Sunday, December 20, 2009

I'm kind of a chicken when it comes to eating chicken.

There are multiple perspectives from which to make a decision to stop eating meat. The most obvious and visible is animal cruelty. However, anyone concerned with animal cruelty should probably be leading a vegan lifestyle, as some of the most cruel practices have nothing to do with putting meat on the table. Less visible perspectives include the environmental impact of current methods of producing food and, generally speaking, health (public and personal). From each of the three perspectives, choosing a diet that excludes animal products is overwhelmingly more appropriate and advantageous.

A note here: If you break down the three general categories above (cruelty, environment, health), there are endless sub-topics within each. It is difficult to imagine a pro/con list in any of those categories in which a diet inclusive of animal products would come out on top. It is my opinion that most arguments for continuing to eat meat come from three powerful places: tradition, flavor, and convenience. These are hard to overcome.

Anyway, back to the reason I started this post. The general topic of health covers all sorts of ground. Today's focus is simple. Is it safe to eat chicken? Should you risk feeding it to yourself and your family because you've always done so, you like the way it tastes, and you know you can pick it up on the cheap and have dinner on the table quickly? As I am sure you have guessed, my answers to those questions and no. It seems obvious to me, but I also understand that I have managed to get past an emotional attachment to any particular food. In other words, it is unlikely that you will ever hear me say, "I could probably stop eating X, but there's no way I could give up Y and Z...I just like Y and Z too much" (vegetarians reading this will recognize this phrase from every conversation they've ever had on the topic of becoming vegetarian).

Here is why it should be obvious to everyone. It is a fact. Consumer Reports helps sort it all out in a report in its January 2010 issue. I encourage you to read the article. It starts out like this:

You would think that after years of alarms about food safety - outbreaks of illness followed by renewed efforts at cleanup - a staple like chicken would be a lot safer to eat. But in our latest analysis of fresh, whole broilers bought at stores nationwide, TWO-THIRDS harbored salmonella and/or campylobacteria, the leading causes of foodborne disease.

(I added the emphasis)

The chickens tested by Consumer Reports came from more than 100 supermarkets, specialty stores, and mass merchandisers in 22 states and included three "top" brands (Foster Farms, Perdue, and Tyson), 30 "non-organic" store brands, nine "organic" store brands, and nine "organic" name brands. Shockingly, the most contaminated (with more than 80% testing positive for either one or both pathogens) were the big guys, Tyson and Foster Farms. Though, in fairness, all of the producers results were woeful (at least as far as this consumer is concerned). The cleanest big-brand chickens came from Perdue, who managed to get 56% of their chickens to consumers free of disease (how about a round of applause!).

An alarming detail that I found in this report was that 68% of salmonella and 60% of the campylobacteria organisms analyzed showed resistance to one or more antibiotics; largely as the result of the fact that chickens (and other farmed animals) are fed antibiotics to speed growth and to prevent or treat illness. That means that the bacteria that are being treated evolve and become immune to antibiotics and become less effective to treat people who got infected from eating the meat that came from the animals that were being treated with the antibiotics. If that sentence sounds absurdly circular, rambles, and doesn't make alot of since, don't blame me.

Throughout the report, the author gives tips to stay safe when eating chicken. Let's remember, this is Consumer Reports, not PETA. No hidden reason to discourage eating the stuff, just do it in a safe way. Here is how the article concludes:

Whatever bird you buy, one slipup and you're at risk. Most important is to cook chicken to at least 165° F. Even if it's no longer pink, it can still harbor bacteria, so use a meat thermometer. The Polder THM-360, $30, and Taylor Weekend Warrior 806, $16, were excellent in our tests. Other tips:
  • Make chicken one of the last items you buy before heading to the checkout line.
  • Choose chicken that is well wrapped and at the bottom of the case, where the temperature should be coolest.
  • Place chicken in a plastic bag like those in the produce department to keep juices from leaking.
  • If you'll cook the chicken within a couple of days, store it at 40° F or below. Otherwise, freeze it.
  • Thaw frozen chicken in a refrigerator, inside its packaging and on a plate, or on a plate in a microwave oven. Never thaw it on a counter: When the inside is still frozen, the outside can warm up, providing a breeding ground for bacteria. Cook chicken thawed in a microwave oven right away.
  • Don't return cooked meat to the plate that held it raw.
  • Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within 2 hours of cooking.
Whoa. It's like the owner's manual I got with my camera...if there were a chance that hitting the wrong button on my camera would give me diarrhea and make me vomit.

I understand that we, as humans, take calculated risks every day. Some risks are common daily occurrences that are all but unavoidable (driving a car or taking public transportation). Some risks are thrilling (rock-climbing or skydiving). Here's the deal. Eating chicken is neither unavoidable nor thrilling.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009



You heard it here first.

I heard it here. Thank you

And thank you, my 12 ounce amigo. It looks like we can continue to see each other.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What is a "vegan," anyway?

I'm settling into my plan a little better after several weeks of big talk about being a vegan. That big talk comes from a very righteous place in my heart that I do not expect will ever change. However, I'm not sure that I will ever be comfortable calling myself a vegan. My discomfort does not come from second thoughts about a desire to exclude animal products from my life, but from a self-consciousness and self-doubt about my ability to fully commit to the ideas and principles of what I perceive as true veganism.

I arrived at this conclusion after alot of thought and a little digging around. I figured I should start by trying to figure out if my perception of true veganism was accurate.

Apparently, the word "vegan" came from the imagination of a man named Donald Watson in 1944. He was looking for a word to define his decision to be a "non-dairy vegetarian." He settled on the word "vegan," which was simply the beginning and end of the word "vegetarian." He founded the British Vegan Society with some like-minded individuals and launched the vegan movement. In a 2002 interview, Mr Watson had this to say when asked about a message to other vegans:

"Take the broad view of what veganism stands for – something beyond finding a new alternative to scrambled eggs on toast or a new recipe for Christmas cake. Realize that you're on to something really big, something that hadn't been tried until sixty years ago, and something which is meeting every reasonable criticism that anyone can level against it. And this doesn't involve weeks or months of studying diet charts or reading books by so called experts - it means grasping a few simple facts and applying them."

This sounds simple and, frankly, liberating. However, being a vegan in a non-vegan world is hard work, requires constant vigilance, and can be isolating. In that same interview, Mr. Watson was asked about the most difficult part of being a vegan and he stated that it was "the social aspect-excommunicating [himself] from that part of life where people meet to eat." That word, "excommunicate," is powerful. Mr. Watson went on to say that the only remedy for that problem was for the concept to become more and more accepted until it one day became the norm.

These days, the label "vegan" can mean many things to many people. Some people hear the word "vegan" and picture a radical activist who would kill a man to save a chicken. Others define vegans as self-righteous and pretentious cult-followers who have lost their grip on reality. The American Vegan Society carries the motto "Ahimsa Lights the Way" and takes a bit more of a structured approach than that which Mr. Watson seemed comfortable with. Or maybe they just spent a little more time defining it. It is hard to say. "Ahimsa," by the way, simply means "refraining from harming any living being," which is nice to know, as I never really gave the word much thought and had been turned off by the new-age images it conjured in my mind.

I think, for now, I'm going to align myself with the father of the movement and adopt the philosophy of the British Vegan Society, which says that "veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose." I added the italicized emphasis to highlight the fact that veganism is much more of a journey than a destination. For now, I'm going to be an aspiring vegan, which means that I am going to "aspire to seek." The real key to a comfortable and successful vegan journey is going to be to figure out what the phrase "as far as possible and practicable" means to me. That will take some reflection.

In the coming weeks and months, I'm going to try to come up with some relatively defined guidelines on the issues that I find the most difficult and troubling: what to do with animal products I already own, how to handle restaurants and dining with friends, where to draw the line (honey, silk, wool, refined sugar, beer and wine, etc.). Hopefully, I will settle in a little more and find a way to appropriately balance this lifestyle choice against the realities of a 21st century existence.

On a related note, my wife made vegan pancakes this morning from the cookbook Vegan YumYum, which was a birthday present from my brother-in-law (read his blog on similar concepts here). I think I could tell the difference, but I don't care. I'll pass on some advice from Lauren Ulm, who wrote Vegan YumYum to tell you why: "[T]ake the time to learn how to make foods that you really love, not poor imitations of foods you no longer eat. That's the secret to being vegan and loving it."