Friday, July 05, 2013

Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger?

By Mike Dorf

In keeping with my somewhat light summer schedule, today's post is simply an advertisement for Sherry's book, Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger: And Other Questions People Ask Vegans, which is now available everywhere, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and from the publisher, Lantern Books.  Find more info, including testimonials, at


  1. I think all of us appreciate what this Forum is trying to do with its presentations on Veganism and the improvements in both personal lives and social well being that it brings. And with the Supreme Court on hiatus, the Congress soon to go that way, the economy in better but not satisfactory recovery I would like to ask Mr. Dorf and Ms. Colb to address an issue with respect to eating, Veganism and the planet.

    Specifically the issue is Mark Bittman, the highly influential, highly entertaining and highly informative food writer for the New York Times. Mr. Bittman advocates partial Veganism, not because he thinks eating meat and dairy products is okay, but because he recognizes that most people, myself included, are for a number of reasons not going to go the full Veganism route but that we can and do and will make major improvements in our diet and eating. Mark’s philosophy embodied in both his writings and his personal life are illustrated by his newest book, VB6 or Veganism Before Six P.M. His position is that if one adopts partial Veganism, that is, eats Vegan until the dinner meal at which time one can eat non Vegan foods, there will be a big improvement in both personal health and planetary health.

    My question is the response of serious Vegans such as yourselves to people such as Mr. Bittman. Is this a strong positive movement, or is it a betrayal of Vegan ideals because it excuses behavior which Vegans do not approve of? Is it wrong to have a concept of ‘partial Veganism’? Is it okay, as Mr. Bittman says to cheat in a small way (Mr. Bittman has that response when asked about why he has cream in his morning coffee)? Is Mr. Bittman simply an enabler of consumption of meat and meat by products as many serious Vegans have suggested?

    Thanks, hope you have time to respond.

    Sidney R. Finkel (writing as David Ricardo on the DPE)

  2. Great question. Speaking only for myself,I think bittman has had a generally very positive influence and I regard part time veganism as a big step forward for people who would otherwise be eating the standard American diet. My main reservation is that I think for many people it will be harder to be part time vegans than to be full time vegans because many non vegan foods (and especially dairy products) have addictive qualities. It took me about a month to fully "detox" from cheese. Now I find being fully vegan incredibly easy.

  3. @ Michael

    Thanks, that is what I would have expected. Those who criticize and condemn Mr. Bittman epitomize the concept that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”.

  4. “the perfect is the enemy of the good”

    A different issue there a few years ago on this blog regarded the efforts of Temple Grandin (who has written her support of the interests of animals) to improve the lot of animals on the road to slaughter.

    I thought at the time that this was a positive development, but the contributors took a different stance.

  5. Joe brings up an important point. I (and Sherry and most vegans I know) agree that the perfect shouldn't be the enemy of the good, but it should be the enemy of the bad or indifferent. Mark Bittman is encouraging people to reduce their animal product consumption, which is good for the spared animals, for people's health and the environment, even though, from our perspective, it's certainly not perfect. By contrast, Temple Grandin--though undoubtedly well meaning--is probably encouraging the consumption of animal products by giving people the false impression that the animal products they consume were the result of humanely treated animals. Even if her slaughterhouse innovations have made the final minutes of life marginally less horrific for some animals, that impact, in my view, is outweighed by the misleading of people who would otherwise be receptive to a message that they should move towards eliminating the use of animal products in their diet.

  6. Joe posted a follow-up which seems to have disappeared. In the event that he intentionally deleted it, I don't want to copy and paste, but I will post my reply. The gist of Joe's comment was the suggestion that failure to support welfarist measures that aim at ameliorating the condition of animals in the current system is tantamount to support for the current system. (Joe can repost his comment if he wants, or he can send me an email and I'll do so on his behalf, as I have it archived.) Anyway, here's my reply:

    To be clear, I am not a Trotskyite who believes "the worse the better." TDPE asked what I thought of Mark Bittman's efforts and I said that I regard them as generally very positive, even though they fall short of what I personally advocate. You then suggested that this seemed inconsistent with my view of Temple Grandin. I replied by giving one reason why I think that her efforts may actually be counterproductive. I hope I'm mistaken in that view because there are a great many people involved in the animal welfare movement supporting measures of the sort that Grandin supports. For the sake of animals whose lives will be made even a little bit less miserable, I hope that the direct impact and the consciousness-raising effects of animal welfarism outweigh its tendency to make people complacent. But even if I'm mistaken, I choose not to devote my own energy to welfarist efforts to make modest reforms to the animal exploitation industry. That is not because I SUPPORT the existing system. It's because I think that my efforts are better spent persuading others to stop participating in that industry (or, for those who are not ready to stop completely, to reduce their support, along the lines proposed by Bittman).

  7. Mr. Dorf raised the issue about cheese, which I think is very important in all of this.

    Down the road from where I live is a family that raises goats and sheep and has a small artisan cheese producing operation. They treat their animals kindly and allow them to freely graze. They are good and kind and decent people, doing what mankind has been doing for thousands of years. They purchase additional milk from suppliers they insist also treat their animals the same way they treat theirs. Their product is free of additives, healthy and delicious (and expensive).

    I understand the secondary effects of what they do, that they may well sell off kids and lambs that go to “processing”. But not to purchase and consume their products dooms their enterprise and investment and damages a wonderful family.

    Thus the dilemma posed by Vegans is not always easy or straightforward.

    And in responding to his previous post maybe it can be summed up this way. The term “humane slaughter” is the epitome of an oxymoron.

    Also, thanks for the link to the Vegetarian conference. The menus looked very good and my only complaint was that apparently there was no links to the recipes.

  8. TDPE: I'm very glad you find the menu appealing. It has been good in reality too. If you like, I can recommend some cookbooks!

    Two thoughts re small dairy farms:
    1) I would disagree with the characterization of the fate of the kids as "incidental". mammals only make milk when they have babies, so to get milk, there is a constant over supply of baby animals slaughtered.
    2) transitioning from any industry will displace workers.

    addresses these and many other issues in much greater detail in the book

  9. Sorry that was so filled with tips. I'm writing on my phone.

  10. I appreciate the offer to recommend cookbooks but I am going to do an Internet search on the dishes that seem appealing. Any more books in the house and the foundation will start sinking and the wife will start divorce proceedings.

    Enjoy the rest of the meetings if you are still there, and also thanks for responding.

  11. Hi, I've been reading through these comments. I love your blog for the high level of discussion here.

    Whether vegans praise or criticize Bittman, because of his reach via the Times he is going to do more to reduce animal suffering than pretty much any vegan is going to do except for maybe someone like Ellen or Bill Clinton.

    It reminds me of the criticism lobbed at Jonathan Safran Foer when he published his "Eating Animals" book and vegans criticized him for describing himself as vegetarian not vegan.

    That said, one of the things that bugs me about Vegan Before 6 is that the use of the word "vegan" strikes me partly as a gimmick and a convenient shorthand to help sell books.

    Being vegan is of course about more than just food. Does Mr. Bittman avoid wearing a leather belt or using a leather wallet before 6pm? I doubt it.

  12. Insufferable Vegan raises a legitimate point. He/She points to a part of Veganism that those of us who are not Vegans sometimes pay little or no attention to, mainly secondard effects of eating dairy and egg products.

    Mr. Bittman's focus is food, and he apparently moved towards a partial Vegan diet for nutrition reasons and for reasons relating to humane treatment of animals. But unlike Vegans he did not focus on the secondary effects of consuming dairy and egg products; direct production of them may not be from inhumane treatment of animals, but that there is a secondary impact that can result in inhumane treatment.

    I believe Mr. Bittman would have been better served to have adopted a 'Vegetarian Before Six' diet, as this would have avoided criticism such as the previous post. After reading Mr. Bittman's many writings on the subject I posted on his blog site the question of whether or not he adopted the Vegan approach as opposed to the Vegetarian approach for nutritional reasons, and if so, what were they? He did not respond.

    Insufferable Vegan is right in that Mr. Bittman has made a signficant contribution towards better health and better treatment of animals, and I for one am glad to see that people like IV and Mr. Dorf recognize that.

  13. TDPE, There is a whole school of people who advocate a vegan diet but who do not like the term "vegan" because it carries additional ethical and lifestyle considerations. Also, vegan food can be quite unhealthy and they are advocating a whole foods, no oil diet.

    These are people who I will lump together as the Forks Over Knives crowd and they prefer terms like plant-based or plant-strong. While Bittman will mention animal treatment and the Forks Over Knives crowd usually does not, I would still say that Bittman is closer to them than to vegans.

    As to the question of whether Bittman considered making it "Vegetarian Before Six" I think there is a lot of information out there about the harm to human health from dairy and egg consumption, especially from people in that Forks Over Knives crowd like T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn, who was President Clinton's guru.

    You also mention that direct production of dairy and eggs may not result in inhumane animal treatment, but actually I have read a lot on this subject and most sources seem to agree that dairy cows and egg-laying hens are the worst treated of all factory farm animals, and that beef cattle are actually treated the best.

    There is a small segment of the dairy and egg market that offer supposedly humane products but these are usually cited as less than one percent of the market. If you are interested in this area I would strongly suggest reading Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals" book. It's a good read but beware -- it is what made me go vegan.

  14. Look, many of those who are Vegans and advocate for others to change their diet to a Vegan one operate on the premise that if an individual becomes knowledgeable and understanding of the horrific suffering that most animals are subjected to, they will become Vegans. This is a reasonable premise, it is a rational premise and it is a logical premise. But it is a wrong premise.

    Millions, maybe tens of millions of Americans are fully aware of the conditions and treatment of animals that are used to produced food and clothing and other related products. And these same individuals are not Vegan and not likely to become Vegan. Knowledge of the problem might be a necessary condition in order to solve it, but it is not a sufficient one.

    The reason for this is that the issue is much more complex than those who would simplify it into a binary decision, Vegan or not Vegan, and human behavior is much more complex than many people understand. Humans are motivated by a variety of different forces and the result is unpredictable and in many cases, contradictory actions. This is what makes something like the study and analysis of law and economics so difficult, frustrating and enjoyable. And that complexity and self contradictory motivations are reasons why individuals who are fully aware of the conditions of food based animals will continue to consume animal products.

    Exhibit A of why the premise is not true are people like Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan. They know as much about food and its production as anyone. But Mr. Bittman is not only not Vegan, he isn’t even VB6. The first thing he does in the morning is have a cup of coffee with cream. He not only admits this, he trumpets it. Why? Because his position is that it is okay to cheat, it is okay to be partly successful in moving towards a better diet and towards a more plant oriented diet. Perfection will not be realized, and if individuals and the nation move 60% of the way towards a goal of a 100% perfect diet, this is a great progress for both the individual, the humane treatment of animals and the planet.

    The real key towards producing a national diet that is more nutritious and more humane is partly education but mostly good food. This is where Mr. Bittman and sites like Food52 have made their major contribution. Only when Vegetarian and Vegan foods are tasty, simple and inexpensive will the large majority of the population eat them. That may not be right, but that is reality.

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