Let me say a word or two in defense of PETA, a group under increasing assault these days. Just to be clear: I am referring to the folks I like to call, People who Eat Tasty Animals and not the more publicity-hungry People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Tasty-animal eating is falling out of favor in many parts of the world these days and, though understandable, I think that's a shame. The precipitous decline is concentrated in Europe, thanks to a series of livestock disasters.
Britain's decade-long bout of mad cow disease has spread to France and perhaps elsewhere in Europe. Also, Britain has been walloped by a foot-and-mouth epidemic, horrifying much of the world with gruesome pictures of thousands of slaughtered sheep and cows. As a result, meat eating is plummeting across the Old World. Beef sales are down 75 percent in Italy and almost 50 percent in France. Meat is disappearing from European menus everywhere.
For example, a fellow named Alain Passard, head chef at the trendy Paris restaurant L'Arpege, has received international attention. Passard told Newsweek that the troubles afflicting livestock foreshadow a new stage of "evolution" requiring humanity to "explore a new domain called 'The Vegetable.'"
Passard told Newsweek that no "real" (translation: "French") chef has succeeded in creating a truly vegetarian cuisine since the 1650s, but he will succeed where others have failed with "the simple onion, the simple carrot, even a turnip."
There's a reason why no one has come up with an all-vegetarian cuisine (outside India, of course) for three and half centuries. Most of us want to eat meat. Indeed, it's only because France has been exceptionally good at cooking the cuter animals - rabbits, ducks, veal - that we've kept France around at all. And now the French want to be completely useless. Alas, Passard believes they have no choice. He says vegetarianism is a matter of "nutritional security," or (ital) sécurité alimentaire. (end ital)
The real powerhouse behind the push for diets composed entirely of side dishes has been the (ital) other (end ital) PETA. Across Europe they've been handing out vegetarian "starter kits" and running huge publicity campaigns dedicated to hammering home that the current troubles are, in their words, "Modern-Day Plagues Sweeping Europe."
How successful they've been is hard to say, since the media has surely helped foment the meat backlash. But vegetarianism is clearly gaining. In Germany, it has doubled since the onset of mad cow disease, to more than 6 million vegetarians. In Britain, the land where the term "beefeater" was coined (because the royal guards were once paid in beef), 5 percent of Her Majesty's subjects say they're vegetarians.
Now, there's nothing wrong with some people choosing to reduce their meat intake. But this is carnophobia. Foot-and-mouth disease poses no threat to humans. You could eat an infected animal raw (though that might result in a different kind of mad cow) and you'd be fine.
This is what's so outrageous about the slaughter in Britain; it's being done for bureaucrats, not for the public health. Since foot-and-mouth infected animals can't be exported, the government is overcompensating to protect the cattle industry by killing hundreds of thousands of animals, many uninfected.
And while mad cow disease is a horrifying and tragic disease, it is extremely rare and is not transmitted in muscle tissue, i.e. steak. Mad chicken disease has yet to be documented.
Let's be honest, the meat industry often has less-than-humane regard for the well-being of cattle. The Washington Post recently reported how some cows are butchered while they're still alive. And lax standards were responsible for the 88 confirmed cases of mad cow disease in the first place. But this is an argument for more humane industry and government standards, not vegetarianism.
PETA and its defenders earnestly believe, in the words of its founder, Ingrid Newkirk, "When it comes to feelings, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. There is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights." This is a profoundly dumb thing to say as a matter of fact and philosophy - humans feel hope, rage, love, sympathy, joy, etc., and rats do not.
Sure, PETA believes factory farming is the equivalent to the Holocaust. Newkirk has said, "6 million Jews died in concentration camps, but 6 billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses." But for the rest of us, if you don't think it's murder to kill one cow, you can't think it's genocide to kill a million.
The fact is that humans were meant to eat meat. If God didn't want us to eat cows, he wouldn't have made them out of steak. Animals don't have rights because they aren't human, while humans have obligations because we are (when chickens give to charity, I will stop eating them). One of our obligations is to treat animals humanely, and that's possible to do without living on tofu.