Do vegans and PETA hurt their cause when they attack sustainable butchers and restaurants?

And should the Publican serve fake meat?

January 18, 2014

I love animals but eat meat. And this paradox has haunted me for years.

It led me to spend a summer forcing myself to watch the slaughter of every kind of animal flesh I consumed. It found me shivering in a hunting blind for days as I tried to face killing my supper. And it was an impetus behind several cold hours spent breaking down half a hog and then, in the following months, meticulously curing, rendering and cooking every ounce to ensure no wastage.

Each time I wrote about these efforts (and others aimed at showing my kids the source of dinner) in the Chicago Tribune,  I got piles of letters from supportive readers—but also plenty of hate mail. Some of it came from meat eaters who believed it was wrong to see (and let kids see) the dying animals. But the meanest letters—the ones that made me double lock my doors at night—came from vegans.

Some suggested I should die like the animals whose slaughter I witnessed. Others accused me of being an industry shill for writing about only best, most humane farms in the nation.

This shocked me because most of the vegans I know are super nice people whose lifestyle seems driven by profound feelings of compassion. In fact, a few vegan readers commended me on the stories as incremental steps toward greater consciousness about what it means to end a life for food.

But it was the vicious letters from angry vegans that stayed with me and made me wonder if their all-or-nothing stance would end up alienating potential allies—ones who may not be vegan, but who also wanted to work for more ethical treatment of animals.

I was reminded of these letters this week as I waded through the vitriolic comments on The Publican’s Facebook page. There, for this who don't know, a staffer posted a thoughtful response to a recent anti-meat billboard by the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that went up across the street.

Related: PETA urges Publican to serve fake meat

The activist group says that it was not targeting Publican specifically, but rather all the “trend setters” who frequented restaurants in the meatpacking district. Given the meat-centric nature of Publican’s menu and its nearby butcher shop, PQM, many doubted the coincidence.

Either way, it sparked an online debate about whether you can care about animals and still eat them. Others asked whether there’s any such thing as sustainable/humane meat. And it left open the question of whether there’s any point in sourcing sustainable meat—as Publican and PQM do—if you are just going to be lumped in with factory farmers by PETA.

Maybe not.

While Publican asserted in its Facebook post that “we are...also people who are for the ethical treatment of animals with one gigantic difference; We do choose to eat animal flesh,” one PETA representative didn’t seem to agree.

“Anyone who is going to defend the practice of killing animals just so they can satisfy a fleeting taste is not for the ethical treatment of animals,” PETA’s special projects manager Alicia Woempner told me Thursday.

But are there no differences, then, between factory farmers and those who raise their animals outdoors, breed them naturally and have whole families living in fresh air without the need for non-therapeutic antibiotics?

Woempner said that “when the ultimate goal is to make a a profit off the violent death of an animal, that is not different.”

But if these folks are trying to improve the life of the animals—who are going to be raised for meat whether PETA likes it or not—isn’t that a baby step in the right direction and a more a humane thing to do?

“It’s like kicking a dog six times a day instead of kicking him seven times a day and saying it’s not cruel,” she said. “They’re treated in marginally less cruel ways but they are still mutilated without pain killers, kept without fresh air, taken way from their offspring and strung up from one leg and have their throat slit.”

By coincidence, last Saturday and Sunday I was visiting Kim Snyder of Faith’s Farm, who produces, what I think is, the finest pork Publican and PQM sell.

Despite the bitter cold, Snyder was out in the ice and mud with friendly hogs—mostly black Heritage Berkshires who run around her property. The Chicagoan-turned-farmer could save herself a lot of work by raising industrial hogs, locking them in a building, giving them non-therapeutic antibiotics, feeding them GMO grain, artificially inseminating them, separating mothers from babies and making them produce two litters a year.  But she doesn’t.

She even invites a group of Chicago food people out to her farm each year to see her methods and witness a slaughter of one of her animals. Yes, many of the animals on her farm will end up on someone’s plate. But she works hard to ensure they live a relatively happy and long life they can before that happens.

Until I make the plunge into vegetarianism, I will buy Snyder’s meat—most of which costs $10 a pound by the piece—because I think she is different, caring and worth supporting.  Her pork also happens to be so flavorful and expensive that you have to use it sparingly.

I would imagine that those who eat/shop at Publican and PQM feel the same way. They can find cheaper meals and meat elsewhere, but they are willing to pay for the kind of care that goes into the conscious raising, sourcing and preparation of better meat.

While some anecdotal accounts indicate a rise in plant based eating across the country, the meat industry is not likely to go away soon. And until it does, I sometimes wonder if PETA’s attack on small players trying to create better conditions for livestock, at a not insignificant cost, represents a misplaced use of resources.

By Friday afternoon, it seemed that the two sides might be coming to some sort of truce.  PETA sent a letter to the Publican, saying that their team “opened the door for a respectful conversation about what we eat, and now PETA is hoping it'll open the door of its restaurant to Chicago's many vegetarians and vegans."  The letter further asked that the restaurant offer a “vegan, faux-meat dish to the menu.

The Publican responded Friday afternoon by saying: "As an organization it is our priority to be inclusive to all. Publican Quality Meats' menu always features a variety of vegetarian and vegan options featuring high quality ingredients and thoughtful execution...One favorite on Publican Quality Meats' current menu is the Squash Tartine with roasted squash, squash and goat cheese puree, kale, sunflower seeds and pomegranate dressing. We look forward to a continued positive relationship."

Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing the Fat podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @monicaeng or email her at meng@wbez.org