The Dairy Dilemma

I hate to say it, but I’ve come to the conclusion that eating dairy products isn’t really morally defensible. As an ethical vegetarian, I don’t have a problem with eggs; I think it is possible to have happy, free-range chickens laying unfertilized eggs. I don’t have a problem with using animals as long as they’re treated compassionately and fairly throughout their entire natural lives. (If only our bosses were so considerate!) 

However, I can tell you in one word why dairy products make me uneasy: veal. If Jonathan Safron Foer’s Eating Animals had one fault, it was that it completely bypassed the dairy industry. I suspect that he didn’t want to tackle them and have to give up dairy, too. I can’t remember where I first learned that the male calves dairy cows produce (and they have to keep having calves in order to keep producing milk) get turned into veal. That means that if you eat even small amounts of dairy, even grass-fed, organic, humanely treated dairy, you are supporting an industry that can’t operate without killing lots of young male calves. 

Yikes. I’m two steps removed from the process because I neither kill cows personally nor eat the resulting veal, but it still doesn’t sit well with my conscience. After all, I went vegetarian because I didn’t want to be responsible for the deaths of animals I could be friends with. (For more on this, see my earlier post, Ethical Omnivorism.) I’m just not seeing how you could get the dairy without the veal unless you can manage to have a few happy grass-eating cows that experience spontaneous lactation without pregnancy. Frequently. Good luck with that.

At the same time, I love good food and am a gustatory junkie. I had a look through my recipes today, and many of them call for modest but crucial amounts of dairy products (a touch of butter, a swirl of creme fraiche, a few Gorgonzola crumbles)  to taste wonderful and balanced and flavorful. The gross-out factor that deters me from meat just isn’t there with dairy products. And as a vegetarian, I also like being able to go out to eat every now and then with reasonable confidence that there will be something on the menu I can have. I’m well aware that these reasons (taste, habit, convenience, social acceptance) are exactly the same arguments that meateaters use to justify continuing to eat meat despite their uneasy consciences. I don’t like it. 

If I were a better person, this is the point at which I would give up my occasional but much cherished brie bowls, my mascarpone and cucumber sandwiches, my gorgonzola and pear salads. I don’t actually eat a lot of dairy, but I would certainly miss it if my only option were the alien gooiness of Daiya. I’ve started by cutting out dairy where it least hurts: the milk in my morning tea and smoothies (easily replaced by dairy free alternatives), the cheese in my scrambled eggs and hash browns, the sandwich fillings that can be subbed out for hummus, fake tuna, etc. I’m also looking for new, tasty recipes that don’t call for dairy to begin with. And finally, I’m starting to view dairy products as a treat, which they should be, since I’m mildly lactose intolerant anyway. 

I’m not trying to defend the morality of eating dairy. But I do think it’s important to be happy with the changes you make, and right now, cutting out all dairy is something that I would neither stick to nor be happy about. This is my present compromise. Maybe in another few years I’ll move another step closer to veganism.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Kathleen on 09/07/2010 at 20:47

    I appreciate your position here as I have struggled ith the same issues as a vegetarian. I will definately follow your example to reduce my overall consumption of dairy and eggs while not eliminating it entirely from my repertoire. I thought I’d mention though, that eggs do have something of the same problem as dairy does in that the male chicks are often discarded when born (and not laying hens). I have struggled with that complicity as well.


    • Posted by ailanna on 09/17/2010 at 10:42

      Eggs definitely have their own moral issues; I eat them because my health and energy levels are noticeably better when I have a little animal protein a few times a week. (Which isn’t a moral defense by any means, but I consider it a valid reason nonetheless.)


  2. Another thing that grosses me out about milk is that dairy cows are repeatedly impregnated so they can produce milk….eww. Also, cow’s milk is for baby cows–just like human breast milk is for human babies. Why should humans consume the milk of another species? >_< I haven't cut out all dairy out of my diet yet (soy cheese is hard to find) but I don't drink cow milk anymore.


  3. Posted by Taylor Avalos on 05/01/2015 at 21:44

    I think you are mistaken in thinking that the dairy industry couldn’t operate without killing calves. *Having* calves, sure, but there’s no reason that they *have* to be killed. A no-slaughter dairy company recently opened up in the UK. I say, if you have a problem with the fact that calves are killed for veal in the dairy industry, just don’t buy veal. Boycott veal. Make veal even more politically incorrect than it already is, like people have done for fois gois. If there isn’t a high enough demand for it, they’ll stop doing it, or at least stop doing it in such quantity.


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