“Consider the Oyster” an eye opener

April 12, 2010


Honestly, all my life this has been a non-food that I would have thought would have driven more people TOWARDS veganism...

Darky from VP sent me a link that’s been going around the internets about, in one person’s opinion, why vegans should consider it acceptable to eat oysters.  And let’s get two quick things out of the way first: oysters aren’t vegan, simply by virtue of their position in the “animal, vegetable, mineral” taxonomy, and yes, there are times where the best answer I have for “why vegan” is that it’s a classification that makes life really simple.

I know I’ll invite flames if I use the word “arbitrary” to describe this classification, and it’s not quite the word that I’m looking for anyway, but as a holder of a science degree I’m attracted to simple things that encompass large truths.  There are always outliers, and I’m not saying oysters are one of them, but “no animals or animal derived foods,” for me, covers the biggest spectrum of health, environment, and animal benefits in the simplest way possible, much like how I can get through most of my days with Newtonian physics and not having to know what Planck’s constant does.

So are oysters vegan?  After all, Some Guy on the Internet says they are, so it’s clearly worth some discussion, right?  I’m going to break this into two types of conversation that you can interact with here as well as use in your daily lives:

From a vegan to another vegan: first of all, outside of the internet, I don’t think there are a lot of vegans talking with each other about this.  This is simply because most vegans don’t know enough vegans to even have this conversation.  We number somewhere around 1% of the North American population.  Around the water cooler, more people talk about the latest episode of Lost than about veganism because there are more people watching Lost than practicing a vegan diet. (Also, an hour long TV show is less of a commitment – even on a show where you have to watch the whole frigging series and it still doesn’t make sense – than, you know, changing your diet for the rest of your life.)

Of the population of vegans that have regular conversations with other vegans, most of those conversations are not about oysters, even if Some Guy on the Internet wrote something about the topic.  There are other things to discuss, most of which having nothing to do with food. Lost ain’t gonna talk about itself, and all that.

But of course, there’s the internet, and larger cities where more vegans are likely to gather, and what have you, so some vegans are talking to each other about oysters, either in person or online, like you and I are right now.  My advice to those of you in this situation: don’t stress out over it.  If someone wants to call themselves vegan but eats oysters, I can’t do much to stop them.  Maybe you can, but if you’re dealing with someone who’s been waiting their whole life for Some Guy on the Internet to give them permission to do something that they otherwise wouldn’t have done, “Bill won’t let me” probably isn’t going to make the cut on their list of reasons to stay vegan.  Or maybe it will.  Knock yourself out if you’re so inclined. (And yes, I have other things to say later in this piece, so stay tuned, step away from the “Leave Angry Comment” button for a few more minutes, etc…)

But wait!  What about brand dilution?  If we let vegans eat oysters, doesn’t that confuse the general public and make it harder to get a vegan meal, just like “vegans eat chicken,” “vegans eat fish,” and other tragic misunderstandings that ruin formal dinners?

I’m willing to bet that you’re not going to be served a platter of raw oysters the next time you go to Aunt Trudy’s for dinner, because she heard about That Guy from the Internet.  Oysters aren’t for everyone to begin with, and you’re much more likely to be served any of a hundred different foods that already exit which many people don’t realize contain animal products.

No, I think vegans considering eating oysters are going to fall into two camps: those who need That Internet Guy to give them the OK, and those who’ve given the matter careful additional thought and come to their own conclusions.  Does this make them ex-vegans? By definition, yes, but as I pointed out above, while I’m happy to live a life by a dictionary definition, it’s not for everyone, and I’m not going to stress over those who don’t, at least not over the oyster bit: it doesn’t cause me any hardship (see the brand dilution bit above,) and more importantly, it’s a distraction.  Here’s why:

From a vegan to a non-vegan: when you’re talking with meat eaters, does it really matter if some people calling themselves vegan eat oysters?  It’s another meaningless conversation.  I’d love, love, love to talk with someone who’s willing to give up all animal products except oysters, but the fact of the matter is that most discussions about veganism and oysters are going to be from people who just like to talk.  They still eat their meat, dairy, and eggs, and possibly oysters, and there may be people out there who think they’d go vegan but they’d miss oysters too much, but then why haven’t they dropped the non-oyster foods already?  Because they were waiting for That Guy on the Internet to suggest it?

And that’s where the eye opening comes in, for me.  For some reason, the vegan world, when it comes to animals, has been divided into two camps: the abolitionists, who want to stop animal agriculture, 100%, right now, and the welfarists, who favour incremental change like larger cages that still results in animals being killed for food.  I’m oversimplifying here, but the two sides tend to differ in their opinions of how much progress is made when, say, a major fast food company adopts higher standards of care for the animals they kill.

For the record, I’ve never really self-identified in either “camp,” preferring instead to do the best I can with whatever information I’ve got handy at the time.  This has caused problems in the past when doing stuff like tabling at a veg event with people asking me about free range organic eggs, for instance, and I’ll say right now that I don’t know what that means, but I’d end up in a talk with someone where I’m trying to give reasons why that might be a bad thing to someone who’s only listening for reasons to keep doing what they’re doing, and it ends up being a big waste of time for both of us.

So here’s my new stance on “progress:” I’m happy when animals get treated better before they’re killed for food, but I think these are improvements for people who aren’t ready for lasting, sustainable changes both in their lives and in their communities.  I’ll continue to lobby for the incremental changes, because the world isn’t going to wake up overnight, lots of animals are suffering in the meantime, and I also think there are some economic issues that put pressure on the system, but I’m spending most of my efforts on promoting massive individual change.

Just like with the oyster, if someone was actually willing to eat free range organic eggs and zero other animal products, I think it’d be an interesting conversation, but there aren’t many people like that. I’m grateful for those that are, but I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep worrying about scenarios that get in the way of lasting reductions in the number of animals killed in the name of convenience, taste, and simple ignorance.

And to think, I have a Guy on the Internet to thank for my perspective!

(P.S.: I’m another Internet Guy, and you’re an Internet Guy or Gal, so let’s irritate the heck out of each other in the comments!)

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason Das April 12, 2010 at 11:53 am

Nice take!

I gotta say, I’m really freaked out about the “brand-dilution” aspect.

Jason April 12, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Thanks, this is one of those ones where I needed to get it out there but still have 7 or 8 bits I need to write up around it, brand dilution included…. Some feedback (and more time) will help!

Allison, The Busy (Happy!) Vegan April 12, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Great post. This is an issue I’ve actually been wrestling with for a while. I may write a post about it myself one day, but for now, I’ll go with a (relatively) brief comment.

A friend of mine asked me why I don’t use pearls. I gave her the pat “no animal products” explanation, but couldn’t really provide her with more information than that. I mean – if we use the “sentient being” or “ability to suffer” categorization, I’m not sure oysters, clams, mussels, etc. technically fit. That being said, I still feel like it crosses the “animal” barrier, which is enough for me. But it sill puts me in a tough position. Usually, I’m able to explain to others why I feel the use of animals is cruel, unnecessary, and wrong, even if they’re treated insanely well (if slaughter can be considered “insanely good” treatment). In the case of bivalves, however, I fall a bit short on ammo, but stick to my guns regardless (two firearm references in a single sentence – quite a feat, I think!)

I’ll make one more “quick” comment, this time about the abolitionist/welfarist dichotomy. I agree with some of what you say. First, yes, obviously ensuring that animals suffer less is good – in theory. The problem is that the reduction of animal suffering often accompanies a reduction in our guilt about using, eating, and wearing such animals. In other words, I won’t give up eggs, because I can just buy the “free-range” ones, and eat “humanely”. It also presents a funny message. For example, PETA encouraged veg-folk everywhere to eat at KFC following the boycott, so that the veggie-chicken option would stay on the menu. So… they wanted us to support financially a chain that is responsible for the abuse and murder of countless chickens. Why wouldn’t people be confused about veganism??

That’s my piece: thanks for providing the space for it!

James Kimbell April 12, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Drawing a line between plants and animals is pretty close to the right answer. It’s certainly better than drawing a line between humans and nonhumans. However, it’s just as arbitrary, in principle. There could be animals who feel no pain – I don’t know if there are, but the point is that the pain is what matters, and the plant/animal line would only be truly fitting if it coincided with the unfeeling/feeling line.

Drawing a line at all is unnecessary, though. We could instead loosely order things in a continuum, and say that oysters feel more pain than plants, but less pain than, say, vertebrate fish.

Here’s a video of Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer discussing various related topics – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYYNY2oKVWU – You may not like these guys, but they do a reasonable job of reviewing the basic issues here.

Jason April 12, 2010 at 1:45 pm

@Allison: thanks for the thoughts, lots of followup writing queuing up in my drafts folder! :) For the PETA bit, yeah, that was confusing, but I think the era of “support these guys or we’ll lose this thing” is over – we’ve got products that can, and do, compete with meat in major businesses all over the place now, and calling for support of KFC was wrong, in my opinion.

@James: thanks for the video, I’ll be sure to check it out this afternoon!

James Kimbell April 12, 2010 at 1:55 pm

@Jason: yeah, the video is long – and if you’ve read a good bit of Singer, then it’s nothing new – but I’d still recommend it to most smart people.

Also, let me say that many of the issues that are framed as “welfare vs abolition” are in fact not so insoluble. For example, if I say free-range eggs lead to less suffering than battery eggs, and you say that they undeservedly reduce our guilt – well, then, aren’t you really just arguing for a less narrow view of welfare? The reduction of guilt that comes with “humane” products is bad because it leads to further exploitation, which is bad because it leads to further suffering. It always comes back to suffering.

Colleen April 12, 2010 at 2:16 pm

About the welfare vs. abolitionism arguments, perhaps the biggest problem with the welfarist movement is that it doesn’t follow everything up with more about why “better” doesn’t mean “good enough”.

That said, I don’t think information is the biggest problem anymore. 20 years ago, what happened in slaughterhouses and battery farms wasn’t common knowledge, but it pretty well is now; how many people know what happens and can’t or won’t change? I know more omnis than vegans who’ve seen Earthlings, for example, and it made them feel bad but it didn’t make them want to change anything.

Perhaps both welfarists and abolitionists need to stop trying to discredit each other and focus more on the limits of simply providing information and/or appealing to people’s consciences and see what they can do about the underlying problem. Which I think is: the social price to be paid for going (and staying!) vegan.

People always say they couldn’t be vegan, it would be too hard, and activists respond by discussing how easy it is to get your iron here, your calcium here, etc. I think what they find potentially too hard is how they’ll have to interact differently with people and take some abuse. Maybe forever (I’ve been vegan 6+ years and I’m 34, yet my family still thinks I’m going through a phase, and that’s the most minor of the social price I’ve paid.).

Darky April 12, 2010 at 11:52 pm

Assuming oysters can’t feel pain and they aren’t excessively environmentally damaging to farm, then why should I not eat them? Why don’t we encourage people to eat them, as we would encourage people to eat tofu and vegetables?
In your article, Jason, from what I understand you are saying: ‘Maybe it’s ok to eat oysters, maybe it isn’t, but if Joe Internet decides he wants to eat oysters and calls himself a vegan, we shouldn’t mind.’
But ignoring Joe Internet (who has made up his mind), what about me? What should I do? I’m curious about what oysters taste like. The only reason I see not to eat them is that they are in kingdom animalia. But that isn’t really a reason, that’s just a knee-jerk reaction caused by my vegetarianism.
I guess I’m seeking a definite answer, but none exists.

Jason April 13, 2010 at 3:57 pm

@James/Colleen: agreed, welfare/abolition is deeper than this post, but I want to get something out soon that explains the basics, since it’s going to come up at some point for any vegan who practices outreach at all (which I’d argue every vegan does by virtue of interacting with society at all…)

@Darky: I’m not going to play Joe Internet for you on this one – you’re going to have to make up your own mind, about this and any number of other foods (and food additives) along the way. Personally, I’m curious about what a lot of things taste like (for instance, I make a vegan risotto and have no idea if it tastes like risotto, but the same could be said for other “foods” society would view as abhorrent) but it’s simply not worth it to me to actually find out – not because I’m worried about my “vegan certification,” but at least in part because it would go against the identity I’ve carved out in my mind, and I feel I’m at my best when I’m acting consistently with my beliefs. Everything we do can be summed up as a “knee-jerk reaction” to some belief we hold, at some level, and I don’t know that that’s a bad thing.

maniagirl March 25, 2012 at 11:55 pm

I am ‘predominantly’ vegan with the sole exception of eating oysters. The reason for this is I suffer from mania which is related to reduced B12 levels and even with synthetic B12 injections I still got very sick. Oysters contain over 600X our daily B12 requirement and by simply eating a few oysters every couple of weeks, I am able to keep the mania under control.
Doctors have no answer for why I still get mania with the synthetic B12 except that “some other interaction is occurring”. So whilst I would dearly love to be a full vegan, for health reasons I eat oysters.

Lauren April 20, 2012 at 8:12 pm

He never said that oysters were vegan like you said he did. He said that by all accounts, EXCEPT for the consumption of oysters, he is a vegan, and very plainly gave his reasons as to why he thought it was OK. He even went on to say that he can’t fairly call himself a vegan because of this. Don’t twist around someone else’s words to make you sound more cool and snarky. “So are oysters vegan? After all, Some Guy on the Internet says they are…” Uuummm, no sorry.

Thatguy May 4, 2012 at 1:17 pm

To me it really comes down to semantics.
Veganism by definition is a lifestyle that avoids the use of animals to the highest degree possible for each individual.
Ethical veganism by virtually every rights/welfarist philosopher & such argues about pain, sentience, inherent value, conscience etc as the reason to account animals in our moral sphere.

So it seems at first glance an oyster which has no way to feel pain or conscience (both are necessary from what i gather to feel either or) is an ethically vegan food. Even more-so if the environmental damage is minimal for how they are captured (ie bycatch), in fact it could be even better when in comparison to the rodents/birds/insects that potentially are killed from veg harvesting.
…..arguing ”A big X goes through animals, if you eat animals your not vegan period” is a knee jerk reaction & not looking at the overall issue & TBH if people want to get dogmatic rather than accept new information, i’d rather not be associated with being a vegan.
Every other aspect of veganism stays intact even morally gray areas like insects replacing animal agriculture. Just because one eats an oyster does not justify donning a fur coat & hammering down steaks

ovovegwhat May 7, 2012 at 1:30 am

I am that organic free-range ovo-vegan: imagine how that goes down at parties). Raised lacto-ovo-vegetarian, I’ve been eating vegan for about 18 months now (I mean, I cut out milk, and cut enormously down on eggs) except for, very occasionally, organic, free-range, high welfare eggs from the healthfood shop or from an (organic, etc etc) smallholder who lives near my mum (i’m English) in the country. I have been eating them when I crave them, like about once every three months; because a) I’m neurotic and on balance, I’d rather eat an egg now and again than excessively worry about e.g., whether my body/brain is starving of x or z nutrient. Also b) I tend to trust my bodily cravings to tell me what I need. The rest of the time I find even the thought of eating eggs totally gross. I’m finding it grosser and grosser actually; though as my (buddhist, vegetarian) mum has just bought a chicken house for their garden, with the intention of keeping rescued battery hens, and eating their eggs – I’m wondering if by the time she gets it together to be producing the closest thing possible to cruelty-free eggs, except for the act of stealing their eggs off ‘em – if, by then I’ll still even ever be able to stand the thought…

ovovegwhat May 7, 2012 at 1:48 am

p.s. i don’t buy the notion that oyster’s don’t feel pain for a single instant. . . what a rudimentary, unimaginative convenient and frankly unscientific proposition, based on the crude fact that their nervous system isn’t like ours. Just speaks to the very early state of the field.

ovovegwhat May 7, 2012 at 1:48 am

oops. please forgive stray apostrophe “oyster’s”

Katie July 3, 2013 at 12:00 am

I was vegan for 14 years straight up until about 2 months ago, when I made the decision to start buying local, free-range organic eggs. I’m considering adding oysters and clams to my diet, but I wanted to do a bunch of research first online and in my community, and that’s how I came across this article. It was an interesting read – I had no idea other people with a vegan background were exploring this path! Thanks for sharing your views and good luck on your journey! :)

Kelly July 16, 2013 at 8:09 pm

I just came back from a vacation on a remote island with very limited dining options. I made the decision to eat oysters as a vegan and had no qualms with my decision. I am an ethical vegan (and yes I will still call myself a vegan) and feel very comfortable in my decision. I get so frustrated at the vegan community when we micro-analyze and criticize not being “100% vegan”. I’m not perfect in my vegan diet/lifestyle but am damn close. I live by my PERSONAL definition of veganism—-not the dictionary definition. I ate oysters and I loved them!! I just might do it again too :) )

Nicole September 19, 2013 at 5:08 pm

I found this article to be very interesting and quite enlightening, to boot. I am a newly practicing vegan now for a few months and have been grappling with the idea of the whole oysters/clams/mussels/scallops-to eat or not to eat-fork in the road. I would say my diet is about 90% vegan. There are those moments when I’m at someone else’s house or at a restaurant and find that I have to “down-grade”, if you will, to a vegetarian status. I might eat something with mayo in it, or sour cream, or regular whipped cream. It also may be classified as a time when I’m feeling a little weak and I slip-up.

What I want to say is, that if the supposed, not-so-sure animal I am about to eat is really an animal dilemma pops into my mind…consider this: do they have a natural defense mechanism? Do they have a way of escaping when their predator gets too close? Do they try to protect themselves if their life is in danger? If the answer (to any of these) is yes, then you should not eat them. They have their own “will” to live. And that is the vegan salute. I don’t recall an avocado or an apple that screamed and tried to get away as I was picking it from the tree. I am still learning and will probably never be a perfect Vegan but I can rest my head at night knowing that I am pretty damn close.

Thanks :)

Lars February 11, 2014 at 9:27 pm

I have to agree with Nicole. My own personal view is that if something tries to defend itself when attacked, its most likely capable of some form of pain. Apparently the way they tell if an oyster is safe to eat is to tap its shell and see if it reacts by trying to close its shell up tighter. Additionally, oysters don’t come from seeds like plants do, they come from a birth process, and they have a moment of death (which from what i hear can affect very drastic change in their consumability). All of this is evidence to me that they are animals and i would guess that they are more than likely sentient. Its not likely we will ever be able to prove that they “feel pain”, but as someone who is concerned about the pain of animals i think it makes sense to err on the side of caution.

Selina March 14, 2014 at 9:53 pm

My rule of thumb is…if it came from an animal and/or it has a Mother and father…which, oysters do have a female that releases eggs and a father that produces “sperm”…so therefore, I prefer not to consume it…for it was a living creature with “parents”…or a Momma, though, I don’t think there is any nurturing involved, more like survival of the fittest little tiny larvae…rough life those little larvae have, most don’t make it. I think that is a good “rule of thumb”…what to eat and not eat. Just a thought. :) I had only liked oysters smothered in cocktail sauce, anyway. Oyster alone felt totally gross in my mouth…so, I don’t think I am missing anything. MHO. :) :)

todd weiss March 16, 2014 at 3:00 pm

i am lost. good topic though!!

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