The vegetarian diet is one that excludes all animal flesh and the by-products of the slaughter of an animal (such as gelatine and rennet) but it may include eggs and/or dairy products. The full, correct term for this diet is ‘lacto-ovo-vegetarian’ (or ‘ovo- lacto-vegetarian’) but the shorter term, ‘vegetarian’ has come to mean the same thing.
That’s pretty much the definition accepted by vegetarian societies world-wide and it is what is usually understood when one sees a ‘vegetarian’ section on a restaurant menu or a ‘vegetarian’ cookbook or recipe.
Most vegetarians choose their diet out of concern for the animals being killed for their flesh. So did those who set up Australia’s first vegetarian society in 1886 who felt that dairy and eggs caused little harm to the animals and included in their constitution and manifesto, “the great majority of so-called Vegetarians indulge in the use of eggs, milk, butter and cheese. It is not necessary to deprive animals of their lives in order to obtain these articles of food. On the contrary, many animals are, in consequence of the use of these substances, called into existence, and live happy lives in the society of mankind”.
While the early vegetarians felt dairy products and eggs were acceptable, if the same people were starting a vegetarian society today I believe there would be no quibbling: dairy and eggs would be off the menu! Why? Because the world has changed. Back then there were no intensive factory farms, no battery cages and no mass killing of the male chicks (people generally ate the excess roosters and gathered the eggs from the hens).
Now both the egg and dairy industries slaughter the animals they exploit well before they would have died naturally. If we believe it to be wrong to kill animals in order to produce unnecessary food, does it make any real difference whether they are killed before or after being used?
All male chicks bred by the egg industry are slaughtered on the first day of their life because males are of no value to the industry. Male and female breeder chickens (the parents of the layer hens) are slaughtered when they have outlived their usefulness and over 700,000 "bobby" calves are slaughtered each year in Australia in their first week of life simply so their mothers’ milk can be stolen for humans.
There is also widespread suffering for the animals used by these industries prior to their death. Dairy cows suffer dehorning, tail-docking and the distress of having their babies taken from them every twelve months. Layer hens are de-beaked whether destined for battery cages, barns or free-range.
In fact it can be argued that the dairy and egg industries are crueller than the meat industry in that the animals live a little longer and therefore suffer more. And to repeat, all ‘food’ animals end up at the same slaughterhouses.
For this reason, I believe that it is inconsistent with the ethical and philosophical aims of vegetarian societies to promote a diet that contains any animal products. The promotion of (lacto ovo )vegetarianism is, in effect, telling the world that it is wrong to kill nonhuman animals for their flesh yet it is okay to breed, imprison and mutilate them for milk or eggs – and then kill them.
People become vegetarian for all the best reasons but vegetarians need to consider that whatever reasons led them to be vegetarian should now also lead them to reject eggs and dairy products if they have not already done so.
Their vegetarian society tells them that they have reached an endpoint – that they are ‘vegetarian’. And society in general reinforces this acceptance of vegetarianism as a final state with a special section on the menu at many restaurants and processed food labelled, ‘suitable for vegetarians’ – each of which often means ‘contains dairy and or egg products’.
But given the changes in animal agriculture, lacto-ovo-vegetarianism is now not an endpoint – it is simply a place along the road to complete vegetarianism and should have no more recognition than that place where we first give up red meat or the one where we ‘still eat a little fish’.
Everyone on the ‘vegetarian road’ is to be congratulated on what they’ve done so far but also encouraged to keep going to the end. The current concept of ‘vegetarianism’ serves to stop people prematurely on that road – it gives them a comfortable but artificial niche.
Vegetarians are practising a far more caring and environmentally friendly diet than the average meat-eater but to be consistent, should now take the final, logical step of removing all products derived from the exploitation of animals from their diet.
On a practical level, soy milk or oat or rice milks provide a perfect alternative to cow’s milk. Soy yoghurt and ice cream are also delicious and nutritious. There are many alternatives to eggs in baking and scrambled tofu makes a great breakfast dish. If you consume processed foods, it may mean a little more reading of labels while you determine which products are animal-free. As strange as it may sound, milk solids appear in all sorts of weird places such as one brand of tomato paste.
So – I urge you to remove that qualification (‘lacto-ovo-’) from the description of your diet and become fully and unambiguously vegetarian by following a diet that contains no animal products – a diet that, as far as is practicable, does not support the exploitation of nonhuman animals.
Finally, if you are a member of a Vegetarian Society I encourage you check the rules of your Society to see that they do not promote a diet that ‘may contain eggs and dairy products’. If they do, please work toward changing them so that your Vegetarian Society is no longer ambiguous on the mistreatment and killing of nonhuman animals.