Some animals are bigger than others — and that incredibly banal fact can have some important ramifications for the ethics of meat eating, a recent study suggests.
In a 2018 paper for the journal Food Ethics, philosopher Andy Lamey and political theorist Ike Sharpless examined 30 cookbooks by 26 celebrity chefs (defined as chefs with their own TV shows on a national network in the US, UK, Canada, or Australia). The list includes household names like Gordon Ramsey, Ina Garten, Rachael Ray, Paula Deen, Marcus Samuelsson, and Guy Fieri.
Lamey and Sharpless then estimated how many animals would have to die to cook all the recipes in each book, thereby enabling them to get an estimate of the average number of animals killed per recipe. They summarize their results in one very long table:
The authors note that there’s no strong culinary pattern to the findings. The type of cuisine chosen — Mexican versus Indian versus Italian versus Middle Eastern etc. — had little or no effect on how deadly a given cookbook was. The least deadly non-vegetarian cookbook, by Giada De Laurentiis, and the most deadly one, by Mario Batali, were both Italian cookbooks.
Instead, the results are driven by how many small animals each chef uses. By far the deadliest cookbook was Batali’s Molto Gusto, with 620 deaths (5.25 per recipe) driven by its use of 567 baby eels. Eels might not be high on your list of animals whose welfare we should care about, but like most species of fish, they probably experience pain and deserve animal welfare consideration.
Batali’s other cookbook, Molto Italiano, and cookbooks like Susur Lee’s and Gordon Ramsey’s also neared the top of the list through the prodigious use of anchovies or (in Lee’s case) pigeons.
If you don’t cook with baby eels or pigeon on a regular basis, then first off, congratulations: You’re making an obvious but good choice.
But most people do cook chicken regularly. Chickens are small and don’t produce as much meat per animal as, say, pigs or cows do. So for most chefs on the list, chicken accounted for the plurality of their animal deaths.
Rachael Ray 365 No Repeats racks up an astounding 75 chicken deaths; considering that the cookbook seeks to feed a family for a year of dinners, a family that follows her advice and eats chicken at lunch, too, could wind up exceeding the 28 chickens each American kills every year on average.
As Slate’s Dan Engber, who pointed out the study on Twitter (thanks Dan!), notes, Paula Deen emerges as a surprising hero in the study, alongside Jamie Oliver. “Books by Jamie Oliver and Paula Deen with far lower counts are mostly accounted for by their more frugal use of small animals,” the study authors note. “Oliver, for example, was sparing with anchovies (27) and chicken (7), while Deen—favoring meat from large animals—used only 20 chickens and no anchovies.” Giada De Laurentiis is the omnivore with the lowest count of all: only 0.19 animal deaths per recipe, and only 20 animals killed throughout her whole book.
The study included some vegetarian cookbooks, but even two of those — by Rachael Ray and Toni Fiori — wound up with a death toll in Lamey and Sharpless’s study. Ray’s Veggie Meals included nine animal deaths, six from anchovies, and both she and Fiori recommended the use of cheeses with animal rennet, which is extracted from the stomach of a cow, lamb, or goat.
As an ovo-lacto vegetarian, my main takeaway from the study is to try to cut down on my consumption of eggs and animal rennet cheeses. Egg production doesn’t kill animals directly, but it does confine hens to truly hellish living conditions.
But for meat-eaters reading this, it’s a reminder that even if you don’t want to swear off meat entirely, it’s probably a good idea to cut back on small animals like chickens. Eating large animals like cows is not without its ethical and, perhaps more profoundly, environmental costs. If you’re making incremental moves, though, you’d save a few animal lives by switching from chickens to pigs, or chickens to cows, or — best of all — chickens to Impossible Whoppers.
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