Why plastic chicken is not the answer

Mark Bittman writes in this Sunday’s New York Times (“Finally, Fake Chicken Worth Eating”) that he has decided, at last, to endorse fake meat, because he believes that Americans ought to eat less meat and because certain new soy- and mushroom-based fake meat products are, in certain circumstances, nearly indistinguishable from industrially produced chicken breast.

On its own, Brown’s “chicken” — produced to mimic boneless, skinless breast — looks like a decent imitation, and the way it shreds is amazing. It doesn’t taste much like chicken, but since most white meat chicken doesn’t taste like much anyway, that’s hardly a problem; both are about texture, chew and the ingredients you put on them or combine with them. When you take Brown’s product, cut it up and combine it with, say, chopped tomato and lettuce and mayonnaise with some seasoning in it, and wrap it in a burrito, you won’t know the difference between that and chicken.

Bittman’s uncritical acceptance of the way Americans consume chicken breast, moreover — which is to say, mechanically — is disappointing from a man who has done as much as anyone to teach Americans how to cook and eat real food in simple, practical ways. There’s no indication that the product tastes good, only that it isn’t terrible. Nor does it promoting it in this fashion aid the cause of good cooking or of thoughtful, intelligent consumption. To embrace the consumption of “meatlike stuff” produced by a “thingamajiggy” is, I believe, to embrace the error at the root of modern industrial agriculture, and therefore, in the long run, to worsen its effects.

Although Bittman suggests that we ought to take any opportunity to reduce suffering, he is not a vegetarian, and does not fully advocate vegetarianism. He advocates this new industrial substance, rather, because “it might be better to eat fake meat that harms no animals and causes less environmental damage than meat raised industrially.” He levies the familiar charges against industrial meat: not only the treatment of the animals but the overuse of antibiotics, prevalence of disease, pollution. All of these are, I believe (and have observed before) legitimate criticisms — of industrially produced meat and of “confinement animal feeding operations.” But they are not problems inherent to raising livestock or to eating meat, and Bittman knows that. They are artifacts of a system designed, as he says, to treat an animal as “a machine to produce meat.” And that is the core problem with the way livestock are treated in industrial confinement operations: that they are treated as machines when they are in fact living creatures. The willingness to see an animal as a machine obviates any debt we might feel to it as a fellow creature, any respect we might owe it as another life which we did not create and do not fully understand, any notion that the animal has value inherent to itself which we are bound to respect—and permits us, therefore, to ignore its suffering, as well as the fact that as a living creature it must inevitably suffer and die, whether or not at our hands. A machine, obviously, cannot suffer.

But he misses a related problem, even more serious, which is that we do not only treat livestock as machines; we treat ourselves as machines, even in the way we eat. We reflexively check nutrition facts before buying food (or are told to, anyway, by experts); we count calories; we consume products scientifically designed to maximize the stimulation of certain sensory perceptions; we down vitamin pills in a vain attempt to make up for the lack of health in what we then refer to as food. That the human body is a machine is not a new idea, nor is it an extension of the idea that animals are machines; it arose in the nineteenth century coexistent with the latter notion, and by the end of that century, home economists and government bulletins cheerily urged women to think of food simply as “fuel for the machine.” It took the better part of the twentieth century before Americans capitulated fully to their expertise, but most of us are now fully acclimated to consuming almost exclusively a collection of food-like products engineered to push our biochemical buttons, to satisfy (or further stimulate) our appetites, and (occasionally) to provide our bodies with important nutrients — products whose purveyors and consumers, in short, treat human beings as machines.

My own objection to fake meat is not, therefore, that it “lack[s] bite, chew, juiciness and flavor,” but that it is thoroughly and inherently an industrial product, and that it makes us one as well. Grocery-store chicken is an industrial product as well, and a highly unnatural one, but it carries at least the pretense of being natural, and an unwitting consumer could believe, or a willful one could pretend, that he were eating food. To remove that pretense, to lay bare and indeed to embrace the conception of “food” as a collection of chemicals unrelated to any living thing, is to conceive of ourselves as machines. And if it is bad to treat a chicken as a machine, it is surely worse to treat a human being as one. That we are not confined in industrial feeding operations is irrelevant to the philosophical and moral point (and may frankly be debatable). If we conceive of ourselves as machines, moreover, I see no hope that we could conceive of a chicken as anything more. It’s certainly true that if more people eat imitation meat made from vegetable protein, then fewer chickens will be (mis)treated as machines — in the short run. But the error at the root of that mistreatment will grow even deeper, and be harder than ever to dig out, and more animals — and humans — will suffer in the long run as a consequence.

“Meat raised industrially” must not be the standard against which meat — or meat-like products — is judged. The only standard worth setting is that of perfection, which means the meat of an animal that itself ate food rather than industrial by-products, that had the opportunity to live before it died, that was raised intelligently, killed with a minimum of trauma and processed sensibly and frugally — the meat of animals, in short, whose creaturehood has been respected, and of which we would by needs eat far less than we have become accustomed to. To accept any standard short of that, and in particular to accept the standard of mass-production and mechanical eating, diminishes all of us.