Last week the Oregonian food section had a recipe for vegan coq au vin. I have nothing against vegans, but this just seemed perverse to me; not only the imitation of a meat dish, which was never going to taste like the original, but its use of all kinds of fake meat products. The ingredients included seitan (a wheat-based meat substitute, also known as mock duck), liquid smoke, fake bacon and fake parmesan cheese. It seemed a travesty of real food. There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan cooks who don’t feel the need to use fake meat – I love Heidi Swanson, and Bryant Terry is fabulous – and I honestly do not understand the necessity of developing a vegan cuisine which is an artificial version of a meat-based diet. There are so many great vegetables out there.
Not that I don’t recognize the issues surrounding eating meat. Joy Mench, an animal scientist from UC Davis, raised a bunch of these in her talk at OSU the other night. She began with a shout-out to Emily Anthes’s new book Frankenstein’s Cat, which argues that biotechnology “puts human and animal welfare in conflict.” (here’s a recent interview of Anthes with Terry Gross). Mench pointed out that biotechnology is only one of many technologies that are applied to food animals and that allow for greatly intensified animal husbandry and, for Americans, the cheapest food in the Western world.
Mench got her Ph.D. in the UK and contrasts American practices to European ones. The British activist Ruth Harrison coined the termed “factory farming” back in the 1960s, and American farms have become more factory-like while Europeans, for a number of reasons, are backing off from the factory model. One example is the use of CAFOs – confined animal feeding operations, the tiny “crates” that are used to confine pigs and other animals. From an economic point of view, these certainly have advantages in terms of ease of feeding and preventing injury to the animal. From a behavioral point of view (not to mention an ethical one) they are terrible. Europeans have largely outlawed CAFOs; but legislation, said Mench, is not the answer in the more market-oriented US. Although Proposition 2 in California prohibited CAFOs, not all states will pass such laws (Idaho and Nevada have attempted to attract California chicken farmers when Prop. 2 goes into effect in 2015).
Mench believes the necessary work toward more humane animal husbandry must be at the level of the retailer and the consumer – that in the US we need to work via the market. She is skeptical of the value of labeling, since many terms such as “natural” and “humane” have no legal meaning, and others such as “free range” imply oversight that is non-existent. Instead she points to the effectiveness of consumer boycotts in forcing companies such as McDonalds to use humanely raised eggs, and believes that similar consumer pressure will lead to the elimination of CAFOs in the next decade. I certainly hope that she is right.