(Pardon me while I rant a moment. If you’re not into ranting, check back here tomorrow for some discussion on vegan probiotics!)
Can you tell me what is wrong with this next sentence? “We eat a lot of grass-fed beef.”
I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. It’s the phrase “grass-fed beef.” Beef, as I understand it, doesn’t eat anything. Because beef is dead. It’s the chopped up remains of a dead animal. That animal was once a cow, and it’s been transformed into beef. I object to the transformation of language that we use to distinguish living, breathing, eating animals from the dead ones that become beef.
I hate the language of meat. I find it deeply offensive that we have so many words to describe the body parts that we remove from the animals we have killed. I hate the words beef, pork, and poultry. I think it speaks volumes about our bloody hands that we use different language for food than we do for the living animals that become our food. Of course this isn’t the case with all food: we talk about eating chicken or turkey or duck or even alligator. But to that counterexample, I love what Colleen Patrick-Goudreau says: “Do you eat chickens?” Notice the plural. Because if you eat meat, you aren’t just eating chicken. You are eating chickens, many of them over the course of your lifetime. And think about vegetables for a moment. I wouldn’t ask someone, “Do you eat tomato?” I’d ask, “Do you eat tomatoes?” Though it is interesting to note that when we talk about not liking something, we’re more likely to use the singular: “I don’t like eggplant.”
Back to the issue of grass-fed animals. I do think that people who seek out grass-fed cows are to be applauded for choosing the healthier, more environmentally responsible choice. I don’t want to eat grass-fed cows, but as an environmental vegetarian, I feel like we have common ground in our concern for the health and welfare of the animals, the humans who raise them, and the nutritional profile of the food. I believe that there will always be people who want to eat meat, and I’d rather they have a more humane choice than factory-farmed animals.
Still, the phrase “grass-fed beef” just doesn’t work for me. Neither does “pasture-fed meat,” or any variation that doesn’t reflect the idea that these were living animals that were eating grass. The language gets even trickier when we’re talking about milk from grass-fed cows. “Grass-fed butter”? That doesn’t even make sense! To get around this problem, I take the time to say “butter made from the milk of grass-fed cows.” Because I want to remind people that all these animal products, whether it’s meat, milk, butter, or eggs, come from living animals. As soon as our language starts to slip away from that reality, we are distancing ourselves from the realities of our food supply. What the cow eats, I eat. And if the cows are sick, as so many of them are on factory farms and feedlots, I will become sick. Maybe not today or tomorrow from E. coli, but perhaps twenty years from now with heart disease or cancer.
I feel really passionately about this issue. When it comes to food, we all have to choose a side because we all have to eat. Whether or not you eat
meat dead animals, you have chosen a side in the political battle that is food. I want to come down on the side of health, compassion, and sustainability, and all three of those things require that we see things clearly. We have to see ourselves as connected to the means by which our food is grown, and to me, that means seeing animals as living animals, not just the “grass-fed beef” that might show up on your dinner plate.