A feisty vegetarian since age 12, Berlin Reed was a self-described “punk” who swore to abstain from supporting corporations that he believed profited from mistreating animals, abusing labor practices and “destroying” the environment.
“I have ‘vegan’ tattooed on my neck,” said Reed, 29. “You could say I was a little passionate about it.”
Today, however, he’s known as “the ethical butcher,” a title which might seem odd for someone whose friends once arranged a “bacon intervention” to sway him to omnivorism. “It wasn’t a moment of weakness,” Reed said of the switch; instead it was motivated by his realization that, as a butcher, he was in a position to affect the industry he once protested. Reed holds that the butchery trade, in constant contact with customers, is the key to a better and more sustainable meat system.
“I don’t eat beef from factory farms for many of the same reasons I won’t buy clothes from The Gap,” Reed said. “It’s all about the industries and practices that are polluting our world, not whether or not it is OK to kill for food.”
Like many former vegetarians, Reed isn’t content to simply sit back and gnaw on his turkey bone. According to a recent study by Psychology Today, most vegetarians return to eating meat. But half of the survey’s respondents originally gave up meat for ethical reasons, and as such, were still concerned with animal protection: “The participants’ original reason for giving up meat did affect their level present meat consumption,” writes Psychology Today.
Food & Wine profiled several meat-eating “converts” who consider purchasing sustainable meat a new form of activism. “For many of our ex-vegetarian friends, the ethical reasons for eating meat, combined with the health-related ones, have been impossible to deny,” wrote Christine Lennon.
But “ethical” and “humane” mean different things to different people. The concepts can involve a mishmash of several industry terms, including “organic,” “cruelty-free,” “natural” or “free-range,” whose standards vary. Those concerned with animal welfare try to rely on certification companies whose labels are increasingly popping up on meat packages.
“We all have our ideas of what ‘free-range’ should be — animals roaming out on lush pasture, et cetera — but that is rarely the case,” said Adele Douglass, executive director of Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit organization that monitors treatment of livestock. “I never buy ‘natural’ or ‘free-range’ or ‘on pasture’ because anyone can say those things and they can mean nothing.”
Although Humane Farm Animal Care hasn’t seen a dramatic increase in vegetarians jumping ship, it has received enthusiastic consumer feedback, especially from vegans and vegetarians who are looking for way to ethically feed loved ones who love a good, juicy steak. “This program gives consumers a way to vote with their pocketbooks,” Douglass said.
For those who are physically unable to keep up with the challenges of the vegetarian life, ethical omnivorism is a liberating conscience-saver. Nutritionist Julie Daniluk, 38, was plagued by guilt when she returned to eating meat, but 13 years of vegetarianism hadn’t suited her immune system. “I became a vegetarian because I love animals and want to preserve the environment,” Daniluk told TODAY.com. “But I also became anemic as a vegetarian.”
No matter how many iron supplements Daniluk took, she could not defeat her constant fatigue and the dark circles under her eyes. Hesitantly, she incorporated meat into her weekly diet, but was determined to do so responsibly.
Daniluk sought out farmers markets that sold organic, naturally raised, grass-fed animal meat. Today, as co-host of “Healthy Gourmet,” a cooking show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Daniluk preaches responsible meat-eating — including taking a “vegetarian day” once a week.
Some ex-vegetarians return to meat with gusto. Take Sasha Wizansky, who once shunned eating animals but now actually runs Meatpaper, a quarterly print journal devoted to all things meat. “Vegetarianism became part of my identity — a promise to myself — and I mostly stuck to it for seven years,” said Wizansky, who currently avoids consuming factory-farmed poultry, endangered species of fish and, more important, “mysterious ground meat.” Although her job is obsessed with barbecue fodder, the 37-year-old admits her daily diet tends to be largely vegetarian. “I believe in having rules, and also occasionally breaking them in the interest of balance.”
And Wizansky is far from the only one who straddles two worlds. As the ethics and interests of vegetarians and sustainable meat eaters become more shared, the more crossover there is between the two groups.
“Ten years ago or so, it seemed that most of San Francisco identified with a vegetarian lifestyle, but that has really changed,” Wizansky observed. “Meat producers couldn’t even get a booth at Bay Area farmers markets. Now, local, organic, humane producers have a huge presence at those same markets.”
As several testified, the return to meat is all the easier when you have community support, be it the local farmers market, friends or family.
“My grandmother is German,” “ethical butcher” Reed told TODAY.com. “She was just happy she could cook for me again.”
© 2011 MSNBC Interactive