A proposal that we stop spending tax dollars on promoting cheese eating and think more about our food

by Rob Tiller

Food is not only good to eat. It’s good to think about, and also sometimes bad to eat. Here’s some food news from today’s NY Times — a piece headlined While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales. http://tiny.cc/fsi57. It turns out that millions of our tax dollars go towards encouraging cheese eating. Some of the taxes we’ve paid have gone to develop fast food with more cheese in it, such as a new super-cheesy type of Domino’s Pizza.

According to the Times, cheese is now the largest source of saturated fat in the American diet. Saturated fat is linked to heart disease and obesity, which are associated with premature death. Of course, cheese tastes good, and eating a little isn’t a huge risk factor. But why would we even think about involving government in promoting it?

Apparently the reason has to do with a special interest: the dairy industry. People are getting the message that the fat in milk is unhealthy, and buying less high-fat milk. This means dairy producers have excess capacity. Too bad for them. Subsidizing cheese is like subsidizing tobacco. It’s not only dumb — it’s wrong. Here’s an idea for Republicans interested in eliminating wasteful government programs: let’s cut this out.

When we had dinner at home Thursday night, Sally and I talked about our own eating decisions and customs. This is a subject we try to avoid when eating in company, because it detracts from the enjoyment of food and friendship. When the issue of vegetarianism comes up, some non-vegetarians are curious, but others react defensively. For most people, it involves thinking about animals and nutrition in a different way that is at first uncomfortable. For us, it has involved many years of both thinking and practical experience that are difficult to reduce to a short explanation. And there are many topics for dinner conversation that are easier and more fun.

Yet not discussing it bothers me almost as much as discussing it. As with other enormous moral issues such as slavery and genocide, the decision not to speak out has moral implications. I try to be as honest as I can about my thoughts and feelings, and dislike leaving the false impression that the basic cruelty of industrialized animal production and consumption is a minor matter, or that I think it’s fine to kill sentient creatures when there are better choices easily available.

But giving value to the welfare of animals or changing eating habits goes strongly against the grain of our culture. Our habits of eating have deep roots and a multitude of personal associations and meanings, and it’s hard for most people to think about changing them. So we have a kind of gridlock involving morality and culture: it’s morally unacceptable not to confront the situation, and also culturally unacceptable to do so.

So I’m very happy as a plant-based eater that my values and eating habits are better aligned than ever before. (I should note that I don’t think they’re by any means perfectly aligned, and should confess that I still eat some cheese.) I’m very happy that I have interesting, varied, tasty meals a high percentage of the time. I’m also very happy that my diet is doing a lot of good for my health. But I’m not so happy that this puts me at odds with some people.