You may not have heard of Josh Ozersky, but plenty of born-again veggies have.
And they hate him.
That’s because the author, food writer and unabashed meat lover, who wrote the 2003 best-seller, “Meat Me In Manhattan: A Carnivore's Guide to New York,” writes frequently about the joys—culinary and otherwise—of red meat. He pens a regular column on Time.com on the subject and also covers the world of carnivorous consumption on Rachel Ray’s website.
That makes him an obvious target for meat haters determined to provoke lifelong guilt, if not a dietary about-face, in anyone who promotes the inclusion of red meat in the diet. From what I’ve read of his columns, Ozersky’s up to the task of fending off even the most virulent screeds directed against him. However, in a current Time.com article titled, “Carnist Challenge: Making Meat-Eating Cruelty-Free,” Ozersky admits to pangs of conscience. Not for eating meat, but for not pursuing the notion of “cruelty-free” meat eating with enough gusto.
In discussing the term “carnist”—basically a label used by vegetarians to smear the integrity of meat-eaters—Ozersky noted, “Because I write and talk so often about meat in such an unreflectively enthusiastic way, vegetarians frequently charge me with being accessory to the torment of animals. And unlike many of my fellow carnivores, I accept the justice of the charge. And I’m trying to act on it, while staying hip deep in steaks and chops.”
So far, so good.
But in his quest to consume “cruelty-free” meat (a phrase unfortunately lifted directly from PETA’s propaganda), he goes on to list the ways he’s assuaging his conscience.
“I won’t willingly eat meat that I know comes from mistreated animals,” he wrote. “And I think that’s a commitment too blithely dismissed by vegetarian critics. If you're going to eat meat, you should try to eat meat from small farms, or from larger producers who have demonstrated to the world that they are committed to cruelty-free production.”
What does that mean in real-world terms? To Ozersky, it means pork producers who don’t use farrowing crates, “those horrible cages sows are kept in as piglet-making machines.”
I suspect he might be confusing gestation stalls with farrowing crates, but even if he’s not, he’s misguided. Anybody who’s raised even a single litter of pigs understands that sows’ maternal instincts direct them to seek a private, secure place in which to give birth. It’s what humans do as well, by the way.
With pastured animals, that means a little hoop house or at least a sort of burrow dug into a hillside. Maybe one can make the argument that such accommodations are superior to a warm, dry, well-designed stall, such as the Ottawa stall, but the reason sows birth such large litters (which is why they’re so valuable as a food animal) is because mortality under “natural” conditions is shockingly high.
But of course, we know that vegetarian activists dismiss mortality in favor of campaigns that focus on cruelty. Just ask them if their rubric applies to people, and you’ll get a far different answer.
Identifying the wrong problem
Ozersky then addresses what he considers “the other” key issue: Sourcing hormone- and antibiotic-free beef.
At his “meat festivals,” he makes the point that his presenting sponsor, Whole Foods, uses the event to promote their “five-tier animal-welfare grading system.”
“I only wish every grocery in the country would follow suit,” he wrote. “You shouldn’t have to feel that if there isn’t a progressive supermarket or a greenmarket near you then you are party to something unholy.”
That’s all well and good, and in fact, Whole Foods’ program—despite legitimate concerns about how strictly the company verifies its producers—isn’t necessarily a bad idea (see www.wholefoodsmarket.com/meat/welfare.php), stressing access to the outdoors, enriched environments and group housing systems.
But Whole Foods is silent on the issue of hormones and antibiotics, and in fact, some of the producers who sell to them use such inputs in much the same manner as conventional producers.
Why? Because they’re a legitimate production aid, that’s why. Using them enhances growth and animal health, and their judicious use neither fosters cruelty nor presents any human health hazards.
To conflate the use of inputs with the use of veal crates and gestation stalls is simplistic, wrong-headed and misleading to the consumers who trust Ozersky and respect his opinions on the topic of meat-eating.
One can argue all day long about local producers and smaller farmers and pasture-raised animals. At the end of the day, it’s an economic choice, in much the same manner as preferring hand-tailored suits to something off the rack, that’s simply off the table for the majority of working families.
Personally, I think alternative agriculture for both crops and animals is a wonderful complement to conventional production and an important means of enhancing consumer choice in the marketplace that, as a society, we would do well to preserve.
But much as I’d love to have a closet full of expensive suits, it ain’t gonna happen.
And for most of America, pasture-raised, organically grown, “cruelty-free” meats aren’t gonna end up on their collective barbecue grills, either.
It’s all about the price tag.
In the end, Ozersky answers his own question about cruelty-free meat.
“I’m not under the illusion that piecemeal efforts [like supporting Whole Foods] are especially effective, or that they require much sacrifice on my part. But as with the amount of meat at a meal, something is better than nothing.”
Presuming there’s a huge problem in the first place, that is.
› To review Ozersky’s take on cruelty-free meat eating, log onto www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2077750,00.html
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator