I used to be a vegetarian. The best thing about being a vegetarian is how much you learn about industrialized meat production and animal welfare issues. The best thing about being a former vegetarian is bacon.
I originally chose vegetarianism primarily for the purported health benefits. Unlike some vegetarians, I never had an intrinsic problem with the killing of animals for food. I have personally participated in slaughtering my dinner, and I think any non-hypocritical omnivore should be comfortable saying the same.
My problem lies with the treatment of animals as they are raised and before they are slaughtered. I considered – and still do consider – the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or feedlots that generate most of the meat sold in the U.S. to be inhumane.
If you’ll forgive the loaded word, the conditions most meat animals are raised in are torturous. They result in sick animals, lagoons of ground-water polluting manure and meat that isn’t particularly good for the people who consume it. The benefit of plentiful, common and cheap meat comes at huge environmental, health and animal welfare costs.
When I began eating meat again – and there’s nothing like pregnancy cravings for fried chicken liver at 7 in the morning to turn you back into a carnivore – it was very important to me that the meat I was eating was healthy and raised humanely. I began looking at wild game, grass-fed beef, heritage and humanely raised pork options. I called up the people selling my eggs and tried to parse the relative merits of at local, organic, free-range and/or pastured chicken. I toured grass fed beef operations and bought a case of wild boar tenderloin from the wholesaler I use for catering events.
I found a way to enjoy meat again (and with further apologies to the vegetarians out there, I did truly enjoy it) by becoming familiar with the people and organizations that were growing my beef, eggs, chicken, pork and game. I asked questions, I compared price and product and I came to a solution that works for me, my family and our budget.
We buy most of our meat in bulk, either directly from ranchers, or in larger quantities through my wholesaler. That keeps our price a bit better than it would be buying week-to-week at our local YuppieHippe market while still allowing us to get the product we want. I know other people who do cow-shares or buy into meat CSAs.
Recently, Thundering Hooves, a popular grass-finished beef supplier around the Seattle farmers market & boutique grocer circuit, unexpectedly announced they were ceasing all operations. Apparently they ran into some financial problems with their investors despite (or perhaps because of) their rapid expansion last year.
People I talked to about this were really upset – they felt like they were loosing a friend. People said things like, “this is so unexpected” and “what am I going to do now?” No one ever says that when the local Safeway swaps out brands of economy sized 5 lb. ground beef chubs.
When people take the time to get to know their rancher, their farmer, their dairyman, they build a relationship with that purveyor that is personal. That person takes a virtual seat at the table with the family during the dinner hour.
When I toured Thundering Hooves last summer, I was amazed at the number of ex-vegetarian or meat-curious vegetarians that were there. Many said they were looking for a way to eat meat without feeling like they were betraying everything they had learned as vegetarians.
One mom told me her children were not thriving on the family’s vegetarian diet. She was trying to allow her kids access to meat, but as a long-time vegetarian it was hard for her. I watched as one of her young daughters tried the Thundering Hooves summer sausage (which was delicious, by the way) and went back for more. The mom was holding back tears to see her child chomping down on a big round of beef and clearly loving it.
Omnivore or vegetarian, it can be tough to be a conscientious eater. From pesticides on apples to overfishing of Sea Bass to the Omega 3 levels in CAFO beef, it seems like there is always something to worry about.
Any other failed vegetarians out there? How do you balance meat-consumption with cost, animal welfare issues and environmental concerns?0
Lauren M says
*Raises hand* I slowly found my way (over the course of about a year) into vegetarianism in 2004, first cutting out red meat, then pork, then poultry and fish. For me, it was never an ethical issue, but you're correct in pointing out that living in the vegetarian world will open your eyes to those "ethics" issues. Vegetarianism was a way to take control of my eating habits and pay attention to what I was putting in my body. Throughout college I even dabbled in Veganism, but that turned out to be unnecessary territory for my purposes (no offense to the Vegans out there…I learned a lot about the culture, lifestyle, and political charge behind the word). When I re-entered the meat-eating world this past year, I did so in full-force. I soon discovered that I was doing the exact opposite of what I had intended by consuming meat three times a day with little regard to where it was coming from. I am now back in a place where I am beginning to educate myself more about where the meat I'm consuming comes from and what I'm putting in my body nutritionally (and how I should balance it out with plant-based nutrition). Basically, my ideal attitude is that if I'm going to consume meat, it's going to be "worth" it (financially, nutritionally, ethically, environmentally, and so on). Will I eat a questionable hunk of animal flesh on my next vacation or trip to "In and Out"…probably. Will I think about it just a little bit more before I put it in my mouth…definitely. It's people like you that will continue to inspire and education.
I'm pretty sure I tried Vegetarianism at one point. Obviously it didn't work for me because I can't even remember when I did it.
That said, I agree 100% with everything you said, including having a hand in slaughtering an animal for food. I run across so many people that say things like "I don't want to know where my meat came from" or "I prefer it already cut and wrapped at the supermarket." If people were forced to know their food so many of them would be vegetarians or even vegans, but they seem to prefer willful ignorance.
I was a vegetarian for 7 years. I wouldn't say I "failed"…it was a conscious choice to go back to eating meat (albeit one inspired by a particularly tasty plate of BBQ teriyaki skirt steak).
As I began to examine my relationship to the meat I was again buying and eating, I noticed there was a massive disconnect: I knew I was against CAFOs and feedlots. I never wanted an animal to be frightened, mistreated, confined, or denied access to sunlight/fresh air/healthy feed. I was appalled by the meat industry's intentionally misleading packaging. And I became concerned about my own willingness to turn a blind eye to these things for the sake of convenience.
Something had to change if I wanted to continue eating meat (which I did – and do). I bought books. I read a LOT of books. I researched the meat industry both on the large-scale (CAFOs, their relationship with Big Ag, environmental consequences, etc) and on the small-scale (local farmers, backyard flocks, hunting and wild-caught game). I started making changes. We bought 1/4 of a free-range, grass-fed cow from a local rancher who knows us by name. My boyfriend fishes, and hunts wild turkey, ducks, pigs, and deer. I am learning about charcuterie. Our chest freezer runneth over.
Sometimes this lifestyle is inconvenient. It is often also very expensive (we just spent $10 a piece on some pork chops for a dinner party, which we had to source from a special butcher in town). Often this means we go without. But these prices reflect the REAL costs of the meat, and I am willing to pay for high-quality, responsibly raised/slaughtered meat.
I think it SHOULD be hard to hunt and kill animals. Desensitizing myself from the process is a luxury I am not willing to accept anymore. I think a certain amount of grieving is appropriate. It means I am grateful, and that I am aware of the sacrifice that was necessary for me to enjoy the meat I am eating.
For me, being an ethically responsible omnivore means staying informed, connected. And I'm still learning – there are often things that trigger me that are surprising. I am constantly reevaluating where I stand in the food chain.
Thank you for asking these questions. They are very important.
heather w says
I haven't "failed" vegetarianism yet, but I am encouraged rather than bothered by "ethically responsible onmivores" as Jessa describes.
I don't think you need to apologize for "truly enjoying" the meat you eat now; rather it would be much worse if you didn't enjoy it. That would be disrespectful, and a waste of the animal's life and death.
I've always been a meat eater, though sometimes meat was rare when I was poor. My shift to responsible, ethical meat consumption was not by way of vegetarianism. I've simply become more and more concerned about what goes into meat raised conventionally, and the environmental damage that is part and parcel with CAFO's, not to mention the disgusting treatment of those animals. These days I buy local meats raised on pasture. They're expensive, so we eat less of them. We also have raised a little meat for ourselves and slaughtered it ourselves. I feel comfortable now that we are not hypocritical carnivores, and that our food choices reflect our values.
We very rarely eat out, and when I do, I order vegetarian, unless we're going to a restaurant specifically because it includes local pastured meats on their menu. That was a more gradual decision; I've just gotten to the point where I can't choose to eat conventional meat. I dread the day I'm in someone else's home and am served meat that doesn't square with my values.
The first step is admitting you have a problem. I have been a life long omnivore. I salute the efforts the efforts of "recovering vegetarians" when they try to reclaim their nutrient heritage as Hunter Gatherers.
I have recently become much more concerned with the source of my meat. As much as I love a nice T-bone if all I can afford is grass fed hamburger or sustainably farmed pork, then that is what I am buying.
I consider the extra cost a temporary tax while I help drive up demand which will lead to overproduction and ultimately drive down prices.
I can see a future not to far away where no one would consider eating factory meat. A future where every fast food restaurant will pride itself on the transparent sourcing of there foods. Where all grocery stores insist on organic products. Where high end restaurants feature exclusive local and seasonal sourcing. Where high end grocery stores stock their shelves with locally , seasonally appropriate foods. Not in season in our part of the world, then not on the menu.
And yes, the best way to rescue a vegetarian is to offer them bacon, just hide it under the brussel sprouts. Yum.
Legal disclaimer: No actual vegetarians were harmed in the making of this comment.
Erica/Northwest Edible Life says
This post has generated more thoughtful comments than perhaps any other I've written. Thank you all for taking the time to share your perspectives and experiences with this issue.
I saw the same thing when I was volunteering at the CSA. In addition to the produce shares, they sold local organic meat. Chickens were available most of the time, from the same farmer who supplied the organic eggs, but beef, lamb, and pork were only available when an animal was ready to go to slaughter. Interested CSA members could then put down a deposit to reserve a portion. Several people told me they used to be vegetarian but felt okay about adding this meat into their diets.
For myself, my health is considerably better when I eat a vegan whole-foods diet. I have strayed from that in the past year with all the stress of our situation here (zoning restrictions). My health has suffered and I've gained a fair amount of weight. I'm working on getting back to what foods work for me to best support my health.
Same deal.. my qualms were with the way the animals were raised. For several years I was vegetarian, then vegan… and back to omnivore.
I like meat.. I just don't want to consume "meat from a miserable existence".
So I have to laugh that my daughter is following in my footsteps. About the same age (13).. she wants to avoid eating meat. Also the reason why when we get the coop up we will be adopting problem broody hens. I have yet to counter her statement of "how can you fault a creature who just wants to be a Mom?"
Maybe I should name our farm Secondhand Chicks.
I was vegetarian for 17 years. I made it through two pregnancies without submitting to cravings, but when they didn't go away after my last pregnancy I decided my body was telling me something. I became vegetarian at 12 because I didn't like how animals were treated before they were slaughtered. I never felt that it's wrong to eat meat. We really didn't have access to free-range non-medicated or organic meat back then. Now we do, and I started wanting meat again, for the first time really. So now we only buy free-range eggs and meat (always did the eggs before too). One day we may be able to afford the dairy too.
I do find it harder to keep weight off when eating meat though…
Sarah Jackson says
Seattlites, who miss Thundering Hooves: Have you heard anything about Blue Valley Meats. Here's my old blog post on this (look under the resources at the bottom): http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20110810/BLOG15/708109825 "Blue Valley Meats, an operation that took over for the ill-fated but beloved Thundering Hooves outfit out of Walla Walla, is now making neighborhood deliveries throughout the Puget Sound region. Their pork comes from a farm in Ephrata that reportedly allows the pigs to roam.