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Eating Ingrid Newskirk: Victimless Meat at the Vegetarian Steakhouse
Welcome to the Vegetarian Steakhouse. This isn’t Outback or Morton’s or Charlie Brown’s or Lone Star. If you’re hankerin’ for a 100% free-range Angus beefburger here, get out. The clientele wouldn’t approve. You might as well announce that you’re a junkie with an addiction to swallowing decomposing flesh.

An ADDICTION, you say?

“What else is it,” says Ingrid Newkirk, “if you know something that you do is unhealthy, dirty and cruel, but you keep on doing it?”

Newkirk, the president and co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), is a vegetarian with an edge. "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment," reads her organization’s commandment-like mission statement.

Meat is murder, I am told. According to the Smiths, "Heifer whines could be human cries," But from my booth at the Vegetarian Steakhouse, I can swear I hear Newkirk ordering the flesh that many of us so fancifully fry.

That’s right. The activist who encouraged the pelting of fashion show fur coats with fake blood, helped bring about the first-ever felony charges for abuse on a factory farm, and teamed with Pamela Anderson — of über breast fame — for a KFC boycott (against, what else, chicken torture) just said she’s willing to do the unimaginable: Eat meat. Not only that, PETA, the 850,000 member nonprofit she co-founded in 1980, would endorse her consumption.

Newkirk’s grade of meat, however, won’t be ground round, prime cut, or Original Recipe chicken breast. The tasty nuggets she plans to stick in her mouth will be whipped-up by biotechnologists and grown in a lab — an incredible simulation that will have all the properties of the real thing except one: no animals were harmed in the making of this meat.

Fair enough. But Newkirk is ready to go farther to further her faux carnivore-ism. She’s prepared to put her own cells on the laboratory line.

“One of our interests is in making a 'Newkirk Nugget,'— of my own flesh.” Newkirk says. “We have the name patented."

Newkirk Nuggets™ haven’t hit the supermarket shelves yet. The tissue-engineering technology is in its infancy. So far, the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs has allotted € 2 million for a four-year university research project and a scientific team at Touro College in New York City has removed chunks of live muscle tissue from freshly killed goldfish, growing them in a cell-culture fluid for a week. That experimental tissue grew by 14%.

Newkirk is impressed. But her goal is 100% Grade A victimless.

“Obviously, killing one fish to make a million fish fillets is better than killing a million or a half a million fish whose eyes pop out in the nets and who suffocate in agony on fishing fleet boat decks,” she says

True. So, how far away are we from dining on totally victimless Halibut, Trout, Lamb, Pork, Veal or Newkirk?

No one can say. Meat is primarily bundled muscle cells sprinkled with fat and connective tissue cells. Cells called myoblasts, which are capable of dividing at a extraordinarily rapid rate, are the key to advancing victimless meat technology. Making large sheets of no-kill meat is not an easy task.

PETA has been looking into victimless meat-tech for the last eight years. Initially, they checked out research in Sweden, but the rights were locked up in a legal dispute. Then, two years ago, PETA funded Vladimir Mironov, director of the Shared Tissue Engineering Lab at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Mironov is working toward the day when a countertop kitchen appliance, something like a bread machine, will churn out sausage or hamburger — just add muscle stem cells, a growth medium, and an edible structure for the cells to grow on, and voila. Bon appetite.

A carnivore once told me that his ancestors didn’t climb to the top of the food chain to eat carrots and sprouts. A victimless sausage link might be just the thing for him. And he’d be welcome at the Vegetarian Steakhouse, provided he followed the rules.

“If people are unable to break their meat addiction, then let’s give them the least cruelly produced meat possible,” Newkirk says. “We are all in favor of anything that reduces the sum total of pain and suffering in the world.”

Of course, Newkirk’s venture into meat consumption would depend on its genuine victimlessness.

“For instance, an art project used rat skin from discarded rats from a lab to grow rat leather,” Newkirk says. “Those rats could have been re-homed after their lab ordeal, so we don’t consider that victimless. Similarly, the same project used frog tissue to grow tissue-engineered frog legs for a French exhibit, but the frogs were hurt and killed in the process. However, we are not purists, but pragmatists. If I thought I could get one person who wouldn’t go vegetarian to switch to tissue-engineered meat, I’d eat some on a bet that encouragement would compel them to switch.”

What about virtual self-cannibalism? Would Newkirk eat her lab-grown self?

“Eating yourself is supposed to be almost impossible for your digestion to handle,” Newkirk says. “But eating other humans is not. Sure, humans can certainly be victimless meat as they can consent to the procedure if the procedure is ever perfected. And I’m not opposed on religious or any other grounds to eating the dead, if the dead are roadkill or died in an Andes plane crash and you need to eat them to survive. I don’t see an ethical issue there. It is a matter of whether or not there is a true victim, someone who is used and hurt and killed against their own best interests — hence, Newkirk Nuggets.”

And why stop there? What about Pamela Ham?

With Pamela Anderson involvement in PETA promotions, it’s only a matter of time and expertise before a food conglomerate with their eye on mass market sex appeal — Hormel, Kraft or Oscar Meyer – will want to persuade the star of Stacked to let the common folk taste her. Honey-baked Pamela Anderson. Is this a great environmental marketing concept, or what?

Remember, Central American rain forests are being destroyed at a mind-boggling rate to create grazing land for beef cattle. Here in the US, more than 260 million acres of forests have been mowed-down to grow crops to feed animals raised for meat. An acre of trees disappears every eight seconds. I say save a tree, eat a celebrity.

Then there’s the water issue. It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat, but only 25 gallons to produce a pound of wheat. And don’t even bring up that raising edible animals causes more water pollution than any other industry in the U.S. Did someone say Anna Nicole Burgers?

At the end of our discussion Newkirk asks me “Why isn’t the government pouring funding into this, instead of subsidizing unhealthy, energy intensive, water and land resource depleting and polluting, meat and diary subsidies.”

I don’t know, but maybe it’s time to pitch victimless meat to Ronald MacDonald, Carl Karcher and the Burger King. God willing, the day may come when the only meat we eat will be our own.

As for me, I’ll have the Newkirk… well done.

— Nathan Callahan, November 3, 2005


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