No meat: the new mantra
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No meat: the new mantra

Last month, McDonald's devised a plan to wedge itself into the dense flow of self-promotion and micro-conversations that constitute Twitter. The fast-food giant had hoped to introduce some of the real-life farmers and producers who supply McDonald's with potatoes, beef and other products under the organising hashtags of #MeetTheFarmers and #McDStories.

india Updated: Feb 18, 2012 23:17 IST
Tim Carman

Last month, McDonald's devised a plan to wedge itself into the dense flow of self-promotion and micro-conversations that constitute Twitter. The fast-food giant had hoped to introduce some of the real-life farmers and producers who supply McDonald's with potatoes, beef and other products under the organising hashtags of #MeetTheFarmers and #McDStories.

But within the hour, the company had a social-media disaster on its hands. Tweeters quickly hijacked the #McDStories hashtag to offer their own anecdotes, some of it attacking McDonald's long history of selling cheap meat to Americans.

One person, under the Twitter handle @MichelleVegan, wrote, "McDonalds scalds baby chicks alive for nuggets." The Twitter feed for chimed in: "My memories of walking into a McDonald's: the sensory experience of inhaling deeply from a freshly-opened can of dog food." Then, of course, PETA entered the fray with a photo of a coil of pink goop, implying that McNuggets were made from "mechanically separated chicken," an allegation that McDonald's immediately denied.

Regardless of the veracity of those claims, the episode underscored a new truth: Meat eating is not the simple pleasure it was in previous generations, and not just for those frequenting fast-food joints.

Even as millions of Americans continue to gobble down gourmet burgers, dry-aged steaks, chef-driven charcuterie and bacon-wrapped everything, they're regularly forced to consider the potential consequences of their actions. Environmentalists want us to think about the greenhouse gases that meat production creates. Humane advocates want us to consider the suffering of animals. And the medical community would like us to understand the potential fallout of pumping farm animals full of drugs.

It's as if America has become schizophrenic about meat: As the reasons to reduce or eliminate meat consumption increase, so do the sources of particularly tasty morsels of animal flesh.

"We're schizoid, as a culture, on meat eating," notes writer Michael Pollan, who has grappled with this own internal conflicts on the consumption of animal flesh. "We love the taste and what having lots of meat has always signified, but at the same time it's hard to overlook the high cost of meat-eating: to the environment, to the workers, to the animals and to our own health." It's not surprising that we've reached this point at which meat eating has become almost as polarising as religion.

Groups such as PETA, Compassion Over Killing and Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have been promoting vegetarian or vegan diets for years, if not decades. An entire generation of eaters, many of them Twitter-savvy, has grown up with the idea that not eating meat is better for them and the world they live in.

What's more, some of those groups target kids almost from the moment they start to make decisions about their diets. People such as Neal Barnard, a physician and president of the PCRM, make no apologies for it.

PETA, in particular, has actively targeted young eaters with its website, which launched in 2002 and has more than 500,000 e-news subscribers. The site has little interest in promoting the health-care savings or potential long-term health benefits of a vegetarian diet. Instead, it adopts a pop-culture approach to make meat-free eating seem cool and "cruelty-free" to animals — or, at the very least, contrarian to the adult world, which in itself might appeal to the more rebellious.

The idea, says Dan Mathews, senior vice president of campaigns for PETA, is not to take an elevated intellectual approach in trying to appeal to youth, but to play up factors important to young eaters. Cookbook authors, activists and even the federal government have embraced an idea that might have seemed radical a generation or two ago: We don't need to eat as much meat as we used to. Pollan, in his In Defense of Food (Penguin, 2008), famously wrote that we should "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." The following year, author Mark Bittman espoused the same idea in Food Matters (Simon & Schuster, 2009) by noting that we should "eat less meat and junk food, eat more vegetables and whole grains."

More than two years later, the US Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Health and Human Services issued the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommended that we "reduce the intake of calories from solid fats." According to a poll conducted last year by Harris Interactive for the Vegetarian Resource Group, about 5% of Americans identified themselves as vegetarian, and another 33% are "eating vegetarian meals a significant amount of the time."

Perhaps more telling are numbers culled by the America Meat Institute from Agriculture Department data, which show that consumption of red meat is down across the board. Americans, for example, ate 56.9 pounds of beef per capita in 2010, compared with 62.4 pounds in 2005. Our pork consumption per person also dropped, from 46.5 pounds in 2005 to 44.8 in 2010.

The American Meat Institute, a trade association that represents red meat and turkey processors, launched a website about a year ago called Meat MythCrushers with the idea that it would counter many of the arguments against meat eating. Janet M Riley, senior vice president of public affairs for the AMI, acknowledges that lower consumption rates and increased attacks on meat eating led the organisation to create the site. But she also says the statistics showing declining meat-eating are deceptive: Between higher meat prices and the poor economy, Americans have naturally started to eat less meat.

It would seem clear, whether it's McDonald's on Twitter or slaughterhouses in Iowa, that meat producers, retailers and eaters have assumed a defensive position. Will some of those defences crumble under more pressure to decrease meat consumption?

One day, more than three years ago, antitrust lawyer Amber McDonald of Washington "made the connection that industrialised agriculture is run a lot like a puppy mill." She gradually weaned herself from meat and dairy products. McDonald used to judge people who ate fish in a steakhouse as not aggressive enough for employment in the legal profession.

Four years ago, McDonald might have participated in the eight-day barbecue orgy known as Meat Week. But this year, for the third consecutive year, she was organising her own counterproposal: Meat-Free Week, which ended Monday. She's the founder of the event. Is she also a harbinger of things to come in America?

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First Published: Feb 18, 2012 23:14 IST