Atlantic Monthly

Steak Without Cow

PETA’s million-dollar prize is an occasion for irony — delicious or repulsive, depending on one’s perspective. About a decade ago, an urban legend claimed that the government had barred Kentucky Fried Chicken from calling its food “chicken,” because it used genetically modified Frankenbirds, brainless and grown in jars, that bore no resemblance to chicken or poultry of any kind. That supposedly explained the rebranding of Kentucky Fried Chicken as “KFC” — a government demand for truth in advertising. Needless to say, this idiotic myth contained not even a grain of truth. KFC continued to use real chickens, and to abuse them wantonly in the production process. PETA noticed and launched a campaign, “Kentucky Fried Cruelty,” to draw attention to KFC’s brutal methods. Now PETA’s prize suggests the organization wishes the urban legend had been true from the start. One looks forward to clever PETA graphics featuring Colonel Sanders in a lab-coat, instead of bloodstained and sporting devil-horns.

If so, then good for PETA. The anti-cruelty movement has gained ground in part by assembling a broad coalition — people who love cuddly animals, people who feel moral revulsion at torturing other creatures, and still others who avoid meat because it’s gross and unhealthy. But that strategy will begin to hold the movement back as science revises how we think about animals, meat, and ethics. PETA members motivated by disgust at animal products will find themselves in tighter and more awkward ethical corners — a drumstick grown in a jar feels no pain, but will bizarrely inspire the same disgust as one grown on a poor debeaked hen that lives its whole life in agony.

PETA operates sites like this to churn stomachs, but even now they are not entirely sincere. The philosophical patrons of animal liberation are rarely the types who endorse ethical systems on the basis of their gag reflex, or the “wisdom of repugnance.” Indeed, Peter Singer boasts that he comes to his conclusions precisely because he ignores that reflex (or lack thereof) and thinks actions through to their conclusions. PETA’s acceptance (subsidy, even) of meat-eating in these so-far hypothetical, futuristic circumstances signals a re-emphasis on what should be the core mission of the group, which is alleviating the needless suffering of animals in whatever way possible. The reflexively anti-science wing of the animal liberation cause is only setting the movement back, and PETA should continue jettisoning them. Even in vitro chicken could be finger-lickin’ good.

Originally appeared at


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