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Do you eat or refuse unethical food abroad?

Monday, 18 February 2013
 
Recently, a guy was telling me about the time he ate guinea pigs in Peru. There were a few things wrong with this. First off, he was standing looking at my guinea pig at the time. Secondly, he was also telling me that he is a vegetarian.
 
"But you ate a guinea pig?"
 
"Yeah, because it would have been rude not to."
 
"So you can't really call yourself a vegetarian any more."
 
"Well, I can actually, because I usually AM a vegetarian. I just had to eat meat on this occasion."
 
I was annoying him. And the thing is, I do understand where he's coming from. I just didn't like the way he was looking at my guinea pig.
 
When you're offered food in a lot of countries, it's considered rude to refuse. Food is a way to build bridges, to accept hospitality and form friendships. It's beyond any language barrier. It probably would have caused offence had he refused the guinea pig.
 
When I was in Avoriaz recently, we went out for a beautiful meal. There were 100 journalists from around the world, representatives from Pierre et Vacances, even the president of the company himself.
 
The champagne was flowing, and the courses were coming thick and fast. We had glanced briefly at the menu that sat on the table, which was written in French. After a bit of guess work, we figured out the main course was veal.
 
There was a brief pause.
 
"Which one is veal again?" I was pretty sure I knew, but I wanted to make sure.
 
"Ah, yes, it's the... well, it's the controversial one."
 
By "controversial" we mean pretty darn cruel. Young calves are taken from their mother and fed only milk supplements, to produce a white flesh. Often, they are bred in incredibly cramped conditions, such as small crates. This supposedly creates a richer taste, as their muscles are rarely used.
 
                        
 
 
I was in a quandary. I was pretty sure I would be considered rude if I refused the main course. No one else seemed to be. I hadn't said that I had any dietary restrictions. The plates were brought out.
 
I ate my veal. I also swore I wouldn't tell my strict vegetarian friend, for fear she would batter me.
Did I do the right thing? I don't know. I did the easiest thing.

I should point out there is veal ethically produced in the UK, where it is dubbed 'Rose veal'. Jimmy Doherty (the channel 4 farmy chef) has previously campaigned for the reintroduction of rose veal into our diets.

Speaking to The Observer last year, Jimmy said

"Rose veal can offer an alternative. Crates and all that stuff have given veal a bad name but things are very different now. And it's not about eating day-old baby cows – if you think that we slaughter chickens when they are 42 days old, lamb at five to six months, and pigs at five months – then at six to eight months, rose veal is the oldest of the lot. No one talks about that side of things."
"Dairy calves are being shot at 24 to 48 hours old and if we drink milk we all have to share in this instead of leaving the burden of it to the farmers. Eating rose veal is utilising those calves and solving a problem."
But that's rose veal. Not the French version. So, in short, I did a bad thing.

And let's not forget the night before. We had just begun another beautiful meal, without knowing what we were eating. The potted duck pictured below was delicious, but there were some weird fatty lumps in it that I avoided. I thought they were part of the layer of fat you'd often get on the top of a pate or confit.

The next day, we walked past the restaurant and had a glance at the menu, to discover that those fatty lumps were in fact Fois Gras.

Oops.

 

What would you do? Would you stick to your guns and refuse food that is cruel or unethical? Or would you accept, to avoid a scene?

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