The meat eaters' quandary


Food: Whether Americans will eat less beef after seeing animals slaughtered in Europe remains to be seen. HEALTH & FITNESS

May 13, 2001|By Michael Precker | Michael Precker,Dallas Morning News

Even as she enjoyed the occasional steak, Max Daniels, a 20-year-old receptionist and part-time student from Texas, had been feeling uneasy about eating meat.

Then she started watching the sad news from England: cattle, sheep and other animals slaughtered by the thousands, dumped in huge trenches or piled onto smoldering pyres.

"I had already thought about becoming vegetarian," says Daniels, whose nickname is short for Maxine. "When all that started happening, it kind of set it off."

On April 3, she ate a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant. The next day, she says, "I just decided I wouldn't eat meat anymore."

Across the ocean in Finland, Angel Olvera is watching those same reports.

"Yeah, it's a shame, and it's made me think a little bit," says Olvera, 25, a U.S. citizen who is working overseas. "I have friends who are second-guessing themselves about eating beef, but not me. Maybe it stems from being born and raised in Texas," he says. "I was raised on beef, and I will eat it as long as I have teeth."

These conflicting sentiments aren't new, nor is the debate over the health effects of meat and the morality of eating animals. But developments over the past few months have intensified the arguments -- and raised vegetarians' hopes of winning more converts.

"Of course it's affecting people," says Howard Lyman, a former cattle rancher in Montana who became a crusader against eating meat. "Whether it's the sight of so many animals dying or the effect on the environment, every time a consumer goes to the supermarket or sits down and opens a menu, they're influenced by what's happening."

Not so, counters Tim Taft, president of the Whataburger restaurant chain. "Our business has never been better," he says. "That is because the beef-buying consumer in the United States has a great sense of confidence in our government and the regulation of our food sources."

Some food for thought:

* The February outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among English livestock spread to the European continent. Although the disease rarely affects humans, authorities trying to contain the epidemic have slaughtered more than a million cows, sheep and pigs and restricted travel to parts of rural England.

* The United States banned meat imports from Europe after recent outbreaks and began taking measures to keep foot-and-mouth disease out of this country, including disinfecting the shoes of travelers arriving from England.

* Fears of mad cow disease, a mysterious ailment that can attack the human brain, have lowered beef consumption in parts of Europe. Although the disease never has been confirmed in the United States, authorities in March seized hundreds of imported sheep from two farms in Vermont because of fear that they may be infected.

* The current best seller "Fast-Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal" builds an unappetizing case against meat, ranging from graphic descriptions of slaughterhouses to warnings about dangers in hamburgers.

Sales figures show that many Americans have shifted from red meat to fish and chicken in recent years, but Daniels says she didn't want to take any halfway measures.

"It's just not right the way animals are brought up to die," she says. "It's hypocritical of me to love animals and eat them at the same time. I just didn't want to be part of that anymore."

So far, that attitude doesn't seem to be reflected on a large scale. At the 30,000-member Vegetarian Resource Group, spokesman Drew Nelson says the organization is getting more hits than usual on its Web site (, but he said he wouldn't call it a groundswell.

The fact is that beef consumption, which had been dropping steadily for nearly two decades, began rising in 1999. Government figures show that Americans ate 66 pounds of beef per capita last year, more than either chicken or pork.

Here's the beef

With beef taking a hit on the public relations front, the nation's biggest hamburger chains are taking to the airwaves with spots that celebrate hamburgers and meat-eating.

A new Burger King ad, for example, shows a guy "sitting in a surreal situation, watching TV, an old war program," says Richard Taylor, Burger King's vice president of U.S. marketing. "He slurps down some wheat grass juice. It spills down his chin. He's taking sprigs of asparagus and dips them into ketchup."

The crunch of the asparagus bolts him awake, in horror that he could be doing this, Taylor says. His wife gets him a Whopper, and all is fine again.

A spot for Jack in the Box focuses on "pro football's newest team," the Carnivores, owned by Jack, the company's mascot. Fictional players include Bo Vine and Bob Shishka. At the same time, the chain has begun serving the Triple Ultimate Cheeseburger, designed for "purists who don't want a salad on their burger."

When asked whether the Burger King ad was designed to make a statement about vegetables, Taylor says, "absolutely, categorically not." The spot, dubbed "Nightmare," is directed at the burger lover, he says.

"They know the best sandwich in the world is a Whopper," Taylor adds. "It's not a complete experience unless they have fries and a Coke. Anything else would be a nightmare."

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