The buzz had been building for days on Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere, as vegans spread the word about the Feburary 1st episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. The announcement was made that Oprah and her staff were committing to a week of a vegan diet. The vegan community was hopeful that this episode would demonstrate the ease with which one can consume a healthy vegan diet, dispel some of the myths about veganism, and honestly depict the harsh ways in which the majority of America’s food animals, about 10 billion per year, are cruelly confined and killed.
While some of this information was discussed in the episode, some of the remarks made by Oprah and others left a bad taste in the mouths of those who had been so optimistic. There were some compelling arguments for veganism presented, such as reporter Lisa Ling’s visit to a Cargill slaughterhouse. The slaughterhouse would not allow the crew to film the killing of the cattle, but the show did air the gruesome aftermath, including the cutting off of hooves, skinning, and dismembering of the cattle. Michael Pollan, the well known food writer who was a guest on the show, remarked that this Cargill plant was one of the best in the country, no doubt leaving many in the viewing audience to wonder how it could get worse than what they had just seen. Despite witnessing the killing and processing of cattle, Oprah reported, Ling continued to eat meat but was now more aware of where it came from.
This attitude aligns with that of Pollan, who regularly perpetuates the notion of “happy meat”. This line of thinking supports free range animal systems and more humane slaughter instead of a shift away from animal products altogether. While many people concerned with animal welfare would agree that giving animals more space and taking extra steps to ensure a quick and less painful death are indeed a better alternative than the system that currently produces most of our animal products, most vegans were disappointed that this was presented as the acceptable goal, not complete veganism. For vegans, this idea of humane slaughter is a difficult one to swallow. To them, killing an animal needlessly can never be humane or morally acceptable. Oprah had both Pollan and a representative from the Cargill plant on her show to balance the vegan guest, Kathy Freston, and while Pollan was likely there to represent the intermediate view between meat consumption and veganism, many vegans continue to be frustrated with Pollan’s advocacy of humane meat, an oxymoron in their eyes. The episode seemed to have conflicting messages on the consumption of meat, which was not necessarily what vegans were hoping to see.
Many vegans were also annoyed, and some downright offended, by Oprah’s repetitive use of the word “radical” to describe the vegan lifestyle. Others were concerned about her coining of the term “veganish”, sure to confuse chefs and wait staffs that are still learning the difference between pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan.
Despite all of these complaints, overall the episode has no doubt propelled veganism even farther into the mainstream consciousness. Freston’s book, Veganist: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World, has already benefited from the “Oprah bump” and has risen to #1 on Amazon.com. The Oprah website now has a respectable amount of information on making a transition to veganism, and some of the staff interviewed on the show stated that the vegan diet gave them more energy, helped them lose weight, and made them feel all around better. One employee commented on her new digestive regularity, noting that on her former fast food laden diet, she had a bowel movement only about once a week. (Once a week!) Some of the staff said they planned to stick with it, others said they planned to at least cut back on meat and dairy.
While a gradual transition may not please the abolitionists among us, the reality is that even the smallest changes in our societal consciousness of where our meat and dairy comes from is likely to pave the way for decreased demand and improved animal welfare. With an estimated 20 million viewers of The Oprah Winfrey Show in the US alone, one has to believe that there were people turned instantly vegan by the scenes from the slaughterhouse, and that many more people were started on the road to being more thoughtful in their food purchases. From a vegan perspective, of course the episode could have been better. But from the view of a nation of viewers who likely never gave the issue a bit of thought before Tuesday’s episode, they received useful information that they can use to start making more compassionate food choices. At the very least, maybe vegans will get fewer blank stares when they identify themselves as such.