A Surprising End to the New York Times Ethical Meat Challenge?

This post has been updated (it has more twists than a Hitchcock movie!). See below for details.

The New York Times issued a gigantic challenge, and America responded! Ariel Kaminer, “The Ethicist” decided that it was time to restore fairness and balance in the highly contentious and trans-fat laden world of food choices. Yes, it was time for meat eaters to  recapture their former glory (ethically speaking), which seems to have been stolen by vegetarians and, as she put it, “their hard-core inner circle,” (a.k.a. the vegans!).

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So, what better way to make the case for meat than to get the meat-loving American public to flex their ethical muscles, and hope that a bullet-proof argument would emerge and claim the meaty crown! Ms. Kaminer called upon all the New York Times’ omnivorous readers to make the strongest possible case for eating meat. Apparently, those regular New York Times pieces about plant sufferingplant communications or the emotional lives of brussels sprouts were just not going to cut it any longer. The conscientious carnivore guilt needed something bigger and stronger to latch on to and deliver a convincing death blow to any ethical argument presented by the small, but threatening vegetarian and vegan population in the United States.

But they weren’t going to make it that easy! So the New York Times assembled a “vertable murderer’s row of judges” and contestants were given two weeks and only 600 words in which to make sense of our species’ entire dietary history!

Thousands of readers took them up on the challenge and submitted essays. The New York Times was apparently not expecting such a huge response and enlisted the assistance of Gwynne Taraska, the research director for the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University, to shrink the pile of 3,000 essays to a more manageable 29 semi-finalists. And then it was up to the panel of judges to narrow it down to six finalists.  However, instead of having the judges pick the winning essay, the New York Times decided to throw in a bit of a twist (or perhaps it was planned all along) and opened up the contest to reader votes.

As I pointed out in a previous post, the whole motivation and spirit of this ‘contest’ seemed flawed. Firstly, it was a tad irresponsible of the New York Times to make such a big effort to give people reasons to eat more meat, knowing about the negative health, animal welfare and environmental impacts of animal agriculture. Secondly, while the panel of judges were qualified to rule on the topic, they were by no means a balanced group. Carol J. Adams wrote eloquently about the lack of diversity on the panel and the brilliant James McWilliams pointed out that 5 out of the 6 judges chosen have openly supported the idea of “humane” meat in some way or the other. Seemed like the perfect set up for a compassionate carnivore bromance!

I must admit it, the plot was weak and I had little faith in the cast of characters assembled. Yet, much like a bad movie you can’t stop watching, in the hopes that it will unexpectedly delight you, I couldn’t completely tune out. To my surprise, a huge plot twist emerged that I’m pretty sure very few (if any) anticipated. When the voting opened, one of the six essays, titled “I’m about to Eat Meat for the First Time in 40 Years” caught my attention. Not only did this essay turn the challenge question on its head, but also ended up providing the only logical response. As if that wasn’t surprising enough, the essay ended up winning the contest, getting an overwhelming 38% of the reader votes!

The results of the online voting will be published, along with the winning essay in the May 6 issue of the New York Times Magazine. Once again, I present the crux of the winning most popular argument below:

“In vitro meat is real meat, grown from real cow, chicken, pig and fish cells, all grown in culture without the mess and misery, without pigs frozen to the sides of metal transport trucks in winter and without intensive water use, massive manure lagoons that leach into streams or antibiotics that are sprayed onto and ingested by live animals and which can no longer fight ever-stronger, drug-resistant bacteria. It comes without E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella or other health problems that are unavoidable when meat comes from animals who defecate. It comes without the need for excuses. It is ethical meat. Aside from accidental roadkill or the fish washed up dead on the shore, it is perhaps the only ethical meat.”

Wow, right? A highly publicized call to the entire New York Times’ meat-loving readership for just one amazing essay that could make an ethical case for eating meat, and the essay that emerges as the winner most popular one concludes that in vitro meat is the only ethical meat, aside for accidental roadkill? Yeah, you read that correctly. No “compassionate killing,” no “humane  slaughter,” no “bigger cages,” and no excuses.

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The winning most popular essay (out of 3,000 entries, 29 semi-finalists and 6 finalists) essentially comes to the conclusion that if you eat meat from any sentient animal that was killed for food, it’s an unethical choice.

Vegan recipes, anyone?

[Updated at 9:00 am, May 3, 2012: The New York Times decided to not declare the winner based on the essay that got the most reader votes. Instead, they let the judges pick the winning essay, which was  “Give Thanks for Meat” by Jay Bost, a “former vegetarian.” Hardly a surprise! In addition, the New York Times has now revealed the names of the authors of each of the final six essays and the author of the essay, “I’m about to Eat Meat for the First Time in 40 Years” is none other than Ingrid Newkirk, the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals! Is that why the judges didn’t go with the most popular choice? Interestingly, Ariel Kaminer’s piece announcing the winner makes no mention of the reader votes or Ingrid Newkirk. Did PETA employees/supporters skew the reader votes? We will probably never know.]

Image Source: Lithfin/Flickr

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