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When is it OK for Vegans to Eat Animals?

When is it OK for Vegans to Eat Animals?

“It’s okay to eat fish
‘Cause they don’t have any feelings”

“Something in the way” Nirvana

Back in the early 1990s, when rock band Nirvana was at the threshold stage of their colossal, but short, career, this particular sentiment on the closing song of their hit album “Nevermind” had a certain resonance with the ethical grunge set. I recall, it was often intoned and repeated by fans, and those that just had a hunger for fish tacos who didn’t want to take the ethical hit of eating an animal with actual feelings. The factual basis of this claim, that fish are devoid of feelings, is shoddy science/research at best, but was faithfully perpetuated by hungry grunge acolytes looking to latch onto some sort of lazy epicurean philosophy.

I was reminded of this refrain when I stumbled upon Christopher Cox’s ethical musing on whether or not it was acceptable to eat oysters, particularly for vegans. I know what you are thinking, isn’t the dictionary definition of vegan being someone who refrains from consuming any animal product? Well, by definition yes, but Cox breaks down his personal vegan rationale to two distinct points: “Raising animals for food 1) destroys the planet and 2) causes those animals to suffer.” While this may not exactly define every vegan’s (or vegetarian’s) raison d’être, it does seem to provide a cursory perspective for a somewhat stringent lifestyle. So as these rules apply, the humble oyster gets a pass, and is therefore afforded a place on the vegan dinner table next to the marinated tempeh and grilled zucchini.

Oysters, unlike other factory-farmed animals like cows and pigs, actually thrive in the factory farm (or in this case aqua farm) setting. Oyster farms account for about 95% of all oyster production and have minimal environmental impact on the surrounding ecology. No forests are cleared for oysters, no fertilizer is needed, and no grain goes to waste to feed them—they have a diet of simple plankton. Actually, oyster farms are often utilized to clean up polluted waterways, as the oyster is essentially a natural-born filter well suited to the job of cleaning contaminated rivers and bays. Fundamentally, oysters and oyster farming is actually, to some extent, beneficial for the planet.

With this information, we can feel somewhat OK about our reasonably low carbon footprint when it comes to eating oysters, but this is only half the equation, as it doesn’t really address the pain and suffering component of eating a live animal. For anyone that has ever consumed a fresh oyster, the ritual resembles a sort of brutality that is comparatively rare in world of modern eating. First the live oyster is penetrated and bisected with a knife, then it is most often incapacitated and stunned by a spray of lemon juice and then quickly consumed by being slurped down the throat of the consumer in waiting. However, according to Cox, oysters don’t have a central nervous system, which makes them seemingly unable to experience pain in that humans or livestock do. Cox asserts, “Biologically, oysters are not in the plant kingdom, but when it comes to ethical eating, they are almost indistinguishable from plants.”

With this justification, are we to assume that the oyster should stand as the exception to the rule, as is evidenced by their apparent lack of typical animal traits (no face, no pain, no guilt)? Is this justification enough to forgo the rules of veganism/vegetarianism and take a life? Should eating ethically be a purity pissing contest, or should these dietary definitions be more malleable to embrace exceptions like the oyster?

Read more: Blogs, Following Food, Food, Vegan, , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


+ add your own
6:01AM PST on Jan 8, 2015

If they ate animals they wouldn't be vegans.

5:57AM PST on Dec 14, 2014


5:52AM PST on Dec 14, 2014

Teresa W. Thank you. This will be one of those things I won't be able to get out of my head! In a good way though! Can't wait to tell my grandkids. Yes, you made my day! :-)

5:26AM PST on Dec 14, 2014

You are what you eat??? So, am I an ant or an anteater?????

5:13AM PST on Dec 14, 2014

Christ " did say you are what you eat "says Nikolas. Can we have chapter and verse for that please?

5:05AM PST on Dec 14, 2014

No thanks I have no interest in eating a live animal that might have been used to clean up a contaminated river...UGH :(

4:54AM PST on Dec 14, 2014

I will be adding oysters to my diet now I know this information!

12:27AM PDT on Jul 10, 2014

In this day and age, eating animals or other wise using them (clothing, entertainment, experimentation, etc.) is unnecessary, therefore we shouldn't do so. That's it. It's simple.

3:03PM PST on Jan 12, 2014

The articles properly points out that oysters are used for cleaning up polluted waterways. So why anyone would want to eat the pollution collected by oysters is beyond belief except that sadly people are not conscious of what they eat and are unaware of the consequences.So till we learn about what our bodies need as food and eat correctly them we will always be customers (slaves) of the medical corporations by trying to stay alive and not on the real journey of why we are here.

2:54PM PST on Jan 12, 2014

Christ ate lamb and fish and never spoke of being vegetarian, he did say you are what you eat meaning if you ate poorly this would make you ill.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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