Tuesday, June 27, 2006

More Talk About the Well-Being of Our Food

The discussion about Whole Foods’ decision to stop selling live lobsters because of concern for the lobsters’ welfare reached the Times Week in Review section Sunday. Frank Bruni, the Times restaurant reviewer, looked at the issue and, significantly, I thought, drew a distinction between concern for the welfare of luxury animals like lobsters and the geese that produce foie gras, and the much vaster number of animals that provide our daily chicken breasts and hamburgers:

Are the calls for fundamental changes in the mass production of food simply elitist, the privilege of people wealthy enough to pay more at the checkout counter? Does fretting about ducks give people a pass on chickens? Does considering the lobster allow seafood lovers to disregard the tuna?

"Foie gras and lobster are not at the heart of the real tough issues of animal welfare, which are feed lots and pigs and cattle and chickens and how billions of animals are treated," said Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," which traces the messy back stories of our meals. "On the other hand, the fact that we're having this conversation at all — that we're talking about ethics in relation to what we're eating every day — strikes me as a very healthy thing," he said last week. …

"People look at the lobster and try to imagine what its experience would be like, but they don't look at a package of chicken breasts and imagine what the experience would be like," said Jay Weinstein, a Manhattan caterer whose book "The Ethical Gourmet" was published this month. "It's because they're closer to the final step of the killing."

While the lives of "free-range" chickens are hardly ideal, the lives of other chickens are even worse, Mr. Weinstein said. The birds' feet are lacerated by the wire they are forced to stand on, while their beaks are clipped so they can't peck at each other in the tight quarters they occupy. He questioned whether any of that was less offensive than the force feeding of ducks.

Bruni discusses shellfish and fish, and quotes chef David Pasternak (who was profiled memorably last year in The New Yorker) as saying that he can tell from the quality of a fish’s flesh how it was treated while and after it was caught. But there are real distinctions among animals that probably should affect our attitudes about how they are treated and eaten, Bruni and the people he quotes argue:

Ample scientific evidence suggests that various creatures have varying levels of consciousness. "There really is a difference between the sentience of an oyster and the sentience of a lobster and the sentience of a cat," Mr. Pollan said. "These lines really can be drawn."

Some weeks ago I heard Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, being interviewed on WNYC by Leonard Lopate. Schlosser pointed out that the mass alienation from our food and its sources is a relatively new thing, measured only in decades. Until a century ago or less, people were much more likely than we are to know where their food came from. Schlosser’s point was that the more you know about your food and its source, the more likely you are to be concerned with how it was raised and treated.

We may roll our eyes and snicker at the worry over lobsters and geese and chickens, but if we do, in the grand scheme of things, we’re the ones who are out of touch.


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