Death By Cookbook
In recent decades, chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Emeril Lagasse, Gordon Ramsey, and Nigella Lawson have become celebrities. They host popular television shows. Their cookbooks are bestsellers. They are revered by the public and seen as authorities on food matters. And for this reason, their food choices are ethically significant. Consciously or not, they send a message about the acceptable use of animals. But just what, exactly, is that message?
To find out, researchers analyzed and ranked cookbooks by celebrity chefs according to the number of sentient animal lives required to prepare all the recipes in each cookbook. Celebrity chefs were defined as those having their own television shows in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, or Australia. There were 26 chefs that met this criterion. A total of 30 cookbooks authored by these chefs were used for the study. A general-purpose cookbook was selected for each chef that typified that chef’s style. Four of the chefs had also written vegetarian or ethically driven cookbooks, so these chefs had two cookbooks in the sample.
Each cookbook was analyzed to determine how many cows, pigs, chickens, fish, and other sentient species had to be killed to prepare the dishes in the quantities specified by each recipe. The weight of meats called for was the starting point to calculate the number of live animals needed for the cookbook. The exception to this was chickens, where the carcasses required were tabulated by adding up the number of wings, legs, breasts, and other parts specified by all recipes. Researchers then calculated the average number of animal deaths per recipe for each cookbook. They termed this figure the “animal harm footprint.”, The more small animals needed (e.g. chickens or fish), the higher the chef’s place in the rankings. For all 30 cookbooks, the median was .42 animal deaths per recipe and the average was .67.
Cuisine made no real difference. However, the cuts of meat called for had a significant impact. For instance, a recipe requiring 10 chicken wings would automatically translate to the deaths of five chickens because each bird has only two wings. Dishes needing specialty cuts such as pork tenderloin or beef flank steak also led to high mortality counts because the animals had a limited amount of these cuts on their bodies.
The final measure for each cookbook was indexed and ranked. The authors then evaluated the results against how the various chefs represent themselves on the ethical issues surrounding animals and food. Everyday Italian by Giada de Laurentiis had the lowest average at 0.19 while Molto Gusto by Mario Batali had the highest at 5.25. Interestingly, this was Batali’s ethically conscious work. His other cookbook, Molto Italiano, third in the index, averaged a substantially lower 1.32 animal deaths per recipe.
Along with de Laurentiis, Jamie Oliver and Paula Deen were the omnivorous chefs with the lowest animal harm footprints. Oliver has voiced his desire for meat-reduced cooking. Neither Deen nor de Laurentiis has declared such an objective, so their animal harm footprint is likely an unintended outcome of their cooking style. Another thing the researchers noted was the comparable results obtained from chefs whose public personas are very different. For example, Padma Lakshmi is a self-identified vegetarian while Guy Fieri defines himself as a lover of meat and unpretentious American comfort food. Yet their scores are remarkably similar at .59 and .55, respectively.
Two chefs, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Yotam Ottolenghi, were noteworthy for their reduced harm footprints. Both discuss animal welfare concerns in their cookbooks while acknowledging the pleasure that good food can bring. Only these two chefs acknowledged that we need to balance our hedonistic pleasures with the demands of animal and environmental ethics.
Celebrities can have an outsized influence on their fans, from the clothes they buy to the diets they follow. This study illuminates the dark side of our love affair with celebrity chefs. Since the cookbooks we buy determine the meals we prepare, this study gives animal advocates a new avenue through which to promote animal welfare.