Foodies Need to Explore Ethics – Start With Dairy

A sick, downed calf: the unfortunate result of industrialized dairy production (src)


The Atlantic’s James McWilliams penned a confrontational piece last week arguing that in the gourmet world’s quest to serve the finest and tastiest, it sidesteps the huge, glaring issue of animal rights, welfare, and even the Darwinian consequence of our relationship to animals. In “Foodies vs. Darwin: How Meat Eaters Ignore Science” he writes,

Sure, food writers trip all over each other to express their righteous outrage over the many evils of factory farming. Wonderful. But not a single one has decided to take a shot at reconciling their outrage—an outrage that ipso facto acknowledges that an animal has inherent worth—with their promotion of heirloom birds, grass-fed beef, and fried pork bellies cut to perfection by “artisanal” butchers.

[Regarding the inconsistency of investigating food taste but not origin]…I wonder what we might discover if, somehow or other, we careened over the edge and seriously explored, in the popular press, the ethics of animal exploitation. What if we discussed the moral and legal rights of animals with the same level of detail we bring to discussion about where to find the best prosciutto?

McWilliams says that “what’s being butchered here is logic” and I agree. I loved America’s Next Great Restaurant. But every time I saw Steve Ells get excited about someone’s beef compote or slow-roasted pulled pork (and man was there a lot of pork on that show!) I winced. Chipotle (Ells is the founder) serves pork exclusively from “pigs [that] are raised outside or in deeply bedded pens, are never given antibiotics and are fed a vegetarian diet.”

Chipotle, according to their website, is working to eventually source all beef, chicken, and dairy products from more “humane” farms too; pastured instead of feed lots, no hormones or steroids given, etc. I’m not jaded enough to think these places aren’t still cruel, but the point is that at least they’re trying and doing something different. So for Ells to come in and invest in a company like Soul Daddy’s restaurant (the winner of the contest) who made no claims whatsoever about the food source, well, that’s some logic being butchered.

And this sort of thing is commonplace. The “whitewashing” of the dairy industry is huge, and every chef or foodie who relentlessly uses milk, eggs, and cheese in their recipes succumbs to the pressure of the dollar to make use of these foods in their recipes. Even organic milks and cheese are laced with cruelty. I propose the dairy industry as the target for a  bold foodie to take aim at first, because, well, why not? The recent article from World Peace Diet author Will Tuttle explains in graphic detail the innumerable cruelty behind the milk mustache:

As soon as she gives birth, the cow’s baby will be quickly stolen from her, and she will be milked two to three times per day by the milking machines. No longer something done by her, milking is something inflicted upon her. The machines often cause cuts and injuries and can lead to mastitis, infection of the udder, which is rampant in modern dairies. Sometimes the milking machines give electrical shocks as well, causing considerable discomfort and fear. The cow may also be “drenched,” a procedure routinely performed on some cows after giving birth to reduce metabolic diseases in early lactation. Many gallons of nutrient-dense solution are forced into her through a seven-foot tube shoved down her throat. She may drown if the liquid is pumped too fast or if the tube is stuck into her windpipe.

Tuttle goes on to describe the four possible outcomes of a baby calf, in addition to the re-selling into slavery listed above. The calf may be raised as beef, if male, and castrated immediately after birth, then sent to eat, eat, and eat some more until fat enough to slaughter well before its actual lifespan. The other two options include slaughter immediately after birth for the rennet in their stomachs (used widely in cheese-making) or to be sold into the veal market where they have a lifetime of confinement and anemia to look forward to. No option is good, and, as Tuttle says:

The whole dairy business is founded upon stealing: forcibly stealing calves from their mothers and mother’s milk from calves. We have become desensitized to just how cruel this actually is, and how it underlies, perhaps in large measure, our culture’s basic repression, confinement, and exploitation of the female and the feminine principle.

When will this end? How do we get consumers to wake up to this nightmare that 9 million dairy cows are being tortured, raped, and endure child-theft every year? If, as McWilliams asks, we can get the food elite to start discussing this issue, then perhaps it will change the minds of dairy consumers. As always, a vegan diet remains a great way to abstain from supporting this senseless industry. I pose to you, the readers: what steps can we take to inform our friends and family of these practices?


  • Joe Dunman

    I appreciate McWilliams’ piece since I agree that killing animals for food is ethically unsound. But I think his argument is not a strong one for various reasons, and they’re worth noting in the interest that more convincing arguments will be made in the future. The two main weaknesses of his argument are 1) using the similarities between
    animals and humans to demand that humans not act like animals, and 2) using science as the sole basis for ethics.

    First of all, the basic premise of his article is that science has revealed that humans are animals, no different than those we routinely exploit for their meat, their skin and their by-products (like milk). That is quite obviously true. He then suggests that our science should force our ethical philosophies to change. In the past, we believed we were different than animals (due to our brains and our emotions), and therefore superior. Science reveals that we are in fact not that different, because all animals lie on a continuum of cognitive thought and emotional feeling. Therefore we should no longer adhere to the arguments of Aristotle and the Bible to justify carnivorous diets.

    That’s where his argument breaks down, for me. He writes that “examples of animal intelligence, consciousness, and thoughtfulness abound.” This is undoubtedly true, as both scientific literature and our own personal interactions with dogs, cats, cows, and many other animals will attest. But, the vast majority of animals are also carnivorous. There are of course notable exceptions (gorillas being the “closest” to humans among them), but most animals eat the meat of other animals to survive. So, arguing that BECAUSE humans are animals and animals are human-like in their cognitive thoughts and emotional feelings, humans should not eat animals would also be to argue that animals should stop eating animals as well. After all, if they’re so human-like, why shouldn’t they also adopt ethical positions that dictate vegan diets?

    He then criticizes past philosophical justifications for meat-eating as “instinct.” He writes, “Humans would be the ones following instinct—the deep-down instinct that says we’re inherently superior,” his argument being that instinct is wrong and something that should not be followed. This directly contradicts his very important point about humans being animals and therefore NOT superior to non-humans. If it’s OK for non-human animals to follow instinct (what more could we expect of them?), why is it not OK for humans to follow the instinct McWilliams’ attributes to them?

    I’d argue that ethics don’t need science as a justification. It is absolutely true that my body can derive nutritional sustenance from the dead body of an animal. It might not be the best quality nutrition, and it might have harmful long-term side effects, but I can digest meat and use it to fuel my existence. Science proves that. But that doesn’t make it RIGHT, and that’s where ethics must part from science. Using science as the sole justification for ethics can lead to atrocities like eugenics. Sometimes morality must rise above basic facts to further abstract human concepts like justice, empathy and fairness.

    McWilliams’ piece, overall, is a very weak argument in favor of a meat-free diet. His appeal to our similarities with other animals actually undercuts the uniquely human trait of ethical philosophy.

    • Sam

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    • Sam

      I think he is saying the instinct that makes us feel superior to non-human animals is wrong, and as beings who have ” the cognitive gifts to think abstractly about relationships among species” we can choose to question this instead of continuing to go down that path.

      Animals don’t have those abilities, so we can’t implore them ethically to not eat each other. We can, however, implore ourselves to abstain from animal products, or at least to question the most inhumane practices of animal agriculture, such as factory farms and CAFOs.

      I’ll agree after re-reading the article that it’s a bit convoluted, but I also agree that most food writers take for granted the premise that eating generic meat and dairy is “okay,” and I disagree with that assumption.