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Carnist Challenge: Making Meat-Eating Cruelty-Free

5 minute read
Josh Ozersky

I just learned the word carnist. It means me. Giving special names to nearly universal attributes is a tactic used by people seeking to undercut the “normal” status of a particular lifestyle; transgender people, to take a similar, not-unrelated example, call straight folk “cisgendered.” Because I write and talk so often about meat in such an unreflectively enthusiastic way, vegetarians of the Jonathan Safran Foer–type frequently charge me, and those like me, with being accessory to the torment of animals. And unlike many of my fellow carnivores, I accept the justice of the charge. And I’m trying to act on it, while staying hip deep in steaks and chops. Here’s how.

First of all, I get the point made by animal-rights activists. Their primary arguments (that eating other animals is unnecessary, that their lives are as valuable as ours, that eating meat has catastrophic effects on our environment) are, to be honest, unanswerable. I admit that. I just don’t want to stop eating meat. In fact, I want to eat even more of it than I do, if that’s possible. But you won’t hear me making bumper-sticker arguments like: “If God wanted us to eat lettuce, he wouldn’t have given us teeth.” Like my hero Tony Soprano, I understand there are certain moral realities in my life that I just have to make my peace with. And my peace rests on this side of pork chops.

(See “DIY Butchering.”)

But at the same time, I won’t willingly eat meat that I know comes from mistreated animals. And I think that’s a commitment too blithely dismissed by vegetarian critics. For example, I host a big meat festival every year, and this year’s event has sparked talk of an on-site vegetarian protest. Which is fine. I respect that. But I think the vegetarians miss the point. People aren’t going to start eating carrots three times a day. It’s just not going to happen. So if you’re going to eat meat, you should try to eat meat from small farms, or from larger producers who have demonstrated to the world that they are committed to cruelty-free production. So that means pork producers that don’t use farrowing crates, the horrible cages sows are kept in as piglet-making machines. It means using hormone- and antibiotic-free beef. Our presenting sponsor, Whole Foods, is using the event as a way to promote their five-tier animal-welfare grading system, and I only wish every grocery in the country would follow suit. You shouldn’t have to feel that if there isn’t a progressive supermarket or a greenmarket near you then you are party to something unholy.

But that raises a real question. Let’s say you don’t have special humanely raised veal or pigs from some idyllic nearby farm. Let’s say, like most Americans, you are going to regular stores and eating chili at bars, and bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches at diners and delis. Are you really going to say no, and ask for oatmeal instead? And sit there while everybody else is eating delicious sausages and hamburgers? Of course not. When the vegetarian movement was born, it was just assumed that you had to choose between your conscience and the human appetite. Wide was the path, and narrow the gate; and maybe that was true, in the 1970s. But it’s not true now.

(How the European E.coli outbreak is taking a toll on hamburgers.)

Because it turns out that it’s not impossible to create a meat industry that doesn’t rest on the unspeakable. Temple Grandin, the pioneering animal-behavior scientist, has done more with her minimal-stress slaughterhouse designs to benefit livestock animals than all the vegetarians who ever lived. More and more meat producers have adopted her techniques, but they’re just a start. As she has said in her books and appearances over and over again, it’s not just a question of building a stress-free path for animals going to slaughter; there needs to be constant and vigorous oversight of employees to prevent cruel treatment from happening. The companies that do things the right way should be rewarded by our eating their wonderful roasts and chops and cured breakfast-meat products. The ones that don’t should be shunned. Once they feel the sting, they’ll turn their practices around. I hope.

In the meantime, I do what I can. I buy cage-free eggs at the supermarket. I cook meat at home made by producers I trust. I don’t approach companies like Smithfield or Tyson to sponsor my meat events. I would support any politician, of either party, who stood up for expanding the USDA’s role so that it included at least cursory inspections of all farms where animals are raised for food. And likewise with any state legislator who would enforce state anticruelty laws for livestock the same as they do for cute puppies. Since neither of these things will ever happen, I try to lend support to industry initiatives like the National Pork Board’s Pork Quality Assurance-Plus program, Whole Foods’ animal-welfare system, and even Burger King’s landmark 2007 commitment (which they say is still in place) to buy at least some cage-free eggs and farrowing-crate-free pork.

I’m not under the illusion that these piecemeal efforts are especially effective, or that they require much sacrifice on my part. They’re not, and they don’t. But as with the amount of meat at a meal, something is better than nothing. Even a carnist can see that.

Ozersky is a James Beard Award–winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. You can listen to his weekly show at the Heritage Radio Network and read his column on home cooking at Rachael Ray’s website. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.

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