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October 2006
Dishing Out the Bull: The Rise of the Excuse-itarians
By Colleen Patrick-Goudreau


I’ve heard every excuse in the book for eating animals, but I’ve yet to hear a convincing reason. It’s a pretty simple equation: since humans don’t need to consume animals to survive, killing them simply to satisfy our taste buds amounts to senseless slaughter. But our eating habits and appetites have very deep roots, and we prefer convenience over conscience. With a determination that belies an irrational attachment to animal flesh and secretions, otherwise sensible and sensitive people spend time and energy concocting outrageous excuses to justify this unnecessary habit. Using lyrical and exalted language, they extol the virtues of tradition, glorify the need to conserve “heritage breeds,” and wax poetic about our “evolutionary heritage.” With “humane meat” gaining popularity, non-vegetarians have co-opted the ethical argument. They are winning, but it’s not the vegetarians who are losing. It’s the animals.

Consecrating Cruelty
I live in the capital of “sustainable food,” where Alice Waters and Michael Pollan have practically been canonized, and “ethical ranchers” are idolized. Though I agree with the need to support local farmers and educate the public about the corporate take-over of our food supply, I worry sometimes that the proponents of the “sustainable/humane meat” philosophy are going to hurt themselves patting each other on the back. Despite the fact that they’re responsible for the needless killing of animals, who, if given the choice, would choose to live, they’re lauded for their “ethical eating.” I wonder: if it’s considered ethical to eat the bodies of animals who are harmed a little less before their throats are slit, isn’t it still more ethical to not end their lives at all?

Affixed with meaningless labels that make it seem as if the animals sacrificed themselves for the pleasure of humans, the Holy Triumvirate of meat, dairy and eggs remains the sacred foundation of the human diet, regarded as more of a right than a privilege. The marketing that surrounds these “products” suggests that not eating meat is downright un-American. Grist, the popular environmental magazine, self-righteously suggested that vegans fast on Thanksgiving, since vegans are merely “mimicking dominant culture” by serving an “atrocious and non-local tofu log.” Those who argue that we should eat meat because it’s traditional seem to imply that the meat-eater’s desires, traditions, culture or taste buds are superior to anything—or anyone—else. Just because we’ve always done something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Culture and tradition are not excuses for cruelty.

Eating Them to Save Them
Perhaps the most audacious example of how the “humane meat” proponents have so adeptly usurped the ethics of eating is in the case of “heritage breed” animals. The self-congratulatory founders and followers of Slow Food USA and Heritage Foods USA commend themselves for saving these “delicious American treasures” from the “brink of extinction” and declare, “we must eat them to save them.” The idea is that by creating a marketplace for these (dead) animals, they are, in effect, saving their lives. That kind of doublespeak would make George Orwell proud. When Michael Pollan boasts how he and his Thanksgiving guests, feasting on a “heritage breed” turkey, were “in some small way contributing to its survival,” I wonder how so intelligent a man can’t detect the absurdity of such a statement. I’m stating the obvious when I say that if they really cared about those breeds, there are ways to protect them without killing and eating them. That’s not to say they don’t care. They do. But ultimately what they care about is how the animals taste, and they use sensual, lyrical language to describe it: the “complex, succulent flavors” that “echo a bygone era”; the delicate herbaceousness of the meat [that] is like an edible postcard from the animal’s hometown.” I’ve even heard “humane meat” consumers attribute the superior taste of the “steaks” to the fact that the ranchers “say a prayer for each cow before they slaughter it.” The romanticizing of something so ugly belies a desperate attempt to deny the truth.

Abdicating Responsibility
One of most ludicrous justifications I’ve heard is that we did animals a favor by domesticating them, having created a “mutual agreement” that protects animals from their natural predators and grants humans the gift of the animals’ flesh and secretions in return—an arrogantly anthropocentric perspective that echoes the sentiments of slave masters. Unless we remove the cages, fences, tethers and barbed wire, I’m apt to believe the animals aren’t consulted in this “mutual agreement.”

While congratulating themselves for protecting domesticated animals from the cruelties of nature, these same people defend the human consumption of other animals on the basis that we’re simply “part of the food chain.” I’m always fascinated by this particular rationalization, particularly because in the meat-eater’s depiction of the “food chain,” humans are always at the top—never the predatory animals for whom humans are prey. I’ve yet to see someone adhere so strongly to the principles of the “food chain” that they simply shrug it off when they hear of a carnivore—a true carnivore, that is, not a human identifying as a carnivore—attacking or eating a human. The “food chain” argument isn’t convenient when taken to this logical conclusion, but it is convenient when it’s used to justify our own behavior.

Related to this argument is the one declaring that early humans ate animals, in order to justify us eating them now. Michael Pollan even charges vegetarians with turning their backs on their “evolutionary heritage” on the grounds that “eating meat helped make us what we are,” totally disregarding the fact that up until very recently, meat was generally used as a condiment and considered a luxury. By eschewing meat, he says unabashedly, we’re “sacrificing a part of our identity.” Since when is Darwinian evolution a moral system by which to justify our actions? In no other aspect of our lives do we use evolution to justify our behavior, so why should this be the exception? We have the ability and responsibility to make moral and rational decisions, not abdicate our ethics to a mindless and amoral process. Arguments such as these deny every aspect of what makes us rational, compassionate and moral creatures. We’re not forced to obey the dictates of evolution, just as we don’t obey them when we write novels, build flying machines and splice genes. Darwin’s theory is not a substitute for morality, except when we want to justify eating animals.

There is perhaps no other lifestyle habit we spend so much time defending. Every excuse we make is an attempt to absolve ourselves from our participation in the gratuitous exploitation, mutilation and death of nonhuman animals. If we have to disguise, rationalize, romanticize and ritualize eating animals to such a degree that we’re no longer living in truth or reality, then perhaps we’re not comfortable with it at all. Adopting a vegan diet is the best choice I’ve ever made, and I’ve never had to offer any excuses for it.

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau is the founder of Compassionate Cooks (www.compassionatecooks.com). Through cooking classes, podcasts, articles, and her first-of-its-kind cooking DVD, she shares the joys and benefits of a plant-based diet. She can be reached at colleen@compassionatecooks.com.


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