One woman's quest to enjoy her dinner without guilt
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.