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What Oprah’s Big Vegan Episode Got Wrong


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.