The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter

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9781594866876: The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter
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Peter Singer, the groundbreaking ethicist whom The New Yorker calls the most influential philosopher alive teams up again with Jim Mason, his coauthor on the acclaimed Animal Factories, to set their critical sights on the food we buy and eat: where it comes from, how it is produced, and whether it was raised humanely.

The Ethics of What We Eat explores the impact our food choices have on humans, animals, and the environment. Recognizing that not all of us will become vegetarians, Singer and Mason offer ways to make healthful, humane food choices. As they point out: You can be ethical without being fanatical.

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About the Author:

PETER SINGER, is author of Animal Liberation and coauthor of Animal Factories, is one of the highest-profile writers on ethics today, regularly drawing fire for his views on such hot-button issues as abortion, euthanasia, war, and animal rights. Born in Australia, he has taught at Princeton University since 1999 and lives in New York.

JIM MASON is the author of An Unnatural Order and the coauthor of Animal Factories. He is also an attorney and the fifth generation of a Missouri farming family. He lives on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PART I

EATING THE STANDARD AMERICAN DIET

1

JAKE AND LEE

There is no downtown, no bustling public square, no quaint historic district in Mabelvale, Arkansas. The "main drag" is Baseline Road--four lanes of traffic running through a corridor of gas stations, convenience stores, and strip malls in the urban sprawl southwest of Little Rock, to which it was annexed in 1980. Sixty percent of Mabelvale's 5,000 inhabitants are white, 25 percent are African-American, and 10 percent are Latino; they live in homes worth around $75,000 and earn about $30,000 annually.

Among the residents of Mabelvale is the family of Jake Hillard, 36, and Lee Nierstheimer, 26. We chose them for their basic meat-and-potatoes diet-- sometimes called the Standard American Diet, or SAD. Though the term lacks a precise definition, it is the most widely eaten diet in America. The Standard American Diet is high in meat, eggs, and dairy products. Carbohydrates such as bread, sugar, and rice are usually eaten in refined form, which, combined with a low intake of fruit and vegetables, means that the diet is low in fiber. Frequent consumption of fried foods contributes to a high intake of fat, with as much as 35 percent of calories coming from fat, most of it saturated and much of it animal fat. A burger on a bun with a serving of french fries, followed by an ice-cream sundae and washed down with a can of cola, fits squarely in this American tradition. It's a quick and easy way of putting enough food in your stomach to feel satisfied. With America's low prices for meat, eggs and dairy products, it's not expensive either.

We met Lee Nierstheimer at his place of work, a local firm that makes custom-made handling systems and conveyors for major manufacturers. A man of medium height and build, he has a boyish face and a full head of straight brown hair. He tells us that had we come a few months earlier, he would have been at work in the machine shop, welding and bending metal into the sizes and shapes called for in customers' specifications. But he has recently been promoted and is now an engineer, designing and drawing plans for the equipment manufactured by his company. It's the end of the working day and he takes us back to his home, where he lives with his wife, Jake, and their two children, Katie, 2, and Max, 6 months. They are at the end of a dead-end street in a neighborhood of modest homes that date from the 1950s and 1960s. On the corner is a little old house renewed by white vinyl siding, next to a tattered blue mobile home, then a neat, small, brick house, then a couple more clad in vinyl, and so on. At their gate we're greeted by a couple of very friendly dogs: one looks like a mid-sized St. Bernard--large, fluffy, brown-and-white. "That's Baggie," Lee says. The other one, Annie, a Border collie with maybe a bit of Australian shepherd mixed in, is the current neighborhood hero--she roused several people in time to catch a burglar in the act of breaking and entering a house up the street.

The yard, walkway, and stoop are cluttered with bright, primary-colored plastic tricycles, wagons, miniature chairs, balls, and toys. Inside, there's more of the same, with Jake--snugly curled up in an overstuffed chair--breast-feeding baby Max. At her feet, Katie is engrossed in watching Finding Nemo on the VCR. A black-and-white cat dozes among the toys on the sofa. Lee immediately goes over to Katie, kisses her, then Jake, and takes the baby in his arms.

Jake gets up apologizing for "the mess," saying she's tired from being up all night with Max, who has been fussy with teething and allergies lately. She's nearly Lee's height, with a full, pretty face. She wears her auburn hair long and straight, with a thick hank of bangs that curl down to her eyes. They show us around the house, including the kids' room, which they have painted and decorated. Then it's time for dinner. Jake serves Katie her favorite meal: macaroni and cheese, green beans, and a slice of bread and butter. Katie, between giggles, sips from her glass of milk and takes bites of the macaroni and cheese. Lee adjusts Max's high-chair and then spoon-feeds him bites of pureed spinach lasagna and green beans with potatoes. Meanwhile, Jake puts food on plates for herself and her husband. Tonight they're having barbequed chicken breasts, a lettuce and tomato salad, and some of the green beans that Katie is also eating, but seasoned in the Southern way with bits of bacon and onion.

There is a small plate of paprika-sprinkled deviled eggs on the table, which Lee had snitched from a large platter in the refrigerator while Jake was tending to the chicken under the broiler. Jake takes one, and in a tone more teasing than scolding, tells Lee that she made them for tomorrow's family picnic with her parents. Then she takes a bite, which sends Katie into a fit of giggles.

Lee is drinking a Samuel Adams beer and Jake a Diet Coke.

After dinner, Lee clears the table and rinses the dishes while Jake tends to Max.

"Can we have some ice cream now?" Katie burbles, and, seeing her mother's look, quickly adds, "Please?"

"Only if we have some strawberries too," Jake says.

"And chocolate sauce," chimes in Lee from the sink.

"Oh, brother," Jake says, rolling her eyes. "It's chocolate chip."

Lee takes a tub of ice cream from the freezer and puts it on the table. "The berries are in that white bowl on the bottom shelf,' Jake says, and after two beats she adds, "You've got to be kidding about that chocolate sauce, right?"

GROCERY SHOPPING AT WAL-MART

The next day, Jake arranges for child care and takes us on her shopping trip to the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Baseline Road. As we enter the store we find the manager and explain our project. When we tell him that we want to use a video camera to tape Jake's shopping trip, he becomes agitated and tells us that this is against company policy. Permission to do so "would have to come from Bentonville," he says, referring to the national head office, and indicates that it is rarely given. After assuring him that we will be leaving the video recorder outside, we ask about using a small pocket audiotape recorder. He becomes even more agitated and emphasizes the company's policy against recording of any kind in its stores. Defeated, we go back to Jake's car, lock up the equipment, gather pens and a notebook, and get on with the shopping.

We begin at the dairy case, where Jake picks up a half-gallon of milk. "Skim milk for momma. Great Value--that's a Wal-Mart brand. I get Coleman Dairy whole milk for Katie; it's kind of a local brand. They're down in Batesville." Next she picks up a carton of a dozen "Country Creek" eggs. The fine print says: "Moark Productions, Inc., 1100 Blair Avenue, Neosho, MO." There is a logo on it as well--it has the words "Animal Care Certified" in a semi-circle, and there is a big check mark in the middle. Jake moves along the dairy case pulling out products and putting them in the shopping cart: Oscar Mayer bacon, Daisy Sour Cream, Great Value Extra Sharp Cheddar, and Kraft 100 percent parmesan cheese. From the meats, Jake picks out Armour pepperoni, Petit Jean brand peppered bacon, Jimmy Dean sausage, some store brand skinless chicken breasts, an unlabeled package of "beef loin porterhouse steak," Ball Park corn dogs, and Advance Brand "steak fingers." She gets orange juice, too, and some vegetables, including an iceberg lettuce and tomatoes. So it goes, aisle after aisle, until we have enough of the favorite foods to feed this family of four for the next two weeks.

We pick up the kids from Jake's sitter, and by the time we get back to the house, Lee is home from work. As we unpack the groceries and put them away, we talk about the family's food choices at both supermarkets and restaurants. When they want a dinner out as a family, they go to El Chico for Mexican food, Smokey Joe's Barbeque, or Larry's Pizza. When Jake and Lee are by themselves and in a hurry, Lee goes to Sonic and Popeye's; Jake likes McDonald's, Burger King, and Arby's, where she favors the turkey sandwich.

After the kids are put to bed, we drink beer and talk. The main thing on their minds is the time consumed by Lee's job and the needs of two small children. Before she became a mother, Jake had a busy job as a lobbyist and administrator for an association of insurance and financial advisors. Lee used to play guitar in a local rock and roll band. They no longer have time for the boating, skiing, and camping that they once enjoyed. But there's no tone of complaining or nostalgia for more carefree days; now with a toddler and an infant they have new joys and new responsibilities. It's as simple as that.

Eventually we get around to talking about what drives their food choices.

"Price and convenience are way up there, especially now with the kids," Jake says. She goes on to explain how pregnancy made her appetites shift, how she hated eggs, had little appetite for red meat, but craved cookies. Now she's starting to eat more meat again, except for sausage. "I have sort of a disdain for pig meat," she says. Lee reminds her of bacon, which she admits to enjoying. We ask them what they know about the origins of these products and the controversies about some of the modern ways of raising cattle, pigs, and chickens.

Lee knows about the chicken farms. "They're just big, long shacks packed full of chickens. You know that just from driving around the state." Arkansas is the home base of Tyson Foods, the world's largest producer of meat chickens. Neither of them knows much about pig farms or cattle feedlots. "We don't hear much about that around here," Lee says. "Most of the cattle around here are free-range, as far as I know."

For Jake, the controversy over veal calves sticks out in her mind. "That's the first one that came up when I was growing up. Veal was definitely out, without question. I mean, it was so well covered in the media, how the calves could barely move. Eating it just didn't seem worth it for the cost to the animals . . . and the horror." She admits that she, too, is not very aware of any controversies over pig farming methods. "But the chickens concern me, because I'm well aware of that, living here in Arkansas. But there's the rub, you see. We're told by dieticians to choose chicken over red meat, for health reasons."

Jake stops for a moment, obviously thinking about something related. "To be perfectly honest about it, I do think there's a hierarchy of animals. I believe I would favor mammals over birds. I think I probably feel sorrier for a cow than I would for a chicken."

"Honestly, I don't think about it that much," Lee adds. "I guess I'm pretty absorbed in my life and my family most of the time and I don't think very much about the welfare of the meat I'm eating." Lee grew up near Little Rock, and meat was always the center of the family meals. "It was either fried chicken, mashed potatoes, fried okra, or it was sweet-and-sour meatballs or rump roast, pork loins. There was always a side of vegetables, but it was the meat that was the center of any meal." For school lunches there was usually hamburger or pizza.

Jake's formative years were spent in Florida and Washington, D.C. Her mother cooked a lot from scratch, not liking pre-packaged food. There was usually some kind of meat with vegetables and potatoes on the side, but Jake's mother also made spaghetti and a lot of Chinese stir-frys, usually with chicken, beef, or shrimp. Though Jake and Lee have started to eat more vegetables than they used to, Lee doesn't anticipate any significant change in his consumption of meat: "My own philosophy is that we evolved to become omnivores, which was one of our steps in survival and in becoming what we are today. Being opportunists, we could survive the longest winters or the desert or whatever, because we ate meat. We would eat anything. It just seems like a natural order to me."

"Well, I have more qualms about it." Jake says. "There's a feeling in me that says, okay, yeah, we're adapted to eat meat, but if we don't have to, then why do it? If it was a matter of necessity, that would be one thing. Like if we're stuck in a cave and starving to death, I'm going to cut off your leg and chow down, you know?"

"Don't go hiking with her," Lee laughs.

We talk about the demands of marriage and children and how other considerations affect their food choices. Would they choose differently if they had more information about how their food was produced? Probably not-- the alternatives are inconvenient and cost more. "Laziness is part of it, too," Jake says. "There's one store here where you can be assured that everything you buy is organically grown and all the meats are free-range. Everything is politically correct for the ethical meat eater, the careful carnivore. But it's about a twenty-five-minute drive from here . . . in nasty traffic. And all of the meat there is two or three times more expensive than what I get at Wal-Mart, which is only about five minutes away." Then she pauses a moment before saying: "Isn't it a sad thing when our morals become so disposable?"

Later, driving on from Mabelvale, we ponder that line. It's easy to understand why Jake and Lee make the food choices they do. They are, as Lee said, absorbed in their family and, in his case, his work, too. Making different choices would take time and add to their food bills. It's reasonable for a couple in their situation to recoil from the prospect of paying substantially more for their food, especially when buying organically grown vegetables and free-range meats would take more time as well. Is organic food really better for you, or for the environment? It's not easy to be sure. Nothing in the television they watch or the newspapers they read suggests that there is anything unethical about the choices they are making. Doesn't all of America shop at Wal-Mart? How can it be wrong to do as everyone else does?

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