MALTA, ILL. — I confess: I sometimes feel guilty when I eat. Should I have paid the extra money for the organic avocados? Found hamburger meat that I'm sure was once a happy and grass-fed cow? Or not eaten the hamburger at all?
Under the pressure to equate values with actions, even what's on the dinner plate can be an accusing presence.
Still, the more I try to sort out just what my values are - as they relate to food, at least - the more elusive and contradictory they often become. Is it all about animal rights? How about the environment, the exploitation of workers, or supporting small local farmers? I care about being a polite guest, and the chance to savor delicious food has to count for something.
Call it a selfish mission - a quest to restore the pleasure of good food by getting rid of that gnawing sense that (according to various pamphlets and websites) my dinner might not be too far removed from clubbing baby seals or hastening the apocalypse via deadly pesticides - but I told my editor I'd delve into that labyrinthine world of ethical eating.
Of course, it's important to recognize right off that eating ethically means different things to different people.
Unless you live on a tropical island where wild fruits and vegetables are copious year-round and you can harvest them yourself, virtually any food is going to involve some degree of injustice or harm, to people, animals, or the environment.
"You just have to decide what matters most to you," says Michael Pollan, author of "The Botany of Desire" and a journalism professor at the University of California in Berkeley. "The idea that a vegetarian diet is automatically environmentally more sound just isn't true. And what if you live on the East Coast, and all the organic produce is shipped from California - how do you compare buying that to buying locally, and supporting a farm which may be using pesticides but is helping to preserve the rural landscape closer to home? A lot of people, when they run into contradictions, just throw up their hands and say, 'I'll eat what I want.' "
It's a response I've had myself. But this time, I figured I'd look closer - at the often-confusing world of "cage-free," "free-range," "organic," and "grass-fed" labels, and the spectrum of options that seems to get broader every year. Before coming to any conclusions about my own food values, I talked with a few others who've already sorted through theirs.
Mr. Pollan, for instance, has stopped eating factory-farmed meat, though he admits he doesn't interrogate every waiter and will eat whatever he's served as a guest. He also tries to "buy local."
For Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute, questions around seafood are central. The biologist loves to eat fish, but only what he catches himself. For people who can't go directly to the source, he tries to educate them about which seafood - and catching methods - are better and worse for the oceans. On his company's website (www.blueoceaninstitute.org/seafood), they're all graded.
Chilean seabass, Atlantic salmon, and shrimp? Bad. Farmed mussels, Alaska salmon, and mahi-mahi caught on a pole? OK.
"We evaluate how the population is doing, the effects of the fishing gear on the habitat, what other kinds of things are caught at the same time," Mr. Safina explains. "There are a lot of things changing the oceans. All of them are accidental - the effects of climate change, pollutants, plastic [debris] - except fishing. It's an intentional effort to go and kill what lives in the ocean."
Tom Regan, an animal rights ethicist and the author of "Empty Cages," has a simpler criterion for eating. "You begin by asking whether your fork is a weapon of violence," he says. "It is when it contributes to the unnecessary suffering and death of other life that feels." Mr. Regan, like many animal-rights activists, is a vegan; He doesn't eat meat, dairy, or eggs. Getting there, he says, was a gradual process, but one he felt clearer about as he went on.
But even he admits there's a spectrum, and he has no trouble enumerating the worst offenders: hog farms that keep pigs in tiny cement breeding cages, where they are unable to turn around; the crates in which calves are kept, devoid of sunlight or fresh air; the dark, 12-inch by 20-inch battery cages with six or seven egg-laying hens.
"A cage system in which breeder sows can turn around is better than the cage system they're in now," Regan says. "But that kind of reform doesn't address the fundamental question of their exploitation to begin with."
One interesting eating policy comes not from an expert, but a friend. Daren Firestone, a law student in Chicago, developed a three-rule system to balance his love of animals with his love of good food.
Rule No. 1 is the most basic: He doesn't want to contribute to the demand for meat. It's a market-based way of expressing his visceral sense that animals shouldn't be food, but it also allows for some flexible vegetarianism. While he won't buy meat or order it, he might, for instance, have a bite of a friend's steak or eat the remnants of a big Thanksgiving meal before they get tossed out. Institutional buffets are off-limits; a buffet at a friend's party is in-bounds.
Rule No. 2 allows for eating "insignificant creatures": He just doesn't care much about scallops, snails, mussels, and clams. And Rule No. 3 is the "Paris exemption" (which, he admits, also applies to the very occasional four-star restaurant or gourmet meal in other parts of the world). In such places, he can eat what he likes.
"I'm OK with it if I'm not the best vegetarian in the world, if I can reduce my meat intake a lot," he says. "This way I can still have the things I really, really want."
Daren's system offers something many all-or-nothing systems don't: nuance. But what about eaters who don't share that innate sense he and Regan have that eating animals - particularly domestic ones, that have evolved for human use and no longer have a biological place outside of that - is wrong? Personally, I've plucked a chicken and eaten a sheep a few minutes after I watched it slaughtered, and was fine with both.
Conserving the environment, may be a greater concern for some eaters, which means looking at issues like land use and where food is shipped from. Others might abhor the abusive practices in factory farming - the battery cages and veal pens and hog farms that Regan describes - but still want to support small, local, family-run farms for both meat and produce.
Is there a way to balance all of those? And knowing how imperfectly the labeling system works - buying those "cage-free" eggs might make me feel better, but I know it tells me nothing about how the hens were treated - can anyone ever be sure food is what it says it is?
For starters, I decided to visit a local farm that offered a different model.
The first thing a visitor to Adrian Plapp's farm notices is the ducks. At his farmhouse 70 miles west of Chicago, in Malta, Ill., they seem to be everywhere, running through the yard. Nearby, he keeps some 60 sows - many of them wandering about a large indoor/outdoor pen with their piglets, who often duck through the fence to visit the beef cattle next door. The 100 or so ewes pretty much have the run of the place as well.
His cattle aren't grass-fed, but other than that the place conforms to most people's mental image of an environmentally friendly farm with relatively content animals.
Even better, it's a closed cycle: Mr. Plapp and his brother grow the organic crops - corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, oats, and hay - that they need to feed their animals, while the manure all goes back to compost the fields.
"I love to compost," says Plapp enthusiastically, as he shows off various barns and a new organic flour operation.
He used to be a typical hog farmer, raising several thousand animals a year in close confines. But since deciding to go organic 10 years ago, he's become a full convert. One of the side benefits, he notes, is the connection it gives him to his customers.
"There's been 100 years of trying to separate us from the consumer - you don't get feedback," he says. Now, he can go into one of the Chicago restaurants that feature his meat, as he did with the Bistro Campagne recently, and the patrons treat him like a rock star.
I drove away feeling that Plapp's was the kind of farm I could feel happy supporting, if he sold directly to individuals instead of to restaurants. Still, since not all meat that says "free-range" - one of the most notoriously unregulated and meaningless labels out there - comes from a farm like his, what's the solution?
Animal activists will certainly continue to fight for more rigorous standards for animal care.
But to meet my own concerns, I found that with a small amount of research, online or by phone, I could learn a lot. Pollan suggests simply asking a farm if you can visit (whether you plan to or not).
"There are two kinds of farms - ones that welcome consumers, and ones that are terrified of consumers," he says.
It wasn't hard for me to find a Midwest network of family farms called Wholesome Harvest that meets my criteria and sells to a supermarket near me. The founder, Wende Elliott, even used to be a vegetarian before moving to Iowa with her husband and starting to farm.
All 43 farms in their system voluntarily surpass the organic standards, which allow for confinement of animals.
"We don't think that's the picture people have when they pay for it," says Ms. Elliott. "To us, the heart of organic isn't only that it's not pesticide-treated, but that it's a regional food system, in sync with the seasons, has equitable treatment of farmers, and the highest possible treatment of the land and the animals." They add a "raised on pasture" label to their meat - something l I'll look for the next time I shop.
My decision isn't likely to satisfy animal-rights ethicists, many of whom think we'll one day look back at meat-eating the way we now look at slavery.
And I can't say I'll be certain that every piece of meat I'm served in a restaurant or friend's home meets my standards. But I'd hope that changing what I buy and where I buy it will send a tiny message about my values when it comes to dinner.
At the very least, it means I can enjoy my hamburger without guilt.
Websites discussing ethical eating options:
www.wholesomeharvest.com A farm network promising ethical treatment of the land and the animals.
www.foodroutes.org/ localfood/ Helps you find nearby farms, of all types (meat, veggie, etc.), no matter where you live.
www.eco-labels.org/ Consumers Union guide to eco-labels and what they really mean.