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In praise of a meatless Easter and Passover — and any other day, too

A young boy sprinkling fresh herbs on a vegetable dish. (Getty Images)
A young boy sprinkling fresh herbs on a vegetable dish. (Getty Images)

Baked cakes of zucchini, peas and chickpeas with non-dairy feta and yogurt sauce. Sunchoke and leek soup. With an assist from these items, which I’ve never sampled, my vegan Easter dinner will mingle tried-and-true staples (homemade charoset, a Jewish dessert I love) with adventure. Veganism makes me cheerfully fringe compared with meat-and-potato Easter feasters, not to mention those who observe Passover and Ramadan this sacred season.

Still, I’ll be toasting a victory for animals, legal if not culinary: Juries are acquitting people who liberate tortured creatures from factory farms. Therein glimmers, faintly, hope for those over which Genesis conferred dominion to fallen humanity.

Three weeks before Easter, two California defendants beat theft charges involving a pair of rescued chickens. “Baywatch” may have been 1990s schlock, but cast member Alexandra Paul and her accomplice bared bring-it-on bravado to prosecutors and broiler behemoth Foster Farms. They copped to the bird-napping, rejected plea deals and risked jail to get their day in the courts of law and public opinion.

Of course they prevailed in La-La Land, you’re thinking? Know that in Utah, where Donald Trump beat Joe Biden by 20 points, a jury last fall sprang two rustlers who took a piglet pair from Smithfield Foods, the country’s biggest pork producer. “If it can happen in southern Utah,” one of the acquitted rejoiced, “it can happen anywhere,” especially after the FBI and the state’s attorney general piled on to pursue and prosecute the defendants.

Direct Action Everywhere, the activist group sponsoring the rescues, has been pushing this tactic for a decade. But damning, surreptitious videos — here and here — exposed nightmarish conditions at Foster and Smithfield. Factory living sickened Foster’s chickens, with one dying post-rescue and found to have an infection that can kill humans. The Smithfield culprits (that’s tongue-in-cheek, given the acquittals) found the piglets grossly underweight, with one scarred and lame and the other’s face crimson from its mother’s torn, bloodied nipple. That the pigs and chickens were near death and would have been discarded postmortem, making them valueless to the companies, anchored the defenses.

Arguing that the animals were unfit as food or commodities for people’s pleasure may reek of human self-centeredness. Why isn’t tormenting sentient beings — pigs are as smart as your dog — sufficient to call game over for inhumane farming? Certainly, a different world would terminate husbandry’s exemption from state animal cruelty laws, or else enact federal protections. A different world would slash the lopsided corporate welfare, on taxpayers’ dime, favoring livestock operations over producers of plant-based and other proteins.

But in a different world, pigs could fly. Given the laws of political, economic and cultural gravity binding this world, rescuers’ acquittals suggest that smaller, step-by-step efforts may be essential in bending the moral arc toward justice.

Individuals’ meat-eating may be down, but overall consumption levels keep carnivorism a bull market, so to speak.

Fourteen states ban “extreme confinement of farm animals,” according to the Humane Society of the United States. (We await a Supreme Court decision on California’s outlawing in-state sales of pork produced by gestation crates — body-hugging enclosures for pregnant pigs that prevent them from turning around or stretching their legs.) More than 60 food companies have vowed to eliminate such crates, while 200-plus have pledged to buy only cage-free eggs.

Fourteen states do not a majority make, to be sure. Corporations don’t always honor their promises; Smithfield forswore gestation crates, yet the piglet rescuers found them in use. And abolishing extreme confinement only gets us so far. Factory farms still guillotine the ends of cage-free hens’ beaks, disabling their ability to peck each other when crammed into dimly lit barns that fall short of humane mobility.

But individuals aren’t powerless. Direct Action Everywhere scored two courtroom wins, with two more trials pending. Meanwhile, eating less meat cuts demand, and the average U.S. citizen devours less than in the 1970s. That brings spillover benefits beyond animal welfare, as vegetarianism reduces greenhouse gas emissions moderately, while veganism reduces them a lot. (Methane from dairy cows’ belching adds up atmospherically.)

Yet dining habits must change more. Individuals’ meat-eating may be down, but overall consumption levels keep carnivorism a bull market, so to speak. “Dying Planet or Not, Americans Won’t Stop Eating Beef,” the website Eater lamented. Our per-capita cut in eating meat stems from Americans’ concerns with their health, not animal welfare or environmental impulses, prompting the New York Times to note, “Self-interest, rather than compassion, is still the most potent way to get people to change their behavior.”

Self-interest is the secret sauce that the California and Utah rescuers ladled at trial to escape jail time. Moral: make animal welfare easy for people. Eater suggests going reducetarian, not full vegetarian; if you’ll savor meat this holiday, skip it another time. And for what it’s worth, I lost 17 pounds when I gave up meat 20-odd years ago. Research suggests that wasn’t coincidence. The many overweight and obese Americans might find enough self-interest in slimming down to justify Meatless Mondays.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.



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