The Great Meat Debate

February 2, 2011

When I started Espresso and Cream, my motivation wasn’t to discuss food politics or controversial topics. It was to be a feel-good, creative space for me to share recipes and little snippets of life. And for the most part, it will remain just that.  I planned on talking about wedding hair today, but after watching Oprah yesterday, I changed my course of action. For those of you who didn’t see the episode, Oprah and many of her staffers went vegan for a week, and the queen of talk even had the Harpo cafe prepare vegan options.

As a vegetarian, I was excited to watch the show and thought it might be able to bring national attention to more healthful eating. But after watching the show, I wasn’t excited or uplifted; I was conflicted. You see, I was born and raised in rural Iowa, ‘farm country’ for those of you unfamiliar with the area. One of my uncles is a farmer, one a veterinarian and the third a teacher and advisor to the Future Farmers of America (FFA) for the students at his school. 

And then there’s Joey’s family. Very much like my side, his relatives are deeply involved in agriculture. His dad is a cattle producer. And for those of you who watched Oprah yesterday, yes, he raises feed lot cattle. And one of his uncles is involved in managing hog facilities. Oh, and the love of my life, my fiancée Joey, works for Cargill, not in the meat-producing side of the business, but he can most certainly be considered part of the industry.

While I have no desire to shun my vegetarian ways any time soon (there are a multitude of reasons I support a plant-based lifestyle), the vilification of those who produce meat for our country in traditional ways has to stop. I think that many times, in the food and blog world, people fail to realize that the cattle and hog producers in our country are caring, honest, hard-working people who have a great deal of respect for the land they work and the animals they feed. On days like today, when the weather is brutally cold and I hardly want to step outside and pump my gas, farmers like Joey’s dad are outside working, feeding their livestock, scooping snow and providing bedding for the animals when weather requires it.

Traditionally, feed lot cows are not pregnant while they are at the farm, and if they are, it is on accident. But once every now and again, a calf will be born, as was the case last summer. I was allowed to name little ‘Lou’ and got to spend considerable amounts of time feeding her bottles, letting her suck my fingers, and chase me around the yard like a dog. I was in love. And despite the fact that she was small, premature, and relatively useless from an income standpoint, Joey’s parents played along with me, keeping her fed and cared for when I wasn’t around.

I hated the idea that some day this sweet little calf would grow up and be butchered, but like Michael Pollan said on the show yesterday, it gives you respect for the process and makes you thankful for the meat you eat. (side note: Lou died as a calf a month after this picture was taken) Maybe, in my ideal world, all cattle would be produced in open pastures, without the use of antibiotics and all my chicken and eggs would be free-range and organic. But if I am not willing to pay the extra couple of dollars for free-range eggs at the grocery store, then I don’t really have any right to complain.

Whether or not someone chooses to be vegan isn’t something I have any issue with. Like Oprah said, it is an individual choice. Heck, I’m a committed vegetarian writing a piece about meat. What I am saying is that if there was a greater demand for free-range, organic meat and if farmers, on a large scale, could make a living that way, they would. But it starts with us. True change comes when we as consumers take responsibility for what we don’t like about the meat industry and demand that change with our wallets.

If you stuck with me through the post, for giving it thought and consideration, and for sharing your thoughts about it, thank you. Outspoken moments like this will, I assure you, be few and far between. But it was something that was placed on my heart and meant to be said with nothing but love. And if you have thoughts about what I’ve said, I would love for you to post them in the comments section below or e-mail me with any questions you have.

Whew, tomorrow I’m talking about cake. Something we can all agree on.


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  • Reply Lauren at KeepItSweet February 2, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    I am so glad that you wrote this!!! I really believe that the emphasis should be on eating local, organic, free-range vs. no meat at all. Thank yous for sharing your perspective since you have an understanding of where the meat can come from.

  • Reply Emily Malone February 2, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Great post Madison. I totally agree with you that the fault is not with the industry workers, but rather the consumers that continue to search for the cheapest meat they can find – no matter the source. I felt sick after I watched Oprah last night – mostly because I felt she did a lot more harm than help to the vegetarian/vegan cause. She made vegans look like a bunch of crazies, and showed families and her staff talking about how disgusting the food was. Seriously – what was the point of that? What was she trying to accomplish? I can't decide if I want to write about it or not. I think I would end up making a lot of people angry! Your post was really well written, and clearly well-thought out. Great job! 🙂

  • Reply Southern Cernock February 2, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    I totally agree with you. I think that big companies make it very hard on farmers who want to break away from what is considered the norm. Americans need to make a choice, because it is our choice that drives demand.

  • Reply vicky @ eat live spin February 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Great Post! I am a die hard vegetarian… after yesterdays show I decided that I am not going vegan BUT I am going to only buy milk, butter, cheese, etc from the farmer's market… and I will not eat animal products that are produced in mass.

    During the show yesterday I cried when they showed the cows being killed… I also cried when I watched Food Inc. and The Cove… I guess I love animals a lot.

    I have a feeling that Americans really don't care where their food comes from… it is a sad state.

  • Reply Bridget February 2, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    Thanks for the post. I am a new rancher, my herd 7 Black Angus steers that I am raising on solely grass/pasture in Northern New Mexico. I love my babies and will respect and nurture them until the end of their lives.

  • Reply Julie February 2, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    AMEN! Well said!

  • Reply Anonymous February 2, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    My problem doesn't lie with the farmers and growers themselves. I have aunts and uncles who raise feed lot cattle. I think my problem lies mostly with the slaughterhouses and the horrors that are shown.

  • Reply Chocolate Covered Kristen February 2, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    I 100% agree! I am a vegetarian; however, am the former employee of a federal livestock program. I have my own personal reasons for becoming a vegetarian, but I have a great deal of respect for the industry. I get upset when they are vilified and a few “bad apples” are used to characterize the whole industry. Thank you for posting.

  • Reply helennaturally February 2, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    Great post! While I am not vegetarian/vegan I do often have those types of meals. I have never been a real big “meat eater” so to speak but I do like and eat meat. I do believe in what you are expressing in your post. I love to get meat locally when available. Now that is not to say that I do not buy meat at big markets because I do, but true change does start with the consumers. I grew up in dairy country to I totally relate to your family.

  • Reply LindsayH February 2, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    My only issue with your post is calling feedlot and factory farming “traditional” methods. There is nothing traditional about it! Conventional is a better word. Semantics, I know. I agree with you that more people have to speak with their dollars – because that's really what it all boils down to. Unfortunately, there is a large segment of the population in the US alone that doesn't have the “luxury” of buying humanely, locally, pastorally, etc. raised food. Should good, healthy, humane, organic food be a privilege for only the wealthy? I personally don't think so.

  • Reply Madison Mayberry February 2, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    I love the conversation going on here and the thoughtful, well-written responses.

    Lindsay – You make a really valid point about food costs and quality products. So many of us are fortunate enough to be able to make those choices about whether or not we pay more for our meat and eggs, but there are millions of people who struggle to even buy the cheapest basics.

    Helen – Glad to know you are in the same boat with me – knowing that your family has an agricultural background, too. 🙂

    Bridget – Thanks for the first-hand account from the front lines of ranching. I know so many farmers and ranchers care deeply about the animals they work with.

  • Reply Bonnie Deahl February 2, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    Madison, thank you for writing this post. I have been in an education mode for a while now reading some of Michael Pollan's books about the food in our country. It makes you think and ask yourself, where does it come from and how does it get to me. I consider myself educated and so can choose for myself what I eat and where to get it. Not so possible for so many others. Education of the masses is a must. It is a monumental task for sure. There truly is a momentum that has started with the growth of year round farmers markets even (nearly 900 now).

    I like to think that this country is embarking on a renaissance of sorts in discriminating how and what we eat. I am not a vegetarian (yet, but getting so close) but have been inspired by my step daughter who is. I love, love to cook vegetarian recipes and they are my favorites of all of them…not stuff that is made to emulate meat, but rather glorifies what the vegetable or grain really is. Got our first winter CSA this past fall and we are loving it. We have spent so much less at the grocery stores except for staples.
    Wow, Sorry for the ramble, but this is a great topic to chat about. Thanks!

  • Reply Micah February 3, 2011 at 1:00 am

    Great post, Madison. I completely agree. As a fellow Iowa girl who has been surrounded by agriculture, I, too am tired of the “the vilification of those who produce meat for our country in traditional ways.” Farmers are just trying to make a living, and in the process, they're feeding much of America (those who choose to eat their products anyway).

  • Reply Tanja @ Postmodern Hostess February 3, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    Bravo for taking this on, and please make no apologies! You have a unique, interesting perspective, and the world needs to hear it.

    I really applaud you for being able to take a nuanced view of meat production and eating. I was vegetarian for 13 years, vegan for four of them, and I'm pretty sure I was an insufferable brat about it, ready to lecture anyone at the first chance. Of course, now I eat nearly all meat, and though I try my best to eat the organic, humanely raised, free-range varieties, I'm by no means perfect. In many ways I feel like a hypocrite for selling my old veg self out, but the choice feels right for me now.

    Anyway…. long way of saying, if more people in the world could hold their own views but have some a compassionate understanding of the other side, the world would be a MUCH better place!


  • Reply Neena February 7, 2011 at 1:07 am

    What a great post! I, too, watched the Oprah episode last week and had very mixed feelings. Overall, I think the message of “leaning into” change was very powerful and I really appreciate Michael Pollan's statement to support all aspects of the food chain. I was fascinated that it was PETA's overall efforts that led to more humane bovine slaughtering procedures, and although I don't include meat in my diet at this time, I think it's an especially moving message that everyone (all opinions, all values, all food choices) can work to improve each step in food production. Thank you for addressing this!

  • Reply DessertForTwo March 30, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    I enjoyed this post so much!

    I work in agriculture and I am so tired of it being vilified too (especially by people who don't know what it takes to produce food, fuel & fiber to feed the world).

    Thanks so much for this honest & refreshing post.

  • Reply Anonymous August 1, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    It would seem that the argument here is that because this is how some people make their livelihood–even if the ways they must do so are sometimes torturous, dangerous, and bad for the health of our planet and nation–we must not criticize the work they do. I appreciate that these honest, hard working people are simply responding to the demand of a dysfunctional system, but to say “Hey now… these are nice people just trying to make a living like you and me.” risks erring on the side of compliance. Yes, treat people with the respect and dignity that are bestowed upon them as human beings, but to me this does not mean I can't label their destructive practices as such, and point out the responsibility they have in implementing change where it is desperately needed. I liken it to asking that we stop vilifying women who strip (a worthy goal, no doubt). They are simply feeding the demand of a disgusting, dysfunctional system, but this doesn't mean they deserve to be denigrated. However, it also doesn't mean that we can't call out the work they do and the system in which they do it as repulsive and troubling.

    I completely agree that we have no right to complain about factory farming practices if we aren't willing to pay more for grass-fed, free range meats and organic dairy (although, the gov't corn subsidies are really not helping the whole cost situation). This is a really good place to start. But I think it is a misstep to argue that because someone works hard to provide for their families, we need to cut them some slack if what they're working hard at is damaging and inhumane.

    I can respectfully tell someone that their hard work is in conflict with the values at my very core.

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