Monday, February 18, 2008

Vegetarians and Meat

Hybrid Mangalitsa-Berkshire piglets. They have a lot of potential!

In my late teens and early 20s, I didn't eat much meat. Most meat that I could buy was fairly flavorless, and eggs and cheese didn't taste very good. I was something like a vegetarian - but not for any philosophical reasons; the meat I could buy just didn't taste very good. It is still that way: I can barely bring myself to buy meat in a supermarket - it just looks so terribly unappetizing.

While working in Europe I discovered that things like dairy (cheese, milk, cream), eggs, pork can taste great. I got used to the fact that in Germany, I could go to a typical store and buy normal (not premium) cheese, meat, etc. and really enjoy it. I ate more meat[1] and cheese as a result.

In general, America doesn't have meat or cheese as good as in Europe. The fundamental problem is that the American consumer demands a cheap, low-quality food product. American producers give it to them.

One consequence of this is that until American producers start producing better products, "buy local" will mean "buying inferior." E.g. if you as a chef insist on using "locally sourced" cured products, they will necessarily be inferior to imported Iberian products - because right now, no American producers produce to those standards.

I think the relative low quality of American meat and cheese partially explains why so many Americans can manage to eschew meat and dairy.

Killing animals and enjoying their meat makes it hard to dismiss all meat eating as evil, if only because people get used to watching animals slaughtered - at which people focus on having a good time with family and friends. If the animals taste particularly good, people associate the killing with having a really great time with family and friends.

Here's a video of a traditional pig killing in Slovakia - called a zabíjačka. Those guys kill a really fat Mangalitsa. Fairly soon after, it is looking like meat.

If you have never seen a pig get slaughtered it probably bothers you to see that pig die. They kill that perfectly healthy pig in cold blood - so that they can eat it. And the fact that the guy pumps the leg (to work the blood out of the animal) seems bad - why doesn't he just leave the thing alone?

If you are from a culture where people kill pigs at home and eat them, or if you know what Mangalitsa fat tastes like, you are probably salivating. I see that and think (on the bright side):
  • It is great that people are helping to preserve the Mangalitsa breed, which necessarily means eating them. People will only raise large animals for meat, so eat them now or they'll be gone in a few years.
  • It sure is nice that they killed the pig without stressing it. And it is good they pumped the leg to get the blood out - otherwise they'd have inferior pork. If you are going to kill a pig, please do it correctly and make the most of it.
  • Assuming they fattened it properly, that Mangalitsa will make great cured products. If not, they just wasted that Mangalitsa's life.
I've asked some vegetarians, "if we could raise meat in a vat, and that meat was indistinguishable from that we get from animals, would you eat it?" The ones I've asked get uncomfortable and try to find a reason to justify their feeling that eating such a product would be wrong.

I've seen people get visibly discomforted by the question. You can practically see them getting nervous and thinking, "eating meat is bad, but if it is produced through human artifice, is it meat? I want to say it is wrong, but what is the reason?"

Many of them feel OK eating highly processed imitation meat products designed to imitate meat, yet don't want to eat the perfect imitation. Such people are just irrationally anti-meat-eating; even if we had perfect imitation meat, they'd find a way to eat their relatively flavorless soy hot dogs instead.

I would love it if we could get the delicious pork of a Mangalitsa without needing to raise pigs - raising pigs is dangerous and inefficient. I'd be happy if we could produce perfect imitation meat, even though it would have some unintended consequences.[2]

Someone who grows up eating meat and cheese in Europe is unlikely to conclude that eating that stuff is immoral. When I read this remark from this Croatian arguing that illegal killing animals in the traditional fashion is wrong, the exasperation at not being taken seriously really hits me:
We are aware of the fact that we live in a country where torture and brutal slaughter during "back-yard pig slaughter holidays," so-called "kolinje" in Croatia, is still an occasion for national joy and music, but we are unpleasantly surprised with the way the veterinary inspection ignores the manure, excrement, humidity, low temperatures, lack of light and lack of any kind of sociality for the pig, whose treatment is considered acceptable as long as the pig is vaccinated and marked on the ear, in other words, good for the slaughter and human consumption.
I try to imagine the kind of resistance that anti-meat person encounters in Croatia. It probably isn't as polite as Snakeman, one of our regular customers, who replies to a vegan:
"I choose to abstain from veganism. After you have tried jowl bacon from a free range, healthy and ornery Berkshire hog there is no going back! I say if it has a face, eat the face first and start with the cheeks!"
It sounds so bloodthirsty. But looking at is dispassionately, Snakeman's advice is correct. After an animal is dead, it is meat. Once it is a piece of meat, we naturally want to make sure we get the parts we really like. Snakeman and I favor the jowls, but others like the tenderloins.

[1] I explain why it doesn't taste as good (from a meat science perspective) here. From a business perspective, American meat processors don't think it makes good business sense to produce world-class products, even though it wouldn't require a return to traditional agriculture.

E.g. Handl Tyrol's products are made from factory-raised pigs shipped to Austria from the Netherlands, because they can't raise enough pigs in Austria to supply them. But those factory pigs eat better stuff than in America, so they taste a lot better. E.g. in America, folks feed the pigs soy and DDGS, which ruin the pig's fat, making it unsuitable for curing. Most people who cure meat in America (often using some sort of "Italian" techniques) don't understand this, despite people in Italy having standardized what pork is acceptable for curing. Try to talk to an American "artisinal" processor about fat composition - it will open your eyes.

Here's something I wrote about my wife and I doing a side-by-side comparison of some Mangalitsa salami with product from one of America's most respected "artisanal" processors. I later found out that the Mangalitsa salami I had was probably from a 3/4 hybrid fed on corn and wheat - by no means the best Mangalitsa (genetics or feed) you could use. Nevertheless, the results were far, far superior to some of America's best.

If American consumers demanded good meat, they'd get it at reasonable prices, as in Europe. Although most American producers don't know much about producing good meat, cheese, etc. it wouldn't take them a long time to acquire the skills if the market demanded it.

[2] Perfect vat-grown meat is probably the only thing that will get rid of animal exploitation. One complication, should we ever achieve this, is that we'll stop keeping farm animals. We'll lose our meat breeds, the same way we've lost the draft horse breeds.


Hayden said...

this last is the part that makes me crazy about many vegetarians, and the point I come back to frequently. If no one eats meat, there will be no critters.

Is it better for this animal to have never lived, than to have lived a short (as they would have in the wild) well-fed and unstressed life?

To insist on vegetarianism instead of humanely raised (and tastier as a result) meat is to deny those critters any life at all.

That doesn't sound to me like a reasonable choice for someone who is interested in animal welfare.

Kevin Kossowan said...

I wonder if there are some cows that think that they and the other cows shouldn't eat grass.

bruceki said...

Actually, draft horses are raised in quantity in king county for export to japan. they export the horses live there, for meat

boberica said...

Wow! many, many valid, and important points have been made in this post today. thanks heath, very inspiring. bob

chadzilla said...

watching this makes me wish I was there. I miss the communal feeling of a 'boucherie.' It is very ceremonial, and brings families and neighbors together. It serves a dual purpose of securing foods for the coming days and also as a celebration. Older men do the butchering... kids watch and learn and get to feel the incredible aura of involvement in something much bigger and ancient than they realize.
This makes me even more anxious to receive your delivery this week at the Trump Int'l.

Sean said...

"this last is the part that makes me crazy about many vegetarians, and the point I come back to frequently. If no one eats meat, there will be no critters"

Well under the status quo you would be correct. We have selectively bred these animals for the sole purpose of consuming them. Your comment betrays just how closely these animals are linked to their status as food animals. Their very existence under the current regime demands that they be killed and eaten; to deny one is to deny the other.

What about the other possibility - that is what about letting nature take its course? Some species of domesticated animals might, and probably would, die out if we stopped raising them for food. However these animals only had life by virtue of their use as food for humans. Would we be committing a wrong against the 9 billion possible chickens we did not breed to be eaten, as is done every year in the United States alone? By your logic, promoting Heath's and other artisinal producers' work runs afoul of the same problem. They produce far fewer animals than a confined animal feeding operation would allow for. Are they denying the opportunity of life because they do not raise as many pigs as their CAFO peers? The argument seems dubious at best.

I appreciate your engagement with this issue and awareness of the broader context in which meat is viewed and consumed, Heath. While I recognize that many cultures and people have come to terms with and even celebrate animal slaughter, this does not change the basis of my argument against eating meat. My philosophical argument as I've laid out before, does not rest on a visceral reaction to the raising or slaughter of animals, although this reaction is often a cue that something is going on that needs ethical consideration. One need only look to slave owning societies of the past to see parallels. People grew callous and indifferent to the plight of their slaves, even celebrated their dominance over them even though many found the practice at some level, or at some moment, viscerally objectionable. That sort of reaction is a sign that something is going on that we might need to consider more carefully and thankfully almost all modern societies have concluded that slavery is an abhorrent practice.

My argument against eating meat is simply that animals, being sentient creatures capable of feeling pain and having an interest in their own lives, should not have their rights usurped on the basis of human desires. If it so happened that we needed as a matter of course to consume animals to live than I would find nothing objectionable to the practice. However, not only do we need never eat animals to thrive, it is often injurious to our health and the environment to do so, at least on the massive scale that exists today. What then of vat grown meat? I have no qualms whatsoever with lab/vat meat. Indeed, I am very optimistic about its prospects and I would be surprised that if in 20 years most people weren't eating the majority, and perhaps the entirety, of their meat from synthetically grown sources. I think it represents the only way to feed the growing, insatiable desire for meat that is emerging from China and India in an environmentally sustainable and economically feasible matter. The success or failure of the animal rights movement will not be (or in my opinion should not be) measured in whether they succeed in getting people to abstain from meat but in whether they manage to convince the majority of consumers that vat/lab meat is the ONLY ethical source of meat, thereby relegating animal sourced meat to a fast fading and somewhat maligned niche. While it would be awkward returning to meat after abstaining for so long, I will, I'm sure, begin consuming it again when lab/vat grown meat is viable.

One last point that caught my attention was the critique that vegans often eat highly processed soy based meat substitutes. First of all this ignores the fact that the vast majority of omnivorous America is doing the same thing at fast food outlets nationwide, only they add highly processed, low quality animals parts into the mix. At least many of the soy substitutes are gmo-free/organic which can not be said for the hamburger and chicken nuggets from factory farmed animals. Secondly, a lot of vegans do not consume these products at all or only on rare occasion. I haven't had any soy based meat substitute (or soy anything for that matter beyond homemade soy milk) in over a month. Lastly, the biggest market for these products are not vegetarians but health conscious omnivores.

Heath said...

Bruceki - before the tractor replaced the draft horse, there was a substantial economy built around draft horses.

It is very hard for people to imagine what things were like in that age. There weren't any John Deere or International Harvester tractors - there were draft horses.

A consequence of switch to tractors is the decline of many draft horse breeds.

Hence my remark, "we'll lose our meat breeds, the same way we've lost the draft horse breeds."

The fact that the Japanese buy a relatively insignificant number of draft horses doesn't change the status of the draft horse breeds. And unless the Japanese start demanding branded draft horse meat products - e.g. Suffolk horsemeat or Clydesdale horsemeat, I don't see how the breeds are going to survive.

Heath said...

Sean - Thanks very much for your comments! Although we disagree on meat, I appreciate the intellectual consistency that you and other vegetarians bring to the topic.

If animal cruelty weren't a factor, would you eat meat?

E.g. if we had a perfect vat-grown meat substitute, would you eat it? How about if we could somehow engineer un-sentient pigs that would still function as pigs?

Having castrated pigs yesterday, I wish we could somehow engineer male pigs that wouldn't need castration. If there was such an innovation, it would pit the anti-GMO folks against the animal-welfare people.

Sean said...

As I tried to allude to in my post, animal cruelty, while being a significant issue and motivation for many to reexamine their practices with regards to the consumption of animal products, is not why I object to eating meat. In other words it doesn't matter how well you raise an animal or how painlessly you kill it, I still object to the principal of exploiting animals for our use.

On the other hand, bring on the vat meat! I have yet to encounter any philosophical argument against vat grown meat and I personally have no qualms with it. As you noted, many vegetarians/vegans when confronted with the same question will waffle or resist, for many of the same reasons that people have knee jerk reactions to cloned meat. Additionally, there are those who having abstained from animal products for so long, have lost all taste for them and therefore the source of the meat is for them irrelevant; they just don't want to eat it. That's fine but I still salivate when I smell grilling meat, fried bacon, or good barbecue.

The far murkier question is about engineering animals such that they are less sentient. There is already extensive research being done on this, particularly with regards to chickens, to make cramped and confined animals less anxious and more amenable to their conditions. I have a difficult time with this and so for now I appeal to Kant: "Act only on a maxim that you can will to be a universal law." Could I reconcile the same situation with regards to humans? For instance would it be acceptable to raise pseudo-humans with no cognitive capacity for body parts to be used in transplants and medical experiments? I think most would agree that this would be objectionable and therefore since I can not apply the same proscription universally, I don't see how I can do so in the limited case of pigs or cows who I regard, at least with regards to their treatment, life, and death, as members of the moral community.

Hope that clears up my views a bit. Also I don't want to hijack your comments/blog with my posts but I do appreciate the forum to voice my perspective. I appreciate the kind of work you do even if I disagree with your fundamental beliefs about humanity's relationship to "food" animals. I would much rather be a pig under your care then in any of this country's CAFOs or its other artisinal producers for that matter.

Heath said...

Sean - I'm glad you are for vat grown meat.

It probably won't surprise you to hear that I'm all for "pseudo-humans with no cognitive capacity for body parts to be used in transplants and medical experiments." If done right, that would be humane - because they'd be something like a fleshy plant from which we'd harvest organs.

There's one more point - exploitation of animals may be the only realistic way to certain species. E.g. hippos are being wiped out by humans. If one could farm them though, or run them in hunting reserves, it might be possible to save them. You can see that happening with the buffalo.

Of course, it would be better if the continued existence of a species wasn't contingent on humans being able to make money from them.

Heath said...

chadzilla - I think you'll get the meat in the next few days. I haven't checked with the freight firm, but I trust it should come as scheduled.

I'm just hoping the meat works out well for you.

As soon as I know you are satisfied with our product, I'll make an announcement. Until I know you are satisfied, I'll be pretty nervous.

bruceki said...

My comment regarding draft horses is an illustration that one of the few remaining productive draft horse herds is being managed for meat, not its original purpose of pulling loads, and so is permanently preserved.

And the japanese do demand particular breeds of horses, as they do for pigs and chickens. Kurobota pork, anyone? clydesdale steak? Yep, and Yep.

Snakeman said...


Thank you for all your very well-thought-out and informative observations that you have posted on this blog, I hope that I'm not detracting from this. I have found your pictures, words and links to be quite enlightening.


Please excuse me if I'm sounding flippant here, but why is a self proclaimed vegan posting comments on a blog dedicated to informing interested parties in regards to the production and distribution of some of the most exemplary pig meat available in the New World? I'm sorry but I keep visualizing a party pooper evangelizing about the evils of alcohol on a forum dedicated to the production and consumption of the world's best wines.

I have found something scary about mangalista meat; it costs $25 per pound. I have found something even scarier, IT IS WELL WORTH IT!

Let me preface that I'm only speaking for myself; I wouldn't want to be misconstrued as being judgmental. Personally I would like to disregard the argument about sentience, or lack thereof, as a justification for one's dietary choices. Should eating the stupid come in to vogue, then I fear that the extinction of the genus Homo sapiens will only be hastened. (I don't necessarily consider this a bad thing).

I would like to broach the topic of plant exploitation and cruelty to plants. There are bodies of evidence that indicate that plants respond positively to “good vibes”. Plants exposed to classical music seem more vibrant, talking to your house plants and showering them with affection may very well lead to healthier more effervescent growth.

What about the dark side? As an example let's consider for a moment white asparagus. The very best white asparagus is subjected to some of the worst vegetable cruelty I can imagine. The neonatal shoots are straining to break free of the earth, yearning to photosynthesize and respire freely. Intervention by brutal humans prevents fulfillment of this inherent genetic protocol. As these baby plants struggle to fulfill their hereditary prerogative, compost and sod are shoveled on top of them, thwarting their valiant efforts to become green adult plants basking under the sun in the open air with life-giving chloroplasts circulating in their systems.

The deck is stacked. Before these infant plants ever get a chance to break free, they are dug up, killed and butchered, never to experience the freedom and autonomy they struggled so hard to obtain. White asparagus is vegan veal!

Alright, the prior was rather tongue-in-cheek, but the fact remains human survival is dependent on the exploitation of other species. If one chooses to exploit only plants and not animals more power to them and more importantly more meat for me.

Heath said...

Snakeman - I'm very happy that you like Mangalitsa enough to pay for it.

I hope you'll consider buying a whole or a half pig - at which point you'll save. It freezes well. Also, we don't allow the public to visit anymore - but if you want to come out for a tour, perhaps when we are slaughtering, you are welcome.

By the way, I was only introduced to the evils of white asparagus in Germany, where that is how they eat it. It is a big deal there - the season is called the Spargelzeit - where you'll see it on menus everywhere.

It is absolutely back-breaking work to get out there and bury those things. Every year the government clears off their welfare roles by assinging the unemployed jobs working in the asparagus fields. Most people only last a day until they quit, at which point the government declares them willfully unemployed - and then their benefits stop. After you've been out there for a few days and thrown in the towel, the sight of white asparagus probably gives those folks flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms.

I could never taste any difference between the white and the green stuff. But I figure there must be - the white stuff costs so much more. I can't believe they pay a big premium for nothing - but maybe they do.

Finally, I don't mind that the anti-meat people comment here. How are they going to argue with Hormel or Jimmy Dean? By being open about our animal welfare standards, we invite attacks on fundamental issues.

Audrey said...

I am a meat lover. We eat a lot of organic and kosher meat. I too don't care for what I find in the grocery store. Great blog. I found it through the blogger blog roll.

Walter Jeffries said...

I've lived in both Europe and America. Mostly in New England and mostly in Vermont to narrow it down further. We buy local milk, cheeses, yogurts, meats, etc as well as raising our own meat, eggs and veggies. There is no quality difference between here in the USA and Europe. What matters is are you choosing quality products. In Europe you can find plenty of industrially processed foods that taste just as bland as the US industrially produced versions. Buy quality if you want quality.

nepalese_princess said...

The species are not going to just die off. The lived in the wild before we started domesticating them. If we stop, they will just go back to the wild. simple as that. that is, if there is wild.

Pigs especially are highly adaptive creatures. Even the pigs who escape from farms, do very well in the wild and have natural abilities to find food.

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