The Long Road to Vegetarianism

This entry was posted by on Monday, 1 October, 2007 at

All my life I’ve had a secret wish to be a vegetarian. Hm, no, scratch that… but I’ve had the wish for at least the last twelve years, ever since I met my wife. Why? Because after over a decade of discussing and thinking about it, I’m persuaded that (1) it’s generally healthier, (2) it’s better for the planet, (3) it moots the entire issue of trying to define “animal cruelty”.

It all began when I met my wife in college. She told me she was a pescatarian. Well, actually, nobody used that word in 1995, but it’s basically someone who won’t eat any animals other than fish and seafood. I asked her if it was a moral/ethical issue for her (“meat is murder?”), and she calmly explained that she had stopped eating birds and mammals at age 13 because she didn’t want to support animal torture via “factory farms”. (At this point in my blog entry, I don’t have time to go into a long diversion about what factory farms are… but they are terrifying things that torture millions of animals and poison the environment. And they’re the norm for all animal farms; 99% of all meat you consume comes from them. To learn more, read the famous book Diet For a New America.)

I was horrified to learn about factory farming, but was also relieved that my wife didn’t actually believe that eating animals was a sin. I’ve always been of the opinion that there’s nothing inherently unethical about eating animals, considering that millions of years of evolution (and the planet’s entire biosphere) is based on the idea. What matters is the way in which you participate in the food chain. Do you do it respectfully, the way the Native Americans did? Or do you systematically torture creatures and destroy the planet in the process?

Unfortunately, there’s always been one big obstacle between me and vegetarianism: I love meat. I was raised in a meat-centric U.S. culture, doubled by a meat-centric Jewish culture of deli-cured delicacies. My childhood and teen years are peppered with fondly-told stories of how much meat I ate at various events. The taste is in my mouth… I drool when driving by the hot-dog factory, despite my knowing of what disgusting animal parts are poured into a hot dog. When I want to really celebrate, I still have initial thoughts of finding a fancy steak somewhere. In a nutshell, whenever I’ve experimented with vegetarianism, I’ve always crumbled after a week or two, like a nicotine addict reaching back for one more cigarette. It’s embarrassing. (People are sometimes surprised when they find out that we’re raising our kid pescatarian; I think of it as an act of mercy, sparing him from a lifetime of guilty cravings.)

However, there’s finally some hope to my story.

When I moved in with my wife, I learned to live by the rules of her kitchen and house. Her rule was simple: no meat in the house, ever. Throughout our marriage, we’ve kept that rule as our own personalized sort of ‘kosher’ law, and our friends are all aware of it and respect the rule when they come over. Why would I go along with this rule, you might wonder, when I’m not a vegetarian myself? Easy. It’s a nice halfway-point towards my ideal. If I can’t go totally pescatarian like my wife, I can at least dramatically reduce my meat intake. I’ve learned to cook without meat, order meatless dishes for take-in, and just eat meat “outside the house” when the opportunity arises. It simplifies our domestic life as well: no need to worry about my accidentally cooking food with meat, or whether or not I can share my meals with my spouse and son. And because our guests respect the rule at parties and such… well, that’s ten fewer Mu Shu Beef entrees ordered from the local Chinese restaurant, which nudges our economy just a bit more away from meat. Hooray.

Still, though, I’ve become less satisfied with this halfway point. I still eat meat for lunch every weekday (whether it be at a restaurant, or Google feeding me lunch)… and the ethics of eating tortured animals has slowly been gnawing at me over the years.

So my latest experiment is to do what my friend Karl Fogel did: become a pescatarian who only eats untortured meat. This decision has no effect on my domestic life, where I eat 2/3rds of my meals. But it’s made eating food outside the home much more tricky. The fundamental problem is: how do you define animal cruelty? No doubt my vegan friends would describe any sort of meat consumption as inherently cruel, but I’ve already explained how I disagree with that. Well gee, you say, what about all those corporations advertising “free range” animal products? Aren’t I the target for their marketing?

Sure, but while the U.S. Government may have tough standards defining “organic”, they’re really flimsy on defining “free range”. The realm of animal cruelty is a big fuzzy space. If a chicken is allowed out of its tiny cage (just barely big enough to hold it) for 5 minutes a day, to walk around in a 3’x 3′ pen exposed to the sun, is it now a “free range” chicken that lays “free range” eggs? There’s barely any regulation on this stuff.

I was hoping that Whole Foods would be my refuge. I’ve heard all sorts of great rumors about how Whole Foods only sells free-range meat. But when I went to their meat counter last weekend, I found no labels on any products. The phrases “organic”, “local”, and “free range” were nowhere to be seen. When I asked the butchers behind the counter where the various meats came from (“which farm? how was it raised?”), they all hemmed and hawed and scratched their heads. (“I think some of it comes from um… Arizona? No, maybe Colorado?”) The only literature they were able to give me was a generic brochure talking about how the company had created a whole new foundation to increase animal compassion in farming techniques. Hooray and applause for Whole Foods, but… that still dosen’t tell me whether their hamburger is cruelty-free. Even the Information Desk was unable to help me.

When I got home and did some Googling, I found out that Whole Foods only buys meat from farms that meet some pretty hard-core requirements. The farms can’t use hormones or antibiotics on the animals, nor fed animal by-products. The whole system must be heavily documented and re-audited each year. The thing that stood out, though, was the requirement that “the time on a feedlot cannot be more than one-third of the animal’s life.” Hm. Two-thirds of a life grazing freely in a field, but one-third of one’s life in a feedlot? A feedlot is basically thousands of cows crammed into a giant lot of hard-packed dirt. It’s hard to move, there’s nothing to graze on, and the animals are force-fed grain to give their muscle tissue more fatty “marbling”, something they’re not evolved to eat at all. Once again, Whole Food’s definition of “compassion” is just one point along a fuzzy scale, and I’m not sure it’s compassionate enough for me. It makes my quest for humane meat all the more challenging. :-/

My wife imparted words of wisdom to me. She works Heifer International, a huge non-profit organization that teaches sustainable agriculture to impoverished communities around the planet. As you might expect, a number of their employees are either vegetarian, or at least extremely conscious about eating sustainable, ethical, locally-produced food. For most of her co-workers, the general rule of thumb is: if the cook can’t tell you exactly where the animal came from (i.e. “Joe Blow’s farm, 7 miles northwest of here”), they won’t eat it.

With that idea in mind, I will admit to eating meat twice in the last month. First, I bought some buffalo-burgers that came from a specially-advertised farm I could read about. Today, I went and ordered a pork burrito from Chipotle Yes, you read right: the scary burrito fast-food-chain that was once secretly owned by McDonalds. Despite my general revulsion to fast-food, their website actually tells you about their standards for raising pork, and when you walk into the restaurant, there are signs that say exactly which farm it came from!

Net result: I think I’ll be able to survive as a full-time pescatarian, provided I’m able to get a once-every-two-weeks “meat fix” from a source that I’ve ethically pre-screened. It’s going well so far. My drastic reduction in meat consumption also has me feeling lighter and healthier than I have in years. The planet is being slightly less ravaged by my decrease in consumption, and even when I do eat meat, I have no ethical qualms at all.

As a postscript and reward for reading this far: a fascinating book related to local food production is The Ominvore’s Dilemma. It really makes you aware of how we produce food, and why it matters what you eat.

20 Responses to “The Long Road to Vegetarianism”

  1. Cheers to you! I went veggie a year ago partially for health and partially for of the challenge, but it’s actually through the experience that I’ve come to see meat in a different way and become conscious of the ethics involved.

    I don’t blame you for the meat fix, but you know, the soy alternatives are surprisingly palatable once you forget what meat tastes like 😉

  2. Here on the west coast, we have places like Harris Ranch. Information about how they raise their cattle and process it looks pretty good from a quick glance:

    Of course, you aren’t exactly going to be able to order up some of that for delivery to your house. But when on the west coast, you can occasionly find restaurants that advertise they have beef from Harris.

    You may be able to find similar places for the Chicago area. Ask at a restaurant where their meat comes from. They will absolutely tell you if it comes from a “premium” meat company… sort of an advertising point.

    btw, aren’t pork burritos *not* kosher? 🙂

  3. Yeah, it seems like the more upscale the restaurant, the more likely they are to order their meat from prestigious free-range ranches, and the more likely they are to brag about it. Of course, they’re usually bragging about how good the meat tastes, rather than how ethical it is.

    Re: Kosher: I’ve never kept kosher, ever, and I’ve eaten pork all my life. And it turns out that “kosher meat” is about as inhumane as you can get. In order to be kosher, the animal has to be hung up by its legs, throat slit, and slowly bled to death. That’s a far cry from a simple bullet to the head.

  4. I’m really glad you posted this! My wife and I have been fairly strict vegetarians for about two years now, and my ethics on the matter are very much aligned with yours. Well, actually, at first my motivation was more of a “do no harm” thing, where I figured that if I could live healthily without taking the life of an animal, then I should do that. Since then I’ve refined it to something more like “Eating meet is OK, but it’s easier to be vegetarian than to do research and form an opinion about what my meat standards are”.

    Anyway, for medical reasons my wife is now eating some meat again, and the problem is once again “in my face”. So I’m glad you posted this, because it offers a lot of resources for me and my wife as we try to continue making responsible choices.

    @Victoria: The soy alternatives are fantastic, but it is very difficult to ensure that you are getting enough of certain vitamins and amino acids (especially because many of them are only available from meat sources). It may take months or years before you are affected by this, but I suggest doing some research to make sure you’re meeting those needs (especially the B vitamins). I don’t believe pescatarians have this problem.

  5. Andre J. Pluess

    Best of luck with this Ben. As someone who, for 15 years, has been an avid co-conspirator and enabler in quenching your meat cravings, all moral quandries about torture aside, I’m excited for you to stay as healthy as you can.

    As an adendum to this discussion, I’ll quickly throw in my two cents about eating fish. As Ben knows, over the last four years, I’ve become obsessed with fishing the great lake Michigan and inland lakes in Wisconsin. I love the sport and recreation, but most important, I love the eating. I’ve found nothing more satisfying than catching, cleaning and cooking a fish all on my own. Currently we are in the height of the Fall Coho, Chinook and Steelhead run here in Lake Michigan.

    My girlfriend has always expressed hesitation at eating the Salmon that I bring home for reasons relating to PCB and mercury levels etc. etc. But after showing her repeated research about how (if consumed with relative moderation, my fresh lake fish are probablly the healthiest least steroided, food she (and certainly I) would typically eat, She finally confessed that she’s just so confused about why the “free range” lake Salmon that I bring home is “so different” from the store bought Salmon, in terms of texture and flavor.

    The sincerity of her question inspired me to do some research.

    First, all fresh water salmon species in the great lakes are “stocked” as seedlings. Salmon can not naturally spawn in the great lakes, but the Department of Natural Resources of the great lakes states began a very aggressive stocking program in the 60’s to reduce the population of invasive bait fish species that were infiltrating the lakes via balast water from vessels coming from the St. Lawrence channel. Bottom line: these fish are a hybrid freshwater species of Salmon, and therefore have a different texture and flavor than their atlantic or pacific salmon cousins…

    But still I wondered, why are these fish so distinctly different in terms of consistnecy of flesh, flavor etc from store bought salmon…. Was it truly only because of their hybrid status and freshwater upbringing?

    After more indepth reading and talking to some new found friends at a local fishmarket, things became very clear. I have gotten used to eating “free range” Salmon, fish that migrate the great lakes from the time they are stocked as saplings, to the time they go into my oven or on my grill. It’s the most pure “free range” meal I ever eat. As a result, these fish have a MUCH lower fat content, and are MUCH leaner and hence honestly, sometimes need more work in seasoning and cooking in order to make them as “tasty” as most store bought salmon. But more alarming to me was the realization that most “farm raised” fish, which is a HUGE percentage of fish sold in stores, are fed Corn-based foods often filled with steriods to increase fat content and to keep them “healthy” in the “farm environment”.

    Anyway, for me this was a huge revalation and a crystal clear illustration about what organic/free range really means. I never realized how radical the effects of farm-raised anything can be on the quality and nature of the meats we consume. And it has made me much more critical about the type of fish I buy in a market.

    That said, I’m know the same argument can be made for cows/chickens and I’m not about to go buy a gun or cross bow and hunt for my “free range” meat. But still, it’s weird eating a chicken cutlet, or piece of steak knowing how radically different they must taste from the way they were intended to taste when first stocked on Earth by the power(s) that be.

    Hope this made sense.

  6. Matt Braithwaite

    Ben, you might be interested to read the book “Elizabeth Costello”, by the grim and comfortless J.M. Coetzee. I’m no tree-hugger, but I thought the book had an interesting defense of vegetarianism. (Though I’m not sure it’s meant to be taken seriously.)

  7. Welcome to the world of freerangetarianism!

    I’ve also found it results in eating less meat overall, and that this
    is mostly a good thing. Or at least, it did result in eating less
    meat, until I moved to San Francisco, where even the cheap burger
    joint down the street is using acceptable meat. That in turn got me
    used to being able to get meat whenever I want, even in restaurants,
    so now when I’m outside SF it’s that much harder to “just say no” :-).

    Thanks for doing the research about Whole Foods. I hadn’t realized
    how much torture they allowed (that sounds mean, but I’m just trying
    to call things by their right names). I guess you’re right: the only
    way to really know is to know the individual farms. It’s a sucker’s
    game for us, though, because the advantage a farm or a restaurant gets
    by claiming to be ethical in this particular sense can be quite
    large — thus they have an incentive to make the claim
    without actually paying the extra cost of raising meat in a
    non-feedlot-based manner. We can’t check them all; we can’t even
    spot-check often enough to make discovery of fraud a realistic threat.

    +1 on anything Michael Pollan writes, by the way :-).

  8. Benjamin Sergeant

    I heard that eating meat helped humans developped their brains. Also, why just value meat, and not fish, or bugs. I feel sorry for animals in farms, but it will never be the same pain as when I’m thinking about humans.

  9. Benjamin Sergeant

    “”Teach a man to fish” has been the philiosphy behing heifer”
    That’s what you see when on the Heifer Banner. I really don’t see the point ?
    Maybe it’s not the right place to discuss that, and I should go on a vegetarism web site.

  10. Benjamin: You’ve asked some questions, but I’m sort of unclear about what you’re asking. Maybe you can rephrase them.

  11. Benjamin Sergeant

    I don’t understand why most vegetarian eat fish. For me it doesn’t make sense to avoid eating meat while eating fish.

  12. People who eat fish aren’t vegetarians… that why I (and most of my friends) refer to them as “pescatarians”.

    I think you sort of missed the point of my post. Sure, if you think eating animals is inherently immoral, then it makes no sense to eat fish, since they’re animals too. But I don’t think eating animals is immoral — I think systematically torturing animals in factory-farms is immoral. That’s why my whole essay is about trying to find “humanely raised” meat. Fish aren’t systematically tortured, so I have no problem eating them.

  13. Benjamin Sergeant

    Yes, you’re right, we should talk about “pescatarians”, it makes more sense.

    The thing is that it’s really hard to define a degree in torture, a level of torture. Level 1 is you make the fish choke on the top of the boat. Level 2 is you kill the pig with a knife, level 3 you inject something in his blood. Hard to tell. Hard to measure also, it will be just a feeling.

    Maybe it’s related to the way animals are raised, if they spend their whole life in an horrible farm, like probably what’s gonna end up in a burger made in a fast food chain, then we can call this torture. If a fish which spend all his life swimming freely in the water, then it’s not torture when he’s fished and killed.

  14. jackr

    Huh. But this little two-word phrase keeps rattling through my head … “fish farm.” Farmed fish are just as abused as feed-lot cattle. And of course *wild* fish are allowed to live their short lives freely enough, but they’re being harvested so rapidly that most fisheries and species are plunging toward extinction, or managed at the desperate brink.

  15. aaawww

    I’m just curious no how could be considered “more healthy”. I just cannot stand something which is said to be healthier by person which takes chemical synthetized proteins and vitamins as mean to stay alive, such as the b12.

    How is it healthier? Then again, I’m all against useless cruelty against animals and pollution and so on. But actually famine is a problem, and there is the need of intensive food production. Not that the current vegetable farms are any better: those are so polluted with chemicals that allergenic rates in the last decades skyrocketed.

  16. Suraj Barkale

    I find this discussion interesting as in India (my native place) many people are strictly vegetarian (mostly because many religions in India prohibit killing and the widespread Hindu religion has one month dedicated to being vegetarian). In fact in some cities (e.g. Pune) you have to hunt for restaurants which will serve meat.
    I have no qualms eating non-veg food but I found that I don’t crave for it. At least I didn’t till I was in India. I realized that in India use of spices and a thousand recepies kept my meat carvings away.

  17. David Schleef

    aaawww: You appear to be confusing vegetarianism with veganism. Vegetarians who eat a variety of foods generally do not require supplements. Some vegans tend to get malnourished in a few vitamins, but this can be fixed by eating certain foods (such as brewers yeast for B12). For vegans I have known personally, they prefer to take a daily multivitamin rather than worry about whether they’re eating enough of a particular food to keep from being malnourished. As for protein, it’s easy to get more than enough from eating grains, nuts, legumes, and soy. I’ve never heard of anyone but weightlifters taking protein supplements.

    The process for making B12 is to grow some bacteria or yeast, dry it, and grind it up. It’s more of a packaging process rather than chemical synthesis. Proteins aren’t chemically synthesized either, merely extracted from soy, dairy, or other sources.

  18. no one in particular

    A bit late on this post, but just a note that Chipotle was majority owned by McDonald’s at one point, but McD’s has since divested entirely.

    Thanks for the informative post. I mostly try to do the same thing (although I cave sometimes), but it was much easier when I lived in Portland a few months ago than it is in San Francisco (although I suppose it’s still easier here than in the vast majority of cities).


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