By MARK BITTMAN
Published: March 9, 2012
IT is pretty well established that animals are capable of suffering; we’ve come a long way since Descartes famously compared them to nonfeeling machines put on earth to serve man. (Rousseau later countered this, saying that animals shared “some measure” of human nature and should partake of “natural right.”) No matter where you stand on this spectrum, you probably agree that it’s a noble goal to reduce the level of the suffering of animals raised for meat in industrial conditions.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Scott Sinklier/AgStock Images — Corbis
There are four ways to move toward fixing this. One, we can improve the animals’ living conditions; two (this is distasteful but would shock no one), we might see producers reduce or eveneliminate animals’ consciousness, say, by removing the cerebral cortex, in effect converting them to a kind of vegetable (see Margaret Atwood’s horrifying description in her prescient “Oryx and Crake”); three, we can consume fewer industrially raised animals, concentrating on those raised more humanely.
Or four, we can reduce consumption, period. That is perhaps difficult when people eat an average of a half-pound of meat daily. But as better fake plant-based “meat” products are created, that option becomes more palatable. My personal approval of fake meat, for what it’s worth, has been long in coming. I like traditional meat substitutes, liketofu, bean burgers, vegetable cutlets and so on, but have been mostly repelled by unconvincing nuggets and hot dogs, which lack bite, chew, juiciness and flavor. I’m also annoyed by the cost: why pay more for fake meat than real meat, especially since the production process is faster, easier and involves no butchering? And, I have felt, if you want to eat less meat, why not just eat more of other real things?
But in October I visited a place in The Hague called The Vegetarian Butcher, where the “butcher” said to me, “We slaughter soy” — ha-ha. The plant-based products were actually pretty good — the chicken would have fooled me if I hadn’t known what it was — and I began to consider that it might be better to eat fake meat that harms no animals and causes less environmental damage than meat raised industrially.
(When I say fake meat, I don’t mean the much publicized laboratory simulacrum from Maastricht University that combines pig cells and horse fetal serum, a mixture that’s then “fed” sugar, fat, amino acids and so on, to produce translucent strips. We’ll tackle that when and if it becomes marketable.)
Really: Would I rather eat cruelly raised, polluting, unhealthful chicken, or a plant product that’s nutritionally similar or superior, good enough to fool me and requires no antibiotics, cutting off of heads or other nasty things? Isn’t it preferable, at least some of the time, to eat plant products mixed with water that have been put through a thingamajiggy that spews out meatlike stuff, instead of eating those same plant products put into a chicken that does its biomechanical thing for the six weeks of its miserable existence, only to have its throat cut in the service of yielding barely distinguishable meat?
Why, in other words, use the poor chicken as a machine to produce meat when you can use a machine to produce “meat” that seems like chicken?
I love good chicken, but most of the chicken we eat doesn’t qualify, and the question becomes more compelling as meat imitators gain sophistication. The vegetarian meat I ate in The Hague isn’t widely distributed, but Quorn, a mushroom-based product, can be pretty appealing in some instances, Gardein has made some advances in soy-based products and at least one new product is a better-than-adequate substitute for chicken in things like wraps, salads and sauces. I know this because Ethan Brown, an owner ofSavage River Farms, came to my house and fooled me badly in a blind tasting. (A pan-European “LikeMeat” project appears to be making progress on a similar product, and others are in the works.)
On its own, Brown’s “chicken” — produced to mimic boneless, skinless breast — looks like a decent imitation, and the way it shreds is amazing. It doesn’t taste much like chicken, but since most white meat chicken doesn’t taste like much anyway, that’s hardly a problem; both are about texture, chew and the ingredients you put on them or combine with them. When you take Brown’s product, cut it up and combine it with, say, chopped tomato and lettuce and mayonnaise with some seasoning in it, and wrap it in a burrito, you won’t know the difference between that and chicken. I didn’t, at least, and this is the kind of thing I do for a living. Brown does not see his product as a trendy meat replacement for vegans but one with more widespread use. (His production is at an early stage, but Whole Foods is planning to start using his products in prepared food soon. Retail sales of his “chicken,” which does not yet have a trademarked name, are expected to begin this summer.)
Perhaps it will replace some of the chicken in a McNugget, or become a meat substitute at Chick-fil-A or Chipotle. (Department of Agriculture regulations already permit up to 30 percent soy products in school lunch meats.)
We’re ready for this. According to a Harris poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Research Group, a third of Americans now eat meatless meals “a significant amount of the time,” and that doesn’t include vegetarians, who make up at least 3 percent of the population. These numbers would grow faster, advocates of meatlike plant foods believe, if fake meat fooled us more often.
“When you ‘veganize’ food convincingly,” says Kathy Freston, author of “Veganist: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World,” “people can enjoy a healthier, better version of their traditional favorites. And if you know that food won’t hurt your body or the environment and it didn’t cause any suffering to an animal, why wouldn’t you choose it?”
Indeed. This country goes through a lot of chickens: We raise and kill nearly eight billion a year — about 40 percent of our meat consumption, compared with roughly 30 percent beef and 25 percent pork. Chickens are grown so quickly that The Veterinary Record has said that most have bone disease, and many live in chronic pain. (The University of Arkansas reports that if humans grew as fast as chickens, we’d weigh 349 pounds by our second birthday.)
I don’t believe chickens have souls, but it’s obvious they have real lives, consciousness and feeling, and they’re capable of suffering, so any reduction in the number killed each year would be good.
If that’s too touchy-feely for you, how’s this? Producers have difficulty efficiently dealing with the manure, wastewater and post-slaughter residue that result from raising animals industrially; chickens, for example, produce about as much waste as their intake of feed.
Then there’s the antibiotic issue: roughly 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in this country are given to animals, which has increased the number of antibiotic-resistant diseases as well as the presence of arsenic in the soil and our food. Work in meat and poultry processing plants is notoriously dangerous. In 2005, Human Rights Watch called it “the most dangerous factory job in America,” and nearly every test of supermarket chicken finds high percentages — sometimes as high as two out of three samples — of staph, salmonella, campylobacter, listeria or the disease-causing antibiotic-resistant bacteria called MRSA. Bill Marler, a leading food safety lawyer, told me he assumes that “almost all chicken and turkey produced in the U.S. is tainted with a bacteria that can kill you.”
Until now, cost remained an objection. Some fake meat sells for upward of $12 a pound, which is nearly four times the national average for boneless breasts. Brown says that his price will be below that of chicken.
All of this got me down to Cumberland, Md., where Brown’s pilot facility is housed, to make some “chicken” myself. (You can find a video of my trip at nytimes.com/bittman.) The process mimics that of pasta, breakfast cereal, Cheetos and, for that matter, plastic. I poured some powder into a hopper — in this instance, soy and pea protein, amaranth, carrot fiber and a few other ingredients (not many, mostly unobjectionable and of course no antibiotics) — and an extruder mixed it with water, applying various temperatures and pressures to achieve the desired consistency.
The thick strands that emerged on the other end didn’t precisely resemble chicken strips, and when I tasted them unadulterated I found it bland, unexciting and not very chicken-like. But not offensive, either, and as an ingredient we’d all be hard-pressed to distinguish it from most of the animal-based models.
Even the Department of Agriculture is now on the side of plant-based diets. Its “Dietary Guidelines” say “vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes.”
And almost all unbiased people agree that less meat is better than more: for our health, for the environment and certainly for the animals treated as widgets.