In case you are unaware, Whole Foods is now selling rabbit meat at a limited number of stores across the United States. As far as more sustainable meat goes, rabbit is one of the better options (along with lamb) — especially considering the oft-quoted statistics suggesting the global meat industry is a larger greenhouse gas emitter than the world’s entire transportation sector. For urban and rural dwellers, rabbit is a far more efficient way to score protein than beef — and they will not wake your neighbors at the crack of dawn. Even the environmental blog Grist, which sniffs at many claims about “sustainability,” has sung the praises of raising rabbit meat.
But the thought of rabbit meat grilled, pan-fried or roasted (goes well with parsnips and baby potatoes) does not make everyone’s mouth water. As the Atlantic recently pointed out, New York’s Union Square Whole Foods has attracted a small but passionate crowd that wants more consumers to boycott the retailer for killing rabbits. One of the more emotional arguments against raising rabbits for meats is that, after all, they are pets.
But there is a problem with that argument: Whole Foods is not killing pets, but is sourcing meat from farms that meet what the company describes as rigorous standards.
The idea of eating rabbit easily conjures a bevy of horrors, from the boiled bunny scene in “Fatal Attraction” to the rabbit-skinning demo in Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me.” As their popularity as household pets surges, the evidence suggests rabbits come in at No. 3 behind cats and dogs (if you dismiss fish and birds), and their popularity in turn has fostered many sites touting the benefits of keeping rabbits in the household.
And thus presents the moral ambiguity that inspires some to boycott Whole Foods while others roll their eyes. Just as the rabbit processed and sold at the Whole Foods meat counter will not be the bunny from the iconic “Monty Python” skit … the Indian beef sold at meat counters in Dubai and Abu Dhabi is not the same cow revered by some religious groups in India. The same goes for dog meat found here and there in East Asia. (I don’t necessarily recommend it, as the meat can be tough and stringy.) Appetizing or not, these animals are produced to be eaten, not presented to kids as furry friends.
Unfortunate pet stories, such as one of a Turkish acquaintance of mine whose pet chicken Coco ended up being lunch one day, are indeed distressing to hear. They can trigger a lifelong objection to a certain dish or food. The grey area is whether one’s self-absorbed and self-indulgent views should be forced on others. And to that end, forget the argument about whether we should be eating animals in the first place — that was not the rallying cry of the New Yorkers protesting in Union Square. Are some animals fair game for our plates, while others should not be eaten in any circumstance? And if so, why?
The pull at our collective heartstrings to stop eating rabbits, because some have an emotional bond to their pets, could actually succeed, and Whole Foods should not view this matter as a distraction to be taken lightly. Just look what happened in California in 1998: Despite the fact that the closest most get to a horse is when we watch Season 1 of “Downton Abbey,” Californians voted to pass an initiative banning the sale of horsemeat by almost 60 percent.
So pet appeal could doom the growth of rabbit meat in the U.S., which decades ago was once commonly eaten, and the consumption of which was viewed as patriotic during World War II. The scenarios of new factory farms killing rabbits to satisfy a new demand is highly unlikely, considering they have a low immune system and can die easily when under duress. If anything, Whole Foods’ entry into the market will raise awareness of this alternative, healthier meat — and could also provide future opportunities for small farmers who are currently struggling financially. Considering the same amount of resources can provide six pounds of rabbit meat versus one pound of beef, overcoming bunny guilt is a move retailers like Whole Foods, and their customers, should consider making.
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