Is the Nathan's Disqualification of Joey Chestnut Good for the Cows?

The United States tends to celebrate its national holidays through rituals that harm non-human animals. Thanksgiving is colloquially called "turkey day" in recognition of the slaughter and consumption of millions of the birds so admired by Benjamin Franklin. Memorial Day honors those who lost their lives defending our nation by sacrificing millions of nonhumans for barbecuing. The Fourth of July is especially lurid. In addition to fireworks displays that terrify (and sometimes result in the death of) family pets and any nearby wildlife, for half a century, we have also marked the anniversary of our independence from Great Britain with the spectacle of the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. Gourmands compete to see who can devour the most tubes of 100% ground-up parts of slaughtered cows in a short time (currently ten minutes).

Joey Chestnut is the reigning and 16-time Nathan's Hot Dog Eating champion. He is also the world-record holder (an astounding 76 hot dogs and buns in ten minutes) and ranked world number 1 by Major League Eating. As a big fish in a tiny pond myself when it comes to competitive eating--I'm the most recent and four-time undefeated winner of the Cornell Law School Faculty Pie-Eating contest--I can only marvel at Chestnut's gastronomic prowess.

Well, not only marvel. Also lament. Whereas I insist on competing by eating only vegan pies, Chestnut's feats involve the consumption of--and no doubt spark demand for--products made from animals. Thus it was something of a coup for us vegans when Impossible Foods enlisted Chestnut to endorse its plant-based hot dogs.

Yet while we vegans are pleased, Nathan's and Major League Eating are not amused. They have barred Chestnut from the upcoming contest in retaliation for his disloyalty. That decision has sparked considerable consternation among Chestnut's fans. After all, he did not have a contract with Nathan's or Major League Eating that barred him endorsing other hot dogs. Even so, absent antitrust concerns (which do not appear to be salient), there's nothing illegal about Nathan's and Major League Eating forbidding participation in their contest by spokespeople for competitors.

Pundits have enjoyed this story no end. There were the inevitable lazy anti-vegan jokes. For example, Jordan Klepper on The Daily Show asserted that "the record for eating vegan hot dogs [is t]wo and a half," because, uhm . . . what? Vegans are wan aesthetes who barely eat? Vegan food is by nature disgusting, so no one could choke down more than two and a half vegan hot dogs? Disgusting compared to animal-based hot dogs? Meanwhile, in a surprising and refreshing take, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert ran a satirical promotional video for meat-based hot dogs highlighting what goes into them.

All good (or not-so-good) fun, but these reactions tend to overlook a key point: the fact that Impossible's hot dogs are plant-based apparently had nothing to do with the decision to bar Chestnut from this year's contest. Had Chestnut signed a deal to endorse another meat-based hot dog--Oscar Mayer or Hebrew National, say--Nathan's and Major League Eating would have come down on him equally hard.

Meanwhile, Chestnut himself has not become a vegan. Why, then, did he endorse Impossible hot dogs? Presumably because he was paid to do so. And if Chestnut has integrity, presumably also because he thinks they taste good. Other reasons why people eat plant-based alternatives to meat--their production doesn't kill animals, they have a substantially lighter environmental impact, and while they're not exactly health food, they're less unhealthy than meat itself--would not seem to apply in Chestnut's case. Given the amount of meat Chestnut continues to consume, it's difficult to see how the occasional consumption of Impossible hot dogs would contribute to any of the usual goals of plant-based eating.

From the other direction, it's easy to see why the Chestnut deal is valuable to Impossible Foods. Competitive eaters are celebrities with fans who emulate their behavior. Chestnut has 300,000 followers on YouTube and over a million on TikTok. Just as basketball fans want to wear Nikes because LeBron, KD, and Giannis wear Nikes, so, it would seem, some number of Chestnut fans who see Chestnut eating Impossible hot dogs will try Impossible hot dogs. Those who enjoy the experience will then continue to purchase them.

Is all of this good for the plant-based foods movement? In some sense, obviously yes. Some of the demand Chestnut creates for Impossible hot dogs could just be in addition to whatever number of animal-based hot dogs people were already going to eat. But for the most part, people buying Impossible hot dogs are substituting them for the meat-based hot dogs they would otherwise have purchased. That means they'll consume less meat, reducing demand for meat and thus sparing some number of animals while somewhat mitigating the environmental harms caused by animal agriculture.

How do we know that broadening the appeal of Impossible hot dogs will reduce consumption of meat? Partly it's just common sense. In addition, research (like this 2023 report based on a literature review and survey data from the UK) shows that most people are interested in reducing their meat consumption, with the increasing prevalence of meat-reducing "flexitarian" diets attributable in substantial measure to the availability of tasty and affordable plant-baed substitutes.

Meanwhile, some smaller number of erstwhile meat-eaters will discover that they can derive what they enjoy about meat-based hot dogs in equal measure from plant-based hot dogs and begin to transition to an entirely vegetarian or even vegan diet. In an ideal world, that transition would occur fully for everyone and immediately. In our actual world, we take the small victories where we can find them: Less meat consumption is worse than no meat consumption, but it's surely better than more meat consumption.

That said, the marketing of Impossible hot dogs should also serve as a reminder to activists that profit-driven companies are allies of the plant-based movement but not the movement itself. Consider what a spokesperson for Impossible Foods said in response to the disqualification of Chestnut from this year's Nathan's contest: "We love Joey and support him in any contest he chooses. It’s OK to experiment with a new dog. Meat eaters shouldn’t have to be exclusive to just one wiener."

That's good marketing. By supporting Chestnut's continued right to compete in contests in which he eats meat-based hot dogs, Impossible avoids alienating Chestnut's fans, i.e., its potential new customers. And that, in turn, is good for our movement.

But the spokesperson hardly sounds like an activist in treating the choice among meat-based and plant-based wieners as a matter of taste and variety. Likewise, no vegan activist I know would casually accept that many people are simply "meat eaters"--as though people who eat animal products are obligate carnivores like lions rather than human moral agents who make a thrice-daily choice to contribute to demand for products that come from animal suffering and environmental harm. 

Yes, vegan activists should be pleased that Joey Chestnut is endorsing a plant-based hot dog. We should also be pleased that the extreme reaction of Nathan's and Major League Eating will probably result in a publicity boon for Impossible Foods. But to build the future we want, we also need to deploy strategies that go beyond encouraging flexitarians to substitute meat-based alternatives on Mondays, while consuming bacon-cheeseburgers from pigs and cows during the rest of the week.