Red Meat

Nov. 14, 2010

So this week I found myself caught in up an extremely complicated food ethics argument with a bunch of people who are obviously a lot smarter than I am. One of them is Walter Willett. Willett works in the School of Public Health at Harvard University. He is well known for his work on what a healthy diet would look like, and on how far the American diet deviates from this ideal. One of his most persistent themes is that Americans eat way too much red meat. This is not to say that he is uncompromising about this. Over a dinner of some pretty fantastic bouillabaisse Willett told someone around the table who had confessed a deep love for beefsteak “Eat it once a week.”

Willett showed a chart of the ten items that make up the American diet, ranked by calories. I’m recalling this from memory, so don’t take it as gospel, but the list looked something like this:

  1. Sugar-sweetened carbonated soft drinks
  2. Hamburgers and similar forms of ground or processed red meat
  3. Fried snack foods (chips, nachos)
  4. Sweetened “sports” drinks
  5. Fried potatoes
  6. Sweetened baked goods including donuts, cookies and snack cakes
  7. I’ve forgotten what goes here
  8. Beer
  9. Candy bars
  10. And some other kind of junk food I can’t recall here

Willett’s comment was that the healthiest thing on this list is beer. (And by the way, Willett did his undergraduate work at MSU.)

Another really-smart person at this meeting was Patrick Brown. Brown is a molecular biologist from Stanford who has done award winning work on cancer. In this context, he was arguing that for both health and environmental reasons, we should be working as hard as possible to eliminate all forms of animal production for food use. He says we should consider extreme measures such as taxes on animal protein and regulatory bans to accomplish this. In conversation, he kept saying that “pleasure seeking” is the only reason to eat animal protein, and that pleasure seeking or preserving the lifestyle of cowboys is not a good enough reason to override the compelling health and environmental reasons to ban food animal production.

I have no gripe with Willett, but I got into a tiff with Brown. Here’s my take: I imagine neighborhoods very much like mine in Lansing, where the only places to get food within several miles are liquor stores and the quickie marts (we call them “party stores” here in Michigan), on the one hand, and the fast food joints selling Willett’s hamburgers (plus fried chicken) on the other. This is not a problem for the Thompson family, I note. We have a car and Diane is making a run to the East Lansing Food Coop (ELFCO) (about 7 miles from my house) as I write this. But lots of people within a few blocks of me are not so well-off. Our neighborhood and several others that border it make up what is somewhat offensively called a “food desert.”

So I’m imagining what happens in my neighborhood if we just tax or ban animal protein. What I see is not only the disappearance of the hamburgers and fried chicken, but also the eggs and milk in the quickie stores. I don’t see things like bulgur, falafel and soy milk coming in to replace them either. And I don’t think working mothers in my neighborhood either know how to use such things, or have the time and inclination to learn. So I see people already too likely to snack on chips and soft drinks deprived of the relatively better choices that that they currently have. I see people shifting even more radically to a diet dominated by the list I made above. So I’m saying that if we do nothing but eliminate animal protein, I could not possibly support this proposal.

Brown is dismissive of my protest, telling me that it is totally orthogonal to the real issue.

I’ll resist the obvious joke here, because I actually do know what the word “orthogonal” means. Brown is saying that he supports making better food available to poor people, but he thinks this is totally irrelevant to the question of whether we should eliminate production and consumption of animal products on environmental and public health grounds.

I’m with Robert Frost. I think the road you don’t take makes all the difference.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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