Issue 278 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


As a reformed vegetarian, I take exception to John Robbins’s assertion in the interview “Nature of the Beast” [October 1998] that vegetarians are always healthier. The newest research on blood cholesterol, done at Framingham Cardiovascular Institute, suggests that one size does not fit all. Depending on the type of cholesterol in your veins, you might need to cut either fat or carbohydrates. In fact, a diet very low in fat (less than 24 percent) can cause the larger, less dangerous type of blood cholesterol in some people to change to the small, clumping type [“Beyond Cholesterol,” Health, July/Aug. 1998].

I do agree with Robbins that the standard American diet is atrocious. It hits from both sides: too much saturated fat and too many carbohydrates. But one can’t leap from this fact to the conclusion that eating meat is always unhealthy. Look at the Eskimos, who eat mostly meat but no sugar and grains and have almost no heart disease.

I became a vegetarian in college and soon began having reactive hypoglycemia (blood-sugar highs and lows) and carbohydrate cravings, the latter from eating too many carbohydrates. But I didn’t question vegetarianism until I became pregnant with my first child. During the early months of my pregnancy, beef was the only food I could keep down. I listened to my body and began eating meat again.

More recently, in an effort to lose weight and be healthy, I ate a diet very low in fat and sugar and high in grains, fruits, and vegetables. I baked whole-wheat bread and kept fruits and vegetables in the cookie bowl. The reactive hypoglycemia and carbohydrate cravings returned, becoming worse and worse over the years.

Last year, I developed fibromyalgia, which causes intense pain in the muscles and joints, and brain fog similar to that experienced during a severe head cold. Through research, I discovered that not eating carbohydrates greatly reduced the pain and the fog. I couldn’t believe how much better I felt. Not only that, but I no longer spent my entire day thinking about food, as I had for the past twenty years. My weight became more stable, and the hypoglycemia was gone. Every time I have tried adding carbohydrates back into my diet, the pain has returned.

I have since found many doctors and experts touting the health benefits of a low-to-moderate-carbohydrate diet. The idea is based on the fact that humans spent millions of years as hunters and gatherers. Our bodies did not develop on grains alone.

Nancy Jackson Robinson, Kansas

There’s a lot wrong with the American food industry, God knows. I’ve watched it up close for nearly twenty years as a journalist for the likes of the Economist, and can tell stories that would drive anyone to anorexia. But publishing fawning interviews with John Robbins isn’t the way to bring agriculture and food production into line with nature.

The guy is full of the same bullshit (steer shit, to be exact) he claims our beef cattle stand in all day. He says: “Broilers . . . are kept in warehouses where they never see the light of day.” Well, I’ve walked through a lot of poultry barns, and I have yet to see one without windows. (Sun readers might also be interested to know that virtually all turkeys raised in the U.S. could be called “free range” — they wander outside the barns, peck and hunt in the sunlight, and live very natural, turkey-like lives.)

Robbins says: “Beef cattle stand on cement for the second half of their lives, penned in so that they can hardly move.” Both halves of this statement are propagandistic fiction, as bad as the most glittering claims of the meat industry. Robbins is so wrong here that I wonder if he has ever actually seen a steer or a ranch or a feedlot.

Then Robbins says: “I’ve been in slaughterhouses and seen the animals having their brains bashed out with sledgehammers.” I’ve been in slaughterhouses, too, perhaps many dozens more than Robbins has visited, and this is how it’s done: steers are knocked unconscious with a captive-bolt stunner, and then their throats are slit, because the Humane Slaughter Act has decreed that loss of blood is the most humane way for an animal to die. No one has to like it, and the deed could certainly be made safer and probably more humane, but making up stories about sledgehammers won’t change reality.

These are only three woefully incorrect statements Robbins made. The interview contains many others, none of which the interviewers thought (or knew enough) to question.

The food and agriculture industries are big, often bad — and fixable. But they should be reformed with the tools of fact and truth, not with Robbins’s paranoid dreams. He inexcusably damages the efforts of those who are working hard to right the wrongs of American meat and food production — Temple Grandin, David Theno, and Mary Heersink, to name three. Food companies and agribusinesses naturally stiffen against any kind of reform when Robbins vilifies them with laughably false accusations.

Steve Bjerklie Mill Valley, California
John Robbins responds:

In response to Nancy Jackson: I never said that vegetarians are always healthier, and I never would. There are certainly some people, like her, who for a variety of reasons do better with some animal products in their diet. What I did say is that, on average, vegetarians live longer than meat eaters; and that, on average, vegetarians suffer far less heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and many other chronic diseases than do meat eaters. These are statistical facts that have been confirmed in hundreds of epidemiological studies published in the last forty years.

Indeed, William Castelli, the director of the Framingham study to which Jackson refers, says: “Vegetarians have the best diet. They have the lowest rates of coronary disease of any group in the world. They have a fraction of our heart-attack rate, and they have only 40 percent of our cancer rate. They outlive us . . . by about six years.”

Jackson also mentions the health of Eskimos as an argument in favor of meat eating. Despite the protective advantage of being very physically active, Eskimos eating their traditional meat-based diet have the highest rate of osteoporosis of any culture in the world. Eskimo women lose 10 to 12 percent of their skeleton per decade. The life span of traditional Eskimos is, unfortunately, so short that in most cases they don’t live long enough for heart disease to develop.

Still, scientific research into the medical consequences of different diets demonstrates probabilities, not dogmatic absolutes. There’s a difference between thoughtful guidelines and dictatorial rules. That’s why I titled a chapter of Diet for a New America “Different Strokes for Different Folks.” I am glad Jackson has been able to determine what diet suits her body best.

Steve Bjerklie’s letter is an entirely different story. He presents himself as a journalist for the likes of the Economist but neglects to mention that he is the former editor of Meat and Poultry magazine, current executive editor of Meat Processing magazine, and a devoted apologist for the factory-farm industry. It’s almost pointless to argue point by point with someone who has long been on the industry payroll, and who defends such a cruel and environmentally destructive system, but for the benefit of The Sun’s readers I will address the issues he raises.

Bjerklie is right that many feedlot cattle don’t stand on concrete, but many do. And are the ones standing on bare dirt, crammed into crowded, dirty, heavily contaminated pens, eating feed laced with Ralgro, Synovex, and other commercial growth-promoting drugs (not to mention antibiotics and such delicacies as pig manure and cement dust) supposed to exemplify the proposition that today’s cattle never had it so good?

Bjerklie wants us to believe chickens get natural light, and says that turkeys raised in the U.S. live “very natural . . . lives.” I wish he were right, but the fact remains that many chicken warehouses have no windows, and even in those that do, natural light is not allowed to spoil the industry’s efforts to manipulate the birds for maximum profit. Broilers are often subjected to bright fluorescent light twenty-four hours a day for the first two weeks of their lives. After that, the lights may dim slightly and go off and on every two hours. Because these conditions are so unnatural, and because the food these birds are fed is so unlike anything ever seen in nature, by the time they are about six weeks of age many of them go crazy and try to attack each other, despite having had their beaks cut off.

As for the “very natural” lives of today’s factory turkeys, is this why the FDA recently traced PCB residues in turkeys to waste oils from a chemical plant’s scum pond? And is this why the respiratory diseases colibacillosis, fowl cholera, avian influenza, and turkey coryzasis are decimating turkey flocks throughout the country? And is this why the USDA recently found illegal residues of the carcinogenic drug dibutyltin dilarurate in 20 percent of the turkey meat it tested?

Bjerklie would have us believe the Humane Slaughter Act protects animals from brutal deaths. Would that this were so. But less than 10 percent of the country’s slaughterhouses are inspected for compliance with the act, and only a very small percentage of even these few plants (primarily those that sell to the federal government) are under any legal obligation to observe its guidelines, anyway. Furthermore, chickens and turkeys are not considered animals by the act, and so receive no protection, even in the few cases where the act applies.

The vast majority of slaughterhouses may legally use any method of killing they choose, and are under no obligation whatsoever to opt for more humane means. With profit being the sole motivation, the results are not pretty. The captive-bolt stunner is one of the most effective devices for knocking cows and pigs unconscious prior to killing them. Unfortunately, many slaughterhouses are concerned only with doing things the cheapest way. The degree of suffering the animals must endure is simply not part of the equation.

Despite the efforts of some in the industry to operate in a more humane and healthful manner, in the last few decades, the animals raised for meat, dairy products, and eggs in the U.S. have been subjected to ever more deplorable conditions. Progressively more pharmaceuticals must be used merely to keep the poor creatures alive under these circumstances. Increasingly, hormones, pesticides, antibiotics, and countless other chemicals and drugs are ending up in foods derived from animals. There’s a direct correlation here: the more unnaturally livestock are fed and the more cramped and filthy the conditions in which they live, the more contamination ends up on our plates. Even Bjerklie admitted (in the May 1998 issue of Meat Processing) that “intensive farming techniques” have resulted in “pathogens such as E. coli 0157 and diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) suddenly overwhelming the livestock and meat industries.”

For Bjerklie to say that my work “inexcusably damages the efforts of . . . Mary Heersink” is beyond preposterous. Her son Damian suffered grievous damage and very nearly died from E. coli poisoning — after eating undercooked hamburger.

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