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Why vegetarians don't eat meat

Well, I guess it's finally time to get around to that Food and Wine article that got blipped through all the usual "humane slaughter" outlets. The basic gist of this article is that vegetarians are eating humane meat, including - gasp! - Mollie Katzen! I've addressed the Mollie Katzen aspect of this article before; Mollie Katzen's cooking was never that healthy in the first place, and I never took her all that seriously as a vegetarian to begin with. Tell me that Laurel Robertson has started eating meat and then I'd take notice. But, as to this article, the problem with it is that it's almost entirely based on anecdotal evidence and straw men. Let's go through it point by point:

For Andrew and about a dozen people in our circle who have recently converted from vegetarianism, eating sustainable meat purchased from small farmers is a new form of activism—a way of striking a blow against the factory farming of livestock that books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma describe so damningly. Pollan extols the virtues of independent, small-scale food producers who raise pasture-fed livestock in a sustainable and ethical manner. In contrast, he provides a compelling critique of factory farms, which cram thousands of cows, pigs or chickens into rows of cages in warehouses, feed them drugs to plump up their meat and fight off the illnesses caused by these inhumane conditions, and produce innumerable tons of environmentally destructive animal waste.

The terms "grass fed" and "pasture raised"—meaning that an animal was allowed to graze the old-fashioned way instead of being fed an unnatural and difficult-to-digest diet of mostly corn and other grain—have now entered the food-shoppers' lexicon. But Andrew and I didn't fully understand what those phrases meant until we got to know Greg Nauta of Rocky Canyon Farms. Nauta is a small-scale rancher and farmer from Atascadero, California, who grows organic vegetables and raises about 35 animals on pastureland. Since we met him at the Hollywood Farmers' Market a year ago, it has become even clearer to us that supporting guys like him—by seeking out and paying a premium for sustainably raised meat—is the right thing for us to do.

Meat eaters have had it bad for a long time. In the face of growing evidence that it was right up there with cigarette smoking as a pretty unjustifiable habit in almost every aspect, it was increasingly difficult to find anything beyond "But it TASTES good" as a rationale for eating meat. But then St Pollan came along and changed all that. All of a sudden it was possible for a little bit of that PeTA frisson to rub off on meat eaters. All of a sudden you're not a death-enabling environmental disaster wrapped up in a heart attack waiting to happen anymore, you're an...ACTIVIST!

And how are you an activist? By supporting boutique meat farmers. And in this lies the first and perhaps most insidious reasoning behind humane meat. Apparently, the only thing that has really kept vegetarians from eating meat is factory farming and the horrible conditions therein. Small meat farmers like Mr Nauta, who raise their animals "humanely," have effectively removed the moral argument for vegetarianism.

Well, except for that part where he kills them. I have seen slaughter euphemistically referred to elsewhere as one "really bad day." It's a ridiculous argument. I know few vegetarians whose objection to meat-eating ignores the slaughter (oh sorry, Queenie, "harvest") of the animal. Most vegetarians want factory farming AND animal slaughter stopped. It's not like "humane" practices are a sufficient improvement in animal treatment to nullify the moral objection to meat eating. I don't want to put dead animals in my body. Period. (And parenthetically, even with boutique meat farmers, I don't know that basing a food movement on a bunch of foodies in California is scalable to even the rest of the country, let alone the world.)

Next we get the "soy is actually poison" - what I've come to think of as the "grass-fed exemption:"

If preserving small-scale farming isn't a compelling enough reason to eat beef or pork, consider the nutritional advantages grass-fed meat has over the factory-fed kind. "One of the benefits of all-grass-fed beef, or 'beef with benefits,' as we say, is that it's lower in fat than conventionally raised beef," says Kate Clancy, who studies nutrition and sustainable agriculture and was until recently the senior scientist at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. "The other thing is that the meat and milk from grass-fed cattle will probably have higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which may help reduce the risk of heart disease and strengthen people's immune systems. What's good for the environment, what's good for cattle, is also good for us."

Combine these findings with the questions being raised about meat replacements derived from soy and wheat gluten, and the real thing seems better by the minute. "What we know about soy is that as you process it, you lose a lot of the benefits," says Ashley Koff, a Los Angeles–based registered dietician. "Any soy-based fake meat product is incredibly processed, and you have to use chemicals to get the mock flavor. Any other whole-food diet is going to be a lot better for you." Vegetarians like Andrew—he once brought a tofu sandwich to a famous Texas barbecue restaurant—may now have a harder time justifying their "healthier" dietary choices.

OK, activism covered. Now, you need to prove that meat-eating is not only as healthy as vegetarianism, it's actually healthier! Sloppy thinking all over the place here. It's a question of relativity: no one is saying that feeding cattle grass has now suddenly made beef a healthy food - it's just LESS unhealthy than the supermarket kind. It's all still laden with saturated fat and cholesterol. The omega-3 argument then gets trotted out as the clincher - beef is suddenly a good source of omega-3 acids.

Next, we get the "Boca Burger" argument: carnivores may be healthier than vegetarians who eat a lot of highly processed meat analogues. We get the usual handwaving about soy here, though this article is a first in trying to rope in seitan as well. We then get a nutritionist who states the obvious - that heavily processed foods are not that great. Thus vegetarians, who really eat nothing but soy-based versions of meat, would be better off eating actual meat, which are assumed to better for you than soy analogues, because meat has somehow now become a "whole food." Note also how in that last sentence, tofu gets subtly included in the meat analog category via the cutesy anecdote. This is just silly.

The argument is further bolstered by anecdotes from noted former vegetarians Mollie Katzen, who wee've covered before, and - Mariel Hemingway, whose main reason for eating meat again is that makes her feel "more grounded." Hell, if Mariel's given it up, I am SO over it. Again, talk to me when Laurel Robertson starts calling meat a "whole food."

Having knocked down the reasons for vegetarianism one by one, the author moves in for the kill (so to speak):

or Andrew and many of our ex-vegetarian friends, the ethical reasons for eating meat, combined with the health-related ones, have been impossible to deny. "The way I see it, you've got three opportunities every day to act on your values and have an immediate effect on something you're concerned about," Andrew says. "You're probably worried about Darfur, too, but what can you do about that every single day? Write a letter? It doesn't have the same kind of impact."

>Man, Andrew is DEEP. Aside from that, I can only deplore the new activism that equates actvism with consumption. It's much easier to vote with your wallet than your feet. Well, of course, unless there's nothing in your wallet.

Ah, but then finally we arrive at the rub:

Supporting ranchers we believe in, and the stores and restaurants that sell their products, has a very tangible impact that we experience firsthand all the time. But ask most vegetarians if the battle between small, sustainable ranchers and industrial farming is at the top of their list of concerns about eating meat, and you'll probably be met with a blank stare. "For people who are against eating meat because it's wrong or offensive to eat animals, even the cleanest grass-fed beef won't be good enough," Katzen says.

Convincing those people that eating meat can improve the welfare of the entire livestock population is a tough sell. But we'll keep trying.

Whoops! Damn those committed vegetarians! How'd THEY get in here? Let's just look at that deal-breaker sentence there again, shall we?
"For people who are against eating meat because it's wrong or offensive to eat animals, even the cleanest grass-fed beef won't be good enough," Katzen says.

You really have to slip this in at the end of the article, because otherwise you look like an utter fool. And really that's the answer to the question in the article's title. People who were never really all that vegetarian to begin with are eating meat, because "ethical meat" is the latest flower the foodies have flitted upon. The rest of us, who really are eating a whole food diet - based on plants - who are aware of the nutritional, environmental, and moral advantages of doing so, aren't fooled by the attempt to put a kindly face on the horror of slaughter. Keep trying. You'll keep failing.

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