Home Food What Oprah’s Big Vegan Episode Got Wrong

What Oprah’s Big Vegan Episode Got Wrong

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So in case you missed it, on Tuesday, February 1, 2011, Oprah aired her vegan challenge episode in which she and 378 Harpo Studios staffers went on a vegan diet for a week. Some people laud her for her approach to a healthy eating lifestyle. Me? Well, here\’s my four takeaways from Oprah\’s meatless adventure. 

1. Slaughterhouses are rainbow factories and animals love their short, miserable lives.

Hey Mr. Cow, is this really what a slaughterhouse is like? Mr. Cow responds, "Yeah, uhm, no."

During the first segment of the show, Oprah got her good friend Lisa Ling to go check out a slaughterhouse so that we can see the entire life cycle of beef animals from start to finish. The cows were lovingly handled by wide-eyed farmhands who pretty much did everything but read them bedtime stories and sing them to sleep. Then they were gently loaded into a truck where they were driven to a Cargill slaughtering facility and were led to their unfortunate, yet highly respectful death. Wow! What a surprise. I\’m shocked beyond belief.

Now I don\’t want to cast aspersions on this particular facility. For all I know, every day there really is a song even when Lisa Ling and her cameras are not around. However, I would just like to point out that if you know that the queen of daytime television is going to be stopping by for a visit, you\’re probably not going to trot out the crazy dude with the nose-piercing and the “I Heart Murder” tattoo on his left bicep. But, I dunno. Maybe that\’s just me. 

2. Only cows are important. Pigs and chickens can totally go jump off a bridge.

"No, no Oprah. It's cool. My plight is totally meaningless."

Let\’s just pretend for one minute that perhaps the trip to the livestock facility depicted animal slaughter exactly how it is. Okay, great. The pretty, well-spoken white lady who spoke on behalf of the Cargill facility gets a total pass. But apparently, chickens, pigs, and veal lambs can be subjected to sheer pandemonium.

Little mention was given to the battery cages in which laying hens are confined, the gestation crates that sows are stuck into, or any of the other horrors of factory farming. And I\’m not talking about random, bad scenarios that only happen in isolated incidents. These practices are considered standard operating procedure. But I guess if you can\’t affect change, then why talk about it? Let\’s just sweep it under the rug and pretend that it\’s not there.

3. Processed fake meat and cheese products are your only hope for sticking to a vegan diet and taste just like the real thing.

Of course, who is Oprah if she doesn\’t feature a special guest who is pushing a book?

For the vegan extravaganza, her guest was author Kathy Freston who calls herself The Veganist (whatever that hell that is) and whose book can be found here. Wait, what? Oh, sorry, I\’m told that this is actually it, here.

"No, bitch. As a matter of fact, it does NOT taste just like chicken."

Anyway, the camera crews dutifully followed as she took one of the Harpo employees on a grocery run and loaded up her shopping cart with every fake meat imaginable, while promising them how wonderful everything was going to be when they got it home. The result is that the poor woman\’s children asked why they were being punished and her husband beat her into a coma. Okay, maybe that last part was being a bit colorful. But you get the picture. 

Many long-term vegan advocates will advise that faux meats are a recipe for disaster. Although some are palatable, many meat substitutes out there are just downright gross (not to mention expensive); and putting them on a plate, while telling an omnivore that it\’s “just like chicken” is irresponsible and actually kind of stupid. It\’s all about expectation. Don\’t set people up to have them expect to eat something that is even remotely like the real thing. Otherwise, when they try it, they\’re going to spit it out…and then they will punch you in the face.

4. Recipes that rely on fresh, whole foods should be omitted from your diet.

In the part of the program during which Harpo employees got to speak up about their experiences, many of them responded affirmatively. Some even lost a good bit of weight. Overwhelmingly, though, the response was that they were glad that this miserable experiment was over. And the ones who didn\’t die outright quit working for Oprah and filed a class action lawsuit against her for violation of labor laws.

"Oprah, why did you betray us?" (note: not actual Harpo worker)

Okay, I made that up. But still, they were thrilled at the chance to go back to eating ‘real food\’. Sadly, their definition of what\’s real was horribly skewed. Ms. Freston missed a ton of opportunities to expose people to easy, fast plant based recipes from all parts of the world including falafel, hummus, or stir-fried vegetables. She even missed opportunities to share easy tips on how to veganize recipes that traditionally call for non-vegan ingredients. I mean, even if you\’re not vegan, it sure helps to know that a small mixture of vegetable oil, water, and baking powder can sub for an egg in baked goods in a pinch.

So overall, it seems like Oprah\’s vegan adventure was something of a bust. But I don\’t want to be too down on the poor woman. She does have a hard time of it. After having been sued in 1996 by Texas cattlemen for saying that she didn\’t want to eat hamburgers, who can blame her? Anything less than a love letter to the meat industry would probably mean they\’d skip the court system altogether and just kill her!

Don\’t worry, though, Oprah. This one episode sucked big time. But most of us still love you anyway.

  • Josh

    I have to agree 100% with the article. You know what? I HATE most “fake meat,” it can be a horrible texture-trip through the twilight zone of processed food. BUT, a lot of places get it right! And Oprah, where were the veggies? the grains? you know, the FOOD!

  • http://cassEndrExavier.com Cassendre Xavier

    Hilarious and informative! I didn’t even know about this, because I currently don’t own a TV. I agree about the fact there are many ways to eat deliciously vegan without the fake meats, dairy and other junk foods. Thanks for posting this on Facebook where I saw it – I didn’t even know you’d written it until about halfway through!

  • Jen

    Right on! And I think it’s sort of funny how there’s an advertisement with a picture of three cheeseburgers at the bottom of your little article right now. Lol, priceless. I’m sure the ads are on a random rotation, but it’s just too funny.

    I totally agree about the fake meat thing. Although, SOME of the fake meats actually taste pretty decent. I’ll have a fake meat every once in a while, but not too often because it starts to get gross if I eat them too often. I think Kathy’s approach, though good-intentioned, wasn’t right. As soon as she reached for those Tofurky sausages, I knew the poor vegan guinea pigs were doomed. Instead of showing them that dishes without meat (or meat substitutes) can be delicious, she completely freaks them out with Tofurky! Seriously, that stuff is the DEVIL! It makes me want to gag just thinking about it.

  • http://togiveandtake.wordpress.com Kate

    LOVE the article. So many good points and I’m pissed that she didn’t think of asking on any vegan atheletes or even Mark Bittman (http://markbittman.com/)
    who would’ve been a great person to discuss the great parts of being vegan, but also not having to be vegan all the time if you’re not ready to commit to that change or if you don’t want to. I mean ultimately I feel like the best way to do is to take baby steps!

  • Karen Barnhart

    Awesome article. Her show sounded more like a soundbite than actually teaching people how to live a vegan lifestyle. Dumb and a waste of time. And yes, she runs scared of the beef industry…

    Some of those meat substitutes can be as unhealthy as meat.

  • Leve

    Actually Oprah won her case against the beef industry; beat them in their own backyard during a trial in the most pro-beef town in America I thought the show was pretty good. The woman was a bit of an extremist, but the man was balanced. It convinced me to try the meatless Monday concept, which is huge for me because I eat a lot of meat. I just want to see if not eating meat makes a difference in how I feel.

    • MAK

      what was the result of your new diet

  • http://www.TheNoirEffect.com www.TheNoirEffect.com

    I think Oprah presented a wonderful show that showed all sides and opinions. She didn’t lean one way or the other and allowed her staff members to speak freely of their experiences with many saying that they hated the experience and couldn’t wait to get back to eating meat. Again, it was fair and balanced.

    I think that because Oprah is the most recognizable face in media that people are quick to jump on the side of being critical instead of coming with an open mind and opinion. Instead of stating that there was some informative information that you would offer you decided to say what Oprah got wrong. Oprah got the point that she wanted to make across, nothing wrong or right – just what was.

  • http://Www.coexistingwithnonhumananimals.blogspot.com Jordan Wyatt

    I wasn’t expecting much but was still left shocked, this “The Veganist” actually said “singing Hens who produce eggs” and “small scale farms” were explicitly moral!!!

    I found a recording of the show, it’s linked here

    http://coexistingwithnonhumananimals.blogspot.com/2011/02/oprah-on-veganism-at-slaughterhouse.html

    I’ve made 37 clips and written a script for today’s episode.

    Also, there is no such thing as “Mr Cow” :-) A little like a “Mrs Boy”

    What an outrageous episode. Veganism was shown solely as a diet, to lose weight… No mention of wearing others skin, or of the ethics of killing other animals.

    http://www.abolitionistapproach.com makes a strong case for ethical Veganism as the *least* others deserve. Treatment, “Happy Meat” does not come into it.

    We shouldnt be treating other sentient beings as our property, as things.

  • Terrence

    Excellent article.

    My major complaint about Oprah’s vegan show was that they allowed Lisa Ling inside the slaughter house, but the crew was not allowed to video the actual slaughter – you know, the two minutes (according to Cargill) where the cow actually has its brain punctured and bleeds to death! If that two minutes is so ‘humane’ and ‘painless,’ then they should be proud to show America.

    Oprah didn’t really take us ‘inside a slaughterhouse’ – she showed us meat processing and packing – no facility is EVER going to let the slaughter itself be filmed because they know people would be outraged.

  • Eh72

    It wasn’t Oregon where the cows were slaughtered. Get your facts straight before you even start typing. Idiot!

  • JandC’sMommy

    I am not a vegan and I do enjoy meat. However, I do recognize that the fat content and hormones we injest with these foods are really unhealthy. While I don’t have a rating on Oprah’s episode, it did get me thinking along the lines of trying to cook and eat healthier. Does anyone have a recommendation for books that can be helpful for the beginner ? I want to start incorporating more veggies and less meats- are there any good recipe books that do an “introduction” for those interested in a slow transition?

    Thanks!

    • rawraj

      http://pcrm.org/kickstart/
      A kit developed by Physicians and “experts”(most on the panels are M.D. and Phds).

      Its better to believe a large group of doctors who have done extensive research rather than some pseudo-health expert who ate some veggies lost weight and then opened up a website on how to go vegan.

  • JSmith

    A few thoughts on the show:
    1) it was an hour show and it was never designed to show people how to become vegan. How could one expect that to be done comprehensively in an hour show? Yea, good luck with that
    2) This was not the first show that Oprah has aired along these lines. Some time ago (with Michael Pollan) as a guess they touched on the movie Food, Inc. And if you’ve ever seen that, very little is sugar-coated.
    3) I think Oprah’s show did want it set out to do for the time frame that it had — present an option to people. The show was never meant to be an edict, but rather to give people choice. yes, some of her staffers decided to continue with the vegan diet. But even some of those that decided to go back to eating meat & dairy said they woul dbe more conscious in from where there food came. This isn’t a light-switch lifestyle change for most people. And I think any change in habit is a good one. And if Oprah help promote more conscious thought about our food choices, then the show fulfilled it’s purpose, IMO

  • Nug

    Fantastic article! I also felt this episode dropped the ball and played it way too cookie-cutter for the meat industry. At least it puts some brighter spotlight on alternatives, but you called it. There were so many aspects missed and points that could have been added.