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One woman's quest to enjoy her dinner without guilt

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I confess: I sometimes feel guilty when I eat. Should I have paid the extra money for the organic avocados? Found hamburger meat that I'm sure was once a happy and grass-fed cow? Or not eaten the hamburger at all?

Under the pressure to equate values with actions, even what's on the dinner plate can be an accusing presence.

Still, the more I try to sort out just what my values are - as they relate to food, at least - the more elusive and contradictory they often become. Is it all about animal rights? How about the environment, the exploitation of workers, or supporting small local farmers? I care about being a polite guest, and the chance to savor delicious food has to count for something.

Call it a selfish mission - a quest to restore the pleasure of good food by getting rid of that gnawing sense that (according to various pamphlets and websites) my dinner might not be too far removed from clubbing baby seals or hastening the apocalypse via deadly pesticides - but I told my editor I'd delve into that labyrinthine world of ethical eating.

Of course, it's important to recognize right off that eating ethically means different things to different people.

Unless you live on a tropical island where wild fruits and vegetables are copious year-round and you can harvest them yourself, virtually any food is going to involve some degree of injustice or harm, to people, animals, or the environment.

"You just have to decide what matters most to you," says Michael Pollan, author of "The Botany of Desire" and a journalism professor at the University of California in Berkeley. "The idea that a vegetarian diet is automatically environmentally more sound just isn't true. And what if you live on the East Coast, and all the organic produce is shipped from California - how do you compare buying that to buying locally, and supporting a farm which may be using pesticides but is helping to preserve the rural landscape closer to home? A lot of people, when they run into contradictions, just throw up their hands and say, 'I'll eat what I want.' "

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