in this country. The USDA only applies those terms to eggs and poultry. It doesn’t apply to cattle, pigs or sheep, so it’s easy for food companies to play fast and loose with labeling. So buyer beware: When you buy free-range beef, you may just be buying meat from a steer raised in a cramped stockyard. Sure, the cow got to see sun, but graze around? Hardly. A better solution is to buy grass-fed, or pastured, which usually means the animal got a healthier diet, some space and sunshine. Farmers’ markets are a good source for humanely raised meat (you can usually talk to the people who raised the animals, and get details on how they work), though I fully acknowledge that is not an option for many. But questioning your local butcher may also be a solution.
And while the USDA technically has guidelines for poultry and eggs, they are not particularly stringent. You may think those more expensive cage-free eggs you bought at TJ’s means the hens who laid them have been allowed to peck for food outside. Unfortunately, that is not true. Cage-free just as often means thousands of hens crammed onto a barn floor.
So what’s the solution? Pastured eggs. “Pastured” usually means the hens were allowed to peck outside. You can usually find pastured eggs at farmers’ markets. If that all sounds like a lot of work, I hear you. Being a responsible meat eater can be work–emotionally and physically. And I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. The thing is, if the only meat you can find–or afford–is not produced as humanely as you’d like, consider my next point:
5) Eat less meat. We don’t need to eat meat every single day. Cutting back is a lot easier than cutting out. And a varied diet is usually a healthier one, so don’t discount the benefits of being an omnivore.
– A.K. Whitney