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One woman's quest to enjoy her dinner without guilt

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It's a response I've had myself. But this time, I figured I'd look closer - at the often-confusing world of "cage-free," "free-range," "organic," and "grass-fed" labels, and the spectrum of options that seems to get broader every year. Before coming to any conclusions about my own food values, I talked with a few others who've already sorted through theirs.

Mr. Pollan, for instance, has stopped eating factory-farmed meat, though he admits he doesn't interrogate every waiter and will eat whatever he's served as a guest. He also tries to "buy local."

For Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute, questions around seafood are central. The biologist loves to eat fish, but only what he catches himself. For people who can't go directly to the source, he tries to educate them about which seafood - and catching methods - are better and worse for the oceans. On his company's website (www.blueoceaninstitute.org/seafood), they're all graded.

Chilean seabass, Atlantic salmon, and shrimp? Bad. Farmed mussels, Alaska salmon, and mahi-mahi caught on a pole? OK.

"We evaluate how the population is doing, the effects of the fishing gear on the habitat, what other kinds of things are caught at the same time," Mr. Safina explains. "There are a lot of things changing the oceans. All of them are accidental - the effects of climate change, pollutants, plastic [debris] - except fishing. It's an intentional effort to go and kill what lives in the ocean."

Is your fork a weapon?

Tom Regan, an animal rights ethicist and the author of "Empty Cages," has a simpler criterion for eating. "You begin by asking whether your fork is a weapon of violence," he says. "It is when it contributes to the unnecessary suffering and death of other life that feels." Mr. Regan, like many animal-rights activists, is a vegan; He doesn't eat meat, dairy, or eggs. Getting there, he says, was a gradual process, but one he felt clearer about as he went on.

But even he admits there's a spectrum, and he has no trouble enumerating the worst offenders: hog farms that keep pigs in tiny cement breeding cages, where they are unable to turn around; the crates in which calves are kept, devoid of sunlight or fresh air; the dark, 12-inch by 20-inch battery cages with six or seven egg-laying hens.

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