It’s OK to be vegan and eat (some) animals Some animals, like the oyster, actually thrive on the factory farm—and are afforded a place on the vegan dinner table.

It’s okay to eat fish
‘Cause they don’t have any feelings

Back in the early 1990s, when rock band Nirvana was at the threshold stage of their colossal, but short, career, this particular sentiment on the closing song of their hit album Nevermind had a certain resonance with the ethical grunge set. I recall it was often intoned and repeated by fans, and those that just had a hunger for fish tacos who didn’t want to take the ethical hit of eating an animal with actual feelings. The factual basis of this claim, that fish are devoid of feelings, is shoddy science/research at best, but was faithfully perpetuated by hungry grunge acolytes looking to latch onto some sort of lazy epicurean philosophy.

I was reminded of this refrain when I stumbled upon Christopher Cox’s ethical musing on whether or not it was acceptable to eat oysters, particularly for vegans. I know what you are thinking. Isn’t the dictionary definition of vegan being someone who refrains from consuming any animal product?

Well, by definition yes, but Cox breaks down his personal vegan rationale to two distinct points: “Raising animals for food 1) destroys the planet and 2) causes those animals to suffer.” While this may not exactly define every vegan’s (or vegetarian’s) raison d’être, it does seem to provide a cursory perspective for a somewhat stringent lifestyle.

So as these rules apply, the humble oyster gets a pass, and is therefore afforded a place on the vegan dinner table next to the marinated tempeh and grilled zucchini.

Oysters, unlike other factory-farmed animals like cows and pigs, actually thrive in the factory farm (or in this case aqua farm) setting. Oyster farms account for about 95% of all oyster production and have minimal environmental impact on the surrounding ecology. No forests are cleared for oysters, no fertilizer is needed, and no grain goes to waste to feed them—they have a diet of simple plankton.

Actually, oyster farms are often utilized to clean up polluted waterways, as the oyster is essentially a natural-born filter well suited to the job of cleaning contaminated rivers and bays. Fundamentally, oysters and oyster farming is actually, to some extent, beneficial for the planet.

With this information, we can feel somewhat OK about our reasonably low carbon footprint when it comes to eating oysters, but this is only half the equation, as it doesn’t really address the pain and suffering component of eating a live animal. For anyone that has ever consumed a fresh oyster, the ritual resembles a sort of brutality that is comparatively rare in world of modern eating. First the live oyster is penetrated and bisected with a knife, then it is most often incapacitated and stunned by a spray of lemon juice and then quickly consumed by being slurped down the throat of the consumer in waiting.

However, according to Cox, oysters don’t have a central nervous system, which makes them seemingly unable to experience pain in that humans or livestock do. Cox asserts, “Biologically, oysters are not in the plant kingdom, but when it comes to ethical eating, they are almost indistinguishable from plants.”

With this justification, are we to assume that the oyster should stand as the exception to the rule, as is evidenced by their apparent lack of typical animal traits (no face, no pain, no guilt)? Is this justification enough to forgo the rules of veganism/vegetarianism and take a life?

Should eating ethically be a purity pissing contest, or should these dietary definitions be more malleable to embrace exceptions like the oyster?

P.S. Protect yourself from the coming data-powered panopticon by getting a VPN.

Eric Steinman is an editor and writer who has been covering food culture and social issues for more than a decade.

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[…] Remember that being vegan is about minimizing waste of resources, environment, or animal lives, so throwing away everything you can’t eat wouldn’t help the problem. For the same reason, keep in mind that some animal products are perfectly kosher to eat while vegan. […]

Heather Enid W.
Heather Enid W.

Oysters are bivalve molluscs like mussels, and in my biology degree I had to do an experiment on live mussels, a sensitive animal as you will see.

In the wild they make threads to anchor themselves to the rocks. By keeping very still and quiet for several minutes, I saw them open their shells and partly come out to do this. They stick the threads between the rock and their shells. The slightest shadow falling across the mussel alerts it and it dobs back in like lightning.

Yes, I’m a big bad animal experimenter! The experiment was to count how many threads the mussels wove in a certain length of time in clean sea water, and to compare this with the number when the water had previously held a crab (crabs eat mussels). Yes, the mussels can smell the crab, and weave only a minimum number of threads when they think one is about! So, not just an insensitive lump of meat in a shell, but a fully functioning alert animal that responds to its surroundings. I can’t believe it doesn’t feel pain.

Octopus are also molluscs and it is recognized here in England that they are a sensitive and intelligent animal, so much so that a Home Office licence is needed for any physically intrusive experiments on them. However, mussels for human consumption are boiled alive, as are crabs, shrimps and other invertebrate ‘sea-food’. Vegans don’t eat any of these animals!

Debra M.
Debra M.

Wait, wait, wait. Oyster farms as “eco-friendly”, as “cleaning up the environment” discounts the dredging on the East Coast, or the screens that are placed over the beds on the West Coast; PVC tubes for geoducks, acres and acres of them; they eliminate all the natural predators to the shellfish farmed, it is as harmful as can be. To say that oyster farming, doesn’t have much impact, or geoduck farming, shrimp farms, you have to have your head in the sand.

To say that veganism is a pissing contest, well, sadly, that is what goes on. I am a vegan, but there are those voices that do try to make the arguments for being this vegan, or that kind of vegan. But if you just go with that fact that if it is alive, eats other animals, can digest, move, animal, in other words, shellfish, or mammal, or fish. Don’t eat it. Jackson Z. is correct in that to push veganism a lot of people push soy products that are deep fried, bread crumbed, chemically altered.

But of course, it is a lot more than that. I choose the ethical choice of not eating animals or fish, or shellfish. If i have to kill another animal so that I can live, well, I just can’t do that. And I feel better not eating animal protein.

Yvette T.
Yvette T.

Such an absurd article along with most of the comments posted thus far. All oysters are sentient beings, and humans must never cause pain, suffering and death to any sentient being.

Henk L.
Henk L.

the opening statement, relating to nirvana fans using it to latch onto some sort of lazy epicurean philosophy, is wildly generalizing. In fact many people saw the critique that sounds through from these words.