04 February 2011

Oprah’s 7 day vegan challenge creates mixed feelings

I, like most of the vegan community, was excited to hear that Oprah Winfrey was to challenge her entire staff at Harpo to become vegan for one week. I’ll admit I’m not a big fan of Oprah, but I recognize the power behind her endorsement so was interested to see how the program would pan out, and what impact it could have on veganism.

The show had two guests, Michael Pollan (meat eating author of several books including ‘The Ominivore’s Dilemma’), and Kathy Freston, (vegan author of ‘Veganist’ and ‘Quantum Wellness’.) Pollan started off well, saying how we should be eating more unprocessed food, how people disassociate the shrink wrapped meat in the supermarket with the animal itself. Then Lisa Ling reported from inside one of Cargill’s meat processing plants. The process from live animal to finished product was shown, apart from when the cows were stunned with a 4 inch bolt to stun them and when they were actually slaughtered. The rep from Cargill, Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, made sure we knew the cattle were very calm due to the new Temple Grandin design of the slaughterhouse and that they were "handled with dignity, and harvested carefully - that’s the natural order of things." Ling was obviously shocked at the scene and also when she was shown the hide being removed from the cattle in the next room. However, as soon as the show went back to the studio, Oprah was very quick to say that despite seeing all of that Ling was still a meat eater. The rest of the show showed some of Oprah’s employees trying Freston’s recipes, a visit to Whole Foods highlighting lots of meat substitutes, some good and bad reactions from the staff, and a lot of Kathy Freston being talked down by Winfrey and Pollan.

The show seemed very hurried to me – it would have been nice to have this topic spread out over a week perhaps so that more questions could be answered, different approaches could be voiced, and more of the health benefits investigated. Michael Pollan is undoubtedly one of the biggest voices against factory farming in America but is still a meat eater and champions doing so as long as it’s free range. His comment of the animals having "a lifetime of happiness and one bad day" resulted in a loud gasp of indignation from yours truly, and was swiftly followed by a rather sailor like description of what I thought of him. Oprah did the vegan thing for a week and ran straight back to her favorite protein. Meh. Kathy Freston said some good things but was constantly interrupted or talked over by the other two. I thought she may have had some time at the very end but that was given to the Cargill rep so no go there.

The whole thing felt very diluted to me, almost as if someone had asked the Meat Packers Association to present a show on veganism. That’s not to take away from Freston and her work as she’s doing a great job, but she was up against some stiff competition. A lot of people who abstain from eating animals have seen undercover video footage of the way animals in the food industry are treated, and it is nothing like the piece shown on the show. If the Cargill showpiece plant is the way it was portrayed when the cameras are not rolling, then it is very much in the minority. Let’s not forget that it was Cargill who had the huge e-coli recall not so long ago, and obviously they were looking for positive publicity. So, as someone who has been a part of the vegan movement for a while, the show was pretty much a washout. But… I watched the show with my husband who is a new vegetarian (yay!), and has never wanted to watch anything like this before. I saw the show through his eyes for a moment, and no doubt the eyes of many of Oprah’s reported 4 million viewers, and thought that as someone who had never been exposed to scenes like this before that’s probably as much as they could take before hitting the denial button again. To have extreme footage thrust upon you can do more harm than good as far as the vegan cause goes – sometimes you have to take the softer approach to make an impact. Kathy Freston’s new book, which was shown in all the adverts for the show, has gone straight to the top of the best sellers list at Amazon. People who never even knew what a vegan was last week have bought her book and even if they don’t jump on the bandwagon straight away, the seed of change has been planted.

So, even though there are many things that could have been handled differently, isn’t it better than if it hadn’t been aired at all? Whatever I think of Oprah, she has managed to do something that could have a huge impact on the way people think about their food. And that’s a good thing.

Bev Hahler | @redhotvegan
Bev, a vegetarian since she was 14 years old, became more interested in veganism several years ago after studying Agro-business as part of an Ecology degree. She has a gorgeous daughter in second grade who has been a vegetarian her whole life (lucky girl). Follow Bev on her blog and Facebook.

Photo credit: Oprah Show