Vegetarian Dilemmas – Where do Vegetarians Draw the Line?

If you are or are thinking of becoming a vegetarian it may not be as clear-cut a decision as you might think. There may well be more to it than you realise. There are vegetarian grey areas that you will have to think about. It’s a case of where do you draw the line? How meticulous do you want to be in pursuing a vegetarian course?

People become vegetarian for a number of reasons:

  • It’s wrong to kill other living things.
  • The farming of animals involves cruelty to them.
  • It’s a healthier diet.
  • It helps to lose weight.
  • It may be for religious reasons.
  • It may be because being vegetarian is better for the environment.

If the refraining from meat consumption is a principled choice, then it may only be the first step in the completion of those principles. Avoiding meat may be the easy part. There are other areas of animal consumption and killing that, in terms of a principled stance, may not be as clear cut.

Dilemma One: If animal products are used in the production of something else, should they be avoided? Examples include, gelatine in wine gums, rennet in cheese, cochineal (an insect) for food colouring (E120) in Smarties. For most principled vegetarians this is an easy call – they will cut out eating these products.

However, there are a lot of products where the usage of animals is not as apparent.

  • The use of Isinglass – a form of collagen – derived from fish to clarify wines and beers.
  • Fish gelatine in soft drinks. Most people assume these drinks are acceptable for vegetarians as the gelatine is not listed on the ingredients. Unfortunately, items used as production aids do not have to be listed.
  • The use of whey powder in chocolate. This often contains rennet and makes it unsuitable for vegetarians.
  • When we buy food from restaurants or take-aways. Fish oils are often added to Asian foods, chips are sometimes cooked in lard.

What do we do in these circumstances? Avoid them all? Should we refuse to eat products on the basis that they “might” contain animal products? Or do we plead ignorance? It doesn’t say it includes animal by-products so I’m assuming it doesn’t. But, then again, it doesn’t say it is suitable for vegetarians.

What are you going to do?

Dilemma Two: Having made a decision to stop eating meat, where do you stand on other animal products – notably leather goods? If the animal isn’t killed primarily for that product does that mean it is acceptable to consume that product? After all, it would only go to waste otherwise.  The trouble with this argument is that it can be very difficult to identify the primary product. Was the animal killed for its meat or its skin? If sheep are farmed primarily for their wool then the meat becomes a secondary product and perhaps, arguably, acceptable to eat. Otherwise it would just go to waste. The same may be said for eggs and chickens.

Similarly, we may not be sure how the product is acquired. Does it necessarily entail the harm or slaughter of the animal? For example, goose feather pillows – are they produced from slaughtered geese or from the collection of feathers from live birds?

What are you going to do?

Dilemma Three: Then there is the question as to what’s in a name? Beef crisps do not contain any beef, only a chemical flavouring. Does that make them acceptable to eat? Or, by eating such products, are we implicitly suggesting that there is a liking or demand for beef flavours and therefore beef should continue to be farmed?

What are you going to do?

Dilemma Four: Of course, we cannot be totally sure of the purity of our vegetables. If a vegetable grower – whether that be a farmer or a home-grown producer – uses animal products such as bone meal to improve the fertilization of their soil does that make the produce unacceptable for vegetarians? Surely though, some would argue, the soil is made up of decayed living matter already. By supplementing the soil are we actually breaking vegetarian rules?

If a grower uses pesticides and insecticides are we still willing to accept that the produce is vegetarian even though animals have died in the production of the crop? Similarly, insects will have perished on the windscreens of lorries as produce is transported through the delivery chain. This may be the reason why you never hear the phrase “No animals were harmed in the production of this product.”  Guarantees such as this just cannot be given. But do these considerations undermine a product’s vegetarian status?

What are you going to do?

Faced with these questions, individuals have to make their own choices. These dilemmas may complicate the vegetarian ideal, but they shouldn’t detract from vegetarianism as a principled action that individuals can take. As with all principles, a line must be drawn, and, because it is a matter of viewpoint, individuals will position that line slightly differently. This does not necessarily mean that they are compromising on their vegetarian principles.