What I Think of Oprah Going Vegan

Oprah challenged her staff to go vegan for 1 week.

I got wind a couple days ago that Oprah was going to be doing a show on veganism, OPRAH AND 378 STAFFERS GO VEGAN: THE ONE-WEEK CHALLENGE.  My first thoughts were “oh great.”  Oprah and I don’t have a very good track record.  Her personal politics grate on my last nerve.  But, for some reason I can’t seem to avoid her altogether, and will catch an episode every once in awhile.

It is just a tad ironic to me that my presentation this past weekend hinged on what got me started “ag-vocating” and one of those big reasons was Oprah herself.  Back when Prop B was on the ballot in California, Oprah did an episode that featured none other than the president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Mr. Wayne Pacelle.  If you want to know more about the reason why HSUS is a dirty word to most every farmer, check out this blog post by my friend, Val over at her blog, Wag’n Tales: Interesting Tidbit.

Me speaking at a young farmer conference on Saturday, if you can't read it...the title of the slide is "Oprah Started It!" Too ironic!

Anyway, after watching that episode and hearing about Oprah’s whole fiasco with the National Cattlemen a few years back (when she swore off hamburgers and supposedly affected the markets negatively, but that was before my time), I was pretty wary.  Oprah doesn’t have a very good track record with farmers, and I was skeptical to say the least.

So I sat down yesterday at 4:00 with my notepad in hand, fearful of what I might have to disprove.  From my point of view, here’s what happened…

Mr. Pollan (you know…Food, Inc and Omnivore’s Dilemma) was on stage with Oprah, as well as a representative from Cargill (major beef packing company), and Mrs. Freston, the vegan.

The conversation began with how we have more access to healthy food in the US today than we ever have in the past, yet we are as unhealthy as we ever have been.  Everyone was scratching their heads over how that can be and surely the answer must be to give even more access to healthy food and blame “industrial” food for society’s lack of self-control.  Mmmmm-hmmmm.

No one really said anything “bad,” but there were definitely implications that only small, free-range, and organic farms are capable of doing things right.  Mr. Pollan stated that he does not eat feedlot or industrial meat.  Whatever.  That’s your choice buddy, and not everyone can afford that.

They then addressed the Cargill representative and did a very informative, considerable segment on how a calf goes from a feedlot to hamburger.  Lisa Ling, Oprah’s reporter, actually set foot on a feedlot and talked to a farmer who had a yard of cattle that would be shipped to Cargill the next morning for slaughter.  The info was presented well.  They then followed the truck to to the plant and showed the cattle being unloaded and worked through the plant.  There was empahsis on the fact that the cattle were calm, quiet, and comfortable the whole time, and that the facility was designed for that.

Lisa explained the whole thing in a very somber tone, but she was not emotional either.  The Cargill representative was with her the whole time, explaining what was happening.  Lisa witnessed the captive bolt death of at least two animals, and the Cargill lady did a great job of explaining how the cattle had no idea what was about to happen and that they were immediately rendered unconscious, brain-dead, before they continued down the line to be bled out.

I was personally fascinated by the whole segement.  They followed the cattle carcass all the way through the plant. They showed them removing the guts, cutting the meat up, and grinding the burger.  Lisa got a bit green around the gills, and there may have been tears in her eyes when she watched the death of the cattle, but again, she was not overly emotional.  The Cargill lady stated that the plant focuses on maintaining the dignity of the animals, and that they will not employ individuals who do not understand that.

That whole first segment took up the first half of the program.  I am so proud of Cargill for opening their doors and giving such “rare access” to their plant.  We need more of this sort of thing!!  Mr. Pollan stated that Cargill is the exception when it comes to corporate food.  But of course he must cover his butt, his fame depends on the image of a dysfunctional food system.

Pollan also stated that “it (slaughter) is hard to look at.”  Let me just point out, that even pasture raised animals must be slaughtered.  And yes, it may be hard to look at, but it is a fact of life.  It takes life to sustain life, and we must take that life with as much dignity as possible.

Oprah pointed out several times that the challenge to her staff to go vegan for one week was a voluntary challenge.  She also said the words, “if you choose” several times throughout when referencing a vegan diet.  There were several clips of her staff and their families not receiving the diet well.  Lots of distaste for the food.  (No wonder some of them lost weight!)  The overall focus was much more on the diet than on the moral defense of veganism, which I appreciated.

There was a big emphasis on the healthfulness of a vegan diet.  This I intend to further research, because it sure seems to me that a lot of the meat and dairy substitutes they were eating were pretty “un-natural.”  Many people claimed to lose weight.  I’m not so sure this means the diet was healthy, it may well have meant that the food was gross.

Will my family ever go vegan, even for a week? No way!

I’d be more apt to say that the reason these people felt better was because they were actually watching what they ate, not because they went vegan.  I’m living proof of this.  I eat beef every day.  In the past, I didn’t watch what I ate, therefore I gained weight over the years.  Then about 6 months ago I started counting calories and exercising.  I lost 35 lbs.  I feel much better, and I still eat beef every day (and count calories and exercise).

Another thing I noticed was there was NEVER any mention of the cost of the vegan food.  Mrs. Freston took one family shopping at whole foods.  They loaded the cart up with vegan convenience food.  Frozen this and prepackaged that.  I’m sorry, but that CANNOT be cheap!  I really wonder how much that cart of groceries cost. Especially if it was to be compared to non-vegan alternatives.

That is my personal skeptical analysis of Oprah’s vegan challenge episode. All in all I think she did a pretty good job.  It was slanted, but that was to be expected, the show was all about going vegan, I didn’t exactly expect them to serve hamburgers at the end of the show.  It seemed to me that both Oprah and Mr. Pollan were choosing their words carefully, like maybe they were both aware how elite they could easily appear (they did anyway, but kept it quite muffled.)  Mrs. Freston was not too pushy about things, although she tried to lay the guilt trip on a few different times.  For the most part, the show was a pleasant surprise.

I hope that Oprah doesn’t stop there.  I’d like to see her go more in-depth on food issues.  Maybe visit a farm or two.  There’s been this great reaction by farmers on Facebook, a new page called, “Oprah, come visit my farm.” Farmers are stepping up left and right to open their doors to what goes on on their farms.  Check it out if you have a moment.

So, if you saw the episode, what did you think?  Did Oprah go too far, or did she do a good job of framing the discussion about veganism in today’s society?  Would you ever consider a vegan diet for any amount of time?

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14 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jen on February 2, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    Nice job liz.

  2. Posted by Jason on February 3, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Well done. I didn’t see the show, but it sounds like they presented the issue fairly, all things considered. To answer your last question- NO! I would NOT consider a vegan diet!

  3. Posted by Lunachance on February 3, 2011 at 10:16 am

    I was wondering if the Oprah show was in response to the Current station’s “Kill it, Cook it, Eat it” series which takes 6 people from the UK and they have to select the animals to be slaughtered, watch the killing and get educated about animal husbandry. The show started with steers, then lambs, then hogs and this week was chickens. The “volunteers” range from vegans to a gal who hunts and was raised on a farm. It is interesting to see these people talk about the food they either eat or choose not to eat. My sister is a professor in animal science (with a meats specialty) and she watched Oprah and is watching the Current series.

    Your recap is very thoughtful and complete.

    Cheers,
    Lunachance

  4. Posted by dan schaefer on February 4, 2011 at 2:24 am

    The cargill rep is Nicole Johnson-Hoffman and she is the general manager of the ft morgan, co facility responsible for the livelihoods of over 2000 people and their families.

  5. Liz,
    I was sent your way long ago when you published that practically viral post “Factory Farmed Animals Live in Horribel Conditions and GMOs will Kill You!” One of my ag-vocate readers passed your link via Twitter, and I just love your voice.

    I’m actually a “real food” blogger who would probably be on the opposing side of the table as you (although in my post today I said, “It’s time to eat the whole cow, folks!” so not on the vegan crud issue in particular!). However. I also seek balance in everything, and I really want to hear from small/medium family farmers using conventional methods. I’m putting together a panel of farmers all across the nation to answer some questions (that I’m writing soon!) about their farming practices. I would be totally honored if you’d join up.

    So sorry to leave this note in the comments – feel free to delete – but I couldn’t find your email on the site. Dash me an email if you get a chance, and I’d be happy to talk more with you about the panel. Promise, I won’t be painting anyone in a negative light – not my style! You can check out my site to see what’s there if it would help convince you. Looking forward to hearing from you! 🙂 Katie

  6. We won’t be likely going vegan anytime soon either. 🙂

    Proof …

    http://www.gettingdownwithjesus.com/2011/01/what-about-bob.html

  7. Posted by John on March 24, 2011 at 12:06 am

    “Lisa explained the whole thing in a very somber tone, but she was not emotional either.” ……… Not true.

    She was extremely nervous and fidgety during the actual killing of the cows. And she had to turn away when the bolts were shot into their heads and they began to bleed out.

    I think you need to rewatch that footage. Because although she wasn’t crying, she was very nervous and clearly disgusted by the whole process. Remember that Lisa a journalist not some stay-at-home-mom. She’s a professional who has covered the war in the Middle East and so of course she’s not likely to break down and cry.

    She was clearly VERY affected by it and just because she continues to eat beef doesn’t mean she’s fine and dandy with the slaughtering of cows. It just means that she luckily doesn’t have to witness it everyday before eating a hamburger since supermarkets sell the meat ready to cook. So this ordeal was just a one-time-thing for her.

    Also I’m curious as to why they wouldn’t show the actual footage of the cows being killed with the bolts – but instead they just showed Lisa’s expression. This was clearly Cargill’s way of SUGAR COATING things and not showing the whole truth.

    I am NOT a vegetarian or a vegan. But I do try to buy from ethical companies that don’t torture animals before the slaughter. So I try to look for free range, no-hormones, organic, etc.

    And I must say that I appreciate intelligent and fair debates. This episode of veg versus meat was NOT a 50/50 unbiased debate at all. It was more about Oprah excusing her own lifestyle (which is what you seem to be doing in this blog post), rather than explaining the pros and cons of eating animals versus not eating animals.

    At one point, the blonde gal who was promoting vegetarianism was explaining how she feels it’s morally wrong to murder a defenseless animal (regardless of how painful or painless their death is). This is a completely valid point that shouldn’t simply be brushed off. And I am grateful that there are people out there who stop to think “Just how important am I that an animal should give their life for me?” rather than simply taking without thinking.

    But instead of opening up a healthy discussion Oprah took the cowardly way out & just quickly cut her off and said something like ‘yeah but they died quickly/didn’t feel much pain’. She completely missed the woman’s point or perhaps just didn’t want to worry her head about it.

    I commend Cargill for using ethical slaughtering practices but unfortunately not all beef producers follow the same. And there are NO ETHICAL GUIDELINES in place for the slaughter of poultry or other animals. Which was a very important topic that they barely touched on.

    I would have rather heard about the health benefits of a vegetarian vs meat diet and about how this impacts the environment. I also think they should have shown the entire slaughtering process so that the public could have really seen what goes on and they could have made up their own minds about it. Unless they are ashamed or have something to hide? Or perhaps is such a grotesque and violent act that they feared people would be put off by it and not eat meat?

    Well, this is precisely why we need to make up our OWN minds. Not have Cargill treat us like children and try to force our opinions. We have come a long way but still have much more to do when it comes to animal rights. We are still a very uncivilized and archaic society more interested in profit and money over the wellbeing of animals or even humans.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts John. I agree that everyone on the show seemed nervous to talk about such a touchy subject. But at least it was talked about, and has now spurred who knows how many other conversations…including this one. Witnessing an animal’s death is never easy. I’ve done it several times, and it’s not exactly a pleasant experience. But neither is going to the doctor or dentist. There are several unpleasant facts of life, one being that it takes life to sustain life. Should the entire slaughter process have been viewed? Yes. It should have. Just because something might make someone uncomfortable is not a good enought reason not to face the issue, in my opinion. But, I’m not Oprah, and I’m not Cargill.

      I’m sorry you feel that the animals my family raises are tortured. I strongly disagree with you on that point, and I do hope you’ll take some time looking around my blog to see just exactly how our lives revolve around our livestock’s well-being. Many feel that there is a veil over our food production system in this country, and this blog is just me doing my part in pulling that veil back. I may not be as entertaining as the Hollywood-types, but I am a heck of a lot more realistic.

  8. […] to read another blogger’s more-indepth review of the Oprah episode?  Check out An Iowa Farm Wife’s Blog.  And I was right in assuming that I caught a […]

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