Essay Sent to the New York TimesPosted: March 27, 2012
I am a butcher. I work in a local market, breaking down beef, lamb, pork and goat every week. For me, meat is money. With that being said, let the ethical epicurean exploration commence!
It is easy to slip into meta-ethics here. What is life? Is a carrot’s life the same as a cow? Why or why not? I won’t do that, but it is worth thinking about.
If we approach “ethics” in terms of what is best for humanity, eating meat is absolutely ethical. The meat industry, from the Swift Family of Companies or Cargill to small, local butchers (like the one I work for), employ thousands of people in this country. It is ethical to employ people. It is ethical to continue operations of third or fourth generation farms which have been producing quality, wholesome meat. It is not ethical to plant nutrient depleting soy and corn in the same plots of land which fed herds of cattle and thereby numerous families.
The by-products of the meat industry are integral to a huge number of industries; health and beauty, pet foods, and medicine at the forefront. One direct line that many of us see and use daily: pet food. Our pets don’t eat grass (except when ill), we don’t want to feed them corn (I’m looking at you, housewives on the Blue Buffalo commercials), and we are concerned with “all-natural” ways of feeding them. It would not be ethical to only raise livestock for the consumption of our pets. Look at the bottle of hand lotion sitting in your medicine cabinet. Chances are it contains gelatin. It would not be ethical to raise livestock only to procure their gelatin for hand creams. I have personally sold pig hearts for students of medicine to study, pig eyes for optometry students, pig skin for medical students to practice suturing, and whole pig heads for dental students to study dentation. It is ethical to consume the disposable products of the medical industry.
It would be wholly unethical to release our domesticated livestock into the wild. These animals, after generations of breeding programs, would not be able to survive a month out of their enclosures. Should they manage to survive, they would become pests (think feral hogs in the southern US). We would then find it necessary to kill them so that they don’t destroy the crops which we painstakingly planted in their former habitat.
Consuming meat is not the ethical issue here. The production of meat, however, is the issue. Though I mention Swift and Cargill, they are certainly not exemplary. They serve their purpose, as they are, but if all of those people worked in smaller, more controlled environments, there would be far fewer issues with meat in this country. With smaller operations, prices are higher, and product is better controlled. Higher prices mean less consumption. Less consumption leads to better overall health. I do not champion perpetual Peter Luger-esque portions of porterhouse. To that end, I, a butcher, eat meat twice a week at most.
Ethics are subjective. Respect is key. Food is love.