Quote card by Opinion.

The Ann Arbor Art Fair was not the place I expected to see slaughtered animals, bloody visages and the very apparent, acute suffering of livestock in factories. I did not see it in person, but rather witnessed the cruel acts of the meat industry through a television screen held by a man on State Street. Still, it provoked a real reaction to something that was not physically there. 

My visceral reaction spoke to the disturbing nature of the images amid laughing children, food, arts and crafts, but that is what the two men with the television wanted. They coupled the horrifying imagery with comments comparing the meat industry to the Holocaust, even claiming that it might be worse than the Holocaust. Those men were not doing it for fun; rather, they were advocating for something they believed in or, alternatively, pushing an agenda: veganism.

As a self-proclaimed animal lover and vegetarian since I was 4 years old, I found the videos disheartening, as my love for animals was one of the reasons I initially became vegetarian. Many documentaries relay the brutalities of the food industry in order to educate people on the uncomfortable truths about where some of our food comes from. These same documentaries have revealed the undebatable ways in which the industry needs reform. Regardless of those well-known horrors and my own animal-loving biases, this particular argument, no matter what side you are on, is multifaceted.

Andrew Sereno, co-owner of Fresh Forage, a local Ann Arbor restaurant with an emphasis on accommodating all diets, told me via email that food plays a significant role in culture. 

“Food and drink is the one thing we all have in common,” Sereno wrote. “Inherently food is a facilitator in society, an integral component to human interaction.” 

Food is an enormous part of world culture that can highlight both unity and diversity. Eating meals serves as a form of social activity — a way to gather family and friends. It also acts as an important way to stay in touch with one’s cultural identity. Moreover, it gives us a tangible source of cultural differences and what those differences can tell us about that society.

For example, as of 2019, the United States ranked third in average daily meat consumption. Thus, meat is arguably a large part of the food culture in our country, whether your diet aligns with that or not. On top of that, Americans simply like meat — the taste of it and all the foods that come with it, from casual hamburgers to upscale steakhouses. 

In some cultures there is a great amount of respect for the animals sacrificed and consumed. For example, India has the highest rate of people exercising a vegetarian diet in the world. One of the many reasons for this is the country’s predominant religious beliefs — in Hinduism, animals are seen as religious beings. 

The meat industry in our country is in no way representative of those traditions and the respect paid; American culture is known for being overindulgent and wasteful, especially when it comes to food. In fact, the large corporations that control the meat industry arguably do not see meat as a resource, but rather as a profit. If it were about resources, the meat industry would look much different, and perhaps we would not even eat meat.

For instance, meat is actually very harmful to the environment — it directly elevates greenhouse gas emissions and requires more resources than plant-based options — but no one in the industry cares about those negative effects because of the profitability. 

Sereno spoke on the viability of a brighter future with respect to the meat industry. 

“Ultimately we vote with our dollar in America so anything is possible, but sometimes convenience and advertising wins out against the right choice,” Sereno said. “For that reason, it is necessary to stay vigilant and continuously self-educate and practice what is right by one’s own understanding while simultaneously asking the government, both local and federal, to incentivize in the right direction.”

So, to vegan extremists: there is complexity here, I agree. The meat industry will do absolutely nothing unless they start losing profit, which is the direct result of consumer behavior. Therefore, if any change is to be introduced to the industry, consumers are a reasonable target because they are very much involved in the process. 

However, many people are too desensitized and detached from the industry to sit down with their delicious hamburger and think about the animal that it came from. Thus, promoting change at the level of the uninvolved consumer is just as ineffective as it is necessary. Not to mention, it instills negativity and guilt toward those who are not entirely at fault. Consumers should most definitely be held accountable to some level, but scapegoating them for eating meat and pressuring them to change a cornerstone of their diets is not necessarily the solution. 

With this negativity, we come back to the extreme comparison of the meat industry to the Holocaust — a gross disrespect to the horrors that Holocaust victims went through and to all people who hold those identities that were and are discriminated against. Bringing people down to the level of animals is exactly the kind of thinking that has perpetuated history’s greatest instances of injustice. It is ironic that vegan extremists are comparing people, namely Holocaust victims, to animals, as that was the thinking that perpetuated those atrocities in the first place.

In terms of the intent of the comparison, it might not have been nefarious or meant to degrade those who suffered during the Holocaust to the level of animals. It is possible they were trying to raise animals up to our level as living, breathing beings that can in fact suffer and feel. Maybe it is not to the extent of human beings, but animals very much know when something bad is happening to them. They are just as undeserving of pain as we are.

This comparison, though crude and unnecessary, was used for the attention it draws. People will not think about the animals that are quite literally being tortured and slaughtered for their daily meals unless a dramatic parallel is drawn. People can rarely empathize with something they cannot see and the idea of the Holocaust very much elicits imagery in anyone’s mind. 

This is not necessarily an argument of right versus wrong. Vegans should not be using the Holocaust so flippantly nor should they be guilt-tripping people. Despite that, in many ways, it is not much different than other forms of advocacy. The belief in their cause exists and the intent to end corruption in the meat industry is fair, but that doesn’t mean they execute it to perfection. 

Perhaps this is what they want — for people to talk. Here I am, writing an article about the meat industry because of their vegan extremism that I found disturbing. Isn’t that playing directly into their intent? I do not know if that makes them right, but it certainly makes them effective. 

Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at annatrup@umich.edu.