15 April 2011

VegNews scandal: Mag takes heat for meat deceit

VegNews, the premier vegan magazine in the U.S., has been outed by the blog quarrygirl for publishing phony photos of meatless meals. Yes, the publication whose stated goal is to "help you live your best veg life ever" has apparently been deceiving its readership for years by passing off stock images of animal-based food as vegan.

Food Fraud Exposed
If you've ever read VegNews, whether in print or online, then you've seen the images I'm talking about. Colorful and yummy-looking, they're designed to showcase just how appetizing vegan eating can be. Sometimes these photos accompany a recipe, such as this one for a "soul-satisfying" dish of "veganized Brunswick stew": Click here for the recipe and photo.

According to VN, what the picture shows is a hearty, 100% meat-free stew made with vegan sausage links, vegan burger crumbles, and assorted vegetables and spices. But here's the catch: the picture is a hoax. Not only is it not vegan, it's not even Brunswick stew!

Instead, it's a ready-made picture of chicken stew that VegNews purchased from iStockphoto: Click here for the source photo.

The same chicanery occurs not just with recipes, but throughout VN in general. For example, in the first installment of their Vegan 101 series (which claims to focus on "one of the best things about being vegan: the food!") there's a photo of a juicy-looking burger that readers would, quite naturally, assume to be a veggie burger.

But this, too, is a con. The photo is just another regular "hamburger" (aka ground up dead cow burger), acquired from the same stock photography site.

In one of the most egregious examples of VN's deception, they've not only used non-vegan pictures to illustrate vegan dishes, but they've even doctored photos to disguise the animal parts. (Click here to see before-and-after images of spare ribs where the bones have been Photoshopped out.)

VegNews Responds
In response to the public outcry over its deceptive practices, VN has posted an open letter to its readers. In the letter, VegNews states that they are "deeply saddened"—not by their own misconduct, as one might expect, but by "the dialogue that has transpired" since their fraud was exposed.

The letter's first 3 paragraphs are a strange mix of self-congratulatory and woe-is-me prose. Readers are reminded that the "labor of love" known as VegNews has "won numerous major magazine awards" (impressed yet?), and that it's accomplished this with "no funding or investors" to help cover its "exorbitant costs" (get out your hankies).

It's not until the fourth paragraph that VegNews addresses the revelations about its duplicity. Except it doesn't. Rather, they complain about how it's "not financially feasible" to use "custom-shot photography for every spread," and how stock companies offer "very few specifically vegan images."

But this misses the point entirely. The vegan readers of VegNews aren't asking the magazine to go bankrupt, or insisting that every photograph appearing in its pages be custom-shot for that particular story.

No, what readers are expecting is simply this: That a vegan publication not use pictures of animal-based foods. For that, we can turn to Bon App├ętit or Martha Stewart Living or even Vegetarian Times.

Even if VegNews feels they must use such images (which is highly debatable), to do so in secrecy is downright dishonest. If ever there was a situation crying out for a disclaimer, it's this one.

(Speaking of which, one of the things that's long bothered me about VN is the snobby disclaimer that accompanies the monthly I Can't Believe It's Vegan column. For those not familiar with this regular item, it usually features vegan "junk" food such as Charms Blow Pops or Ore-Ida Tater Tots. And every month, a disclaimer appears beneath the article that reads: All foods mentioned in this article are vegan, but not necessarily good for your health —or ethics. Such paternalism always seemed out of place. If VN really thinks the food is that bad, then why feature it at all? And if it is featured, then why the self-serving disclaimer? Readers are certainly smart enough to understand the difference between Sour Patch Kids and Organic Three Grain Tempeh, aren't they?)

How "Photogate" Hurts the Vegan Cause
The issue isn't merely that VegNews misled readers and betrayed their trust, which is plenty bad enough.
But by substituting animal-based food photos for plant-based ones, veganism itself is harmed. That's because VN's actions imply that vegan dishes just aren't attractive or appealing.

What the world needs to know, and to see, is that vegan foods look and taste delicious. If the number-one, mainstream-style vegan magazine has to resort to using flesh, eggs, and dairy to "portray" vegan fare, then how is the average person supposed to believe that veganism works—for the palate as well as for the planet and its inhabitants?

The message that VegNews has unwittingly conveyed is that vegan food can't hold a candle to "real" animal-based food. Of course this is not true, as proven by the many gorgeous, non-deceptive food photos featured on countless vegan websites and blogs.

But until VegNews changes its photographic practices, it's going to continue to make veganism look like an impossible ideal instead of a feasible option. If VN really wants to "create a more compassionate future" as it claims, it needs to start by offering a true apology for its deceit and by making sure that all its future artwork accurately and truthfully represents the the beautiful, viable lifestyle that is veganism.

Elizabeth Gordon | Facebook
Elizabeth is an Asian-Appalachian writer, activist, and college professor living in north central Massachusetts. Once an avowed carnivore, she was a vegetarian for 15 years before making the conversion to veganism. She is passionate about trying to live a life that lessens, rather than contributes to, the amount of cruelty and suffering in this world. Follow Elizabeth on her Vegosphere blog and Facebook page.

Photo credit: vegnews screen capture