VEGA News Item

Definition of 'vegetarian' - 02/07/2003
VEGA's official definition of the term 'vegetarian'
Definition of 'vegetarian'

1. The word vegetarian, used as a noun or adjective, pertains to direct consumption by all orders of living things of diets composed of plant foods; in contrast, non-vegetarians consume foods derived from living beings deemed to be sentient. These definitions have scientific and practicable rigor.

2. They comprise subdivisions: a vegetarian may be a herbivore or frugivore and a non-vegetarian may be classified as a cannibal, carnivore, or omnivore. In their natural states ruminants and grazing and browsing animals would normally be described as herbivores, and some species of monkeys and birds are frugivorous, but they are all vegetarians. The flowers of some plants can be counted as carnivores.

3. The words have a precise meaning according to actual consumption, rather than interpretations of the functions of the gut. Thus procedures such as farming practices may turn archetypal herbivores into omnivores (or even cannibals), while single-stomached animals may be endowed with the physiological or vestigial apparatus of ruminants and exist as vegetarians, even with “blind” organs such as the cecum in the guts of people and pigs. Similar considerations can be raised in comparisons of dentition and the shape of the mouth and beak.

4. The definitions serve the purposes of zoologists, physiologists, and nutritionists well, but they have become blurred in the human context because our species has been unique in domesticating animals and farming them for food by slaughter and by exploiting them for certain products such as offspring, milk, eggs, and honey, prior to slaughter, while retaining elements of hunting in commercial and recreational fishing and angling.

5. The word vegetarian has had to be qualified in the human context because demi- and semi-vegetarians and demi-semis follow ill-defined versions in which the essential abstention is to red meat, and white meat, fish, poultry, game, milk, honey, and eggs may be acceptable. Such dietary exclusions are selections without sound reason and defy definition in a simple word. They have to be described variously as lacto-ovo-vegetarians, etc. or, colloquially, as cheesytarians, fishytarians, etc. They are not strict or true vegetarians, who conform to the scientific categorization of animals living solely on foods derived directly from the plant-kingdom.

6. The vegetarian attitude is informed by corollaries peculiar to the human species in concern for the exploitation of animals in the production of processing aids (eg finings to clarify and chill-proof beverages), cosmetics and toiletries (e.g. tallow in soaps), household goods, furnishings, clothing, footwear, and building materials (e.g. wool, leather, and gelatin); such interpretations extend to medicaments and nutritional supplements (e.g. in objections to lactose in formulations) and to pharmaceuticals and to experimentation on animals for all purposes.

7. These extensions are practised rigorously by strict vegetarians now called in English-speaking countries vegans. This word was coined in the 1940s. In many ways it overlaps the older word vegetalian, variations of which are used in languages such as French. The concept extends to fertilizers and manures used in agriculture and horticulture. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians have to ponder on constituents of feedstuffs, such as meat-and-bone and fish meals, oyster shells, and other “fifth-quarter” products fed to animals yielding milk and eggs and derivatives thereof. These reservations now include GM-crops and GMOs used in processing.

8. The broad definition of animal in the present context is given comprehensively in UK laws and regulations covering the conduct of scientific procedures applied in experimentation and for the running of zoos.

9. Two principles, among others, inform the impulses of vegetarians in their practice and custom:-

9.1 The act of producing, catching, or using animals solely to kill for the appetite, pleasure, and convenience of our species is rated reprehensible and avoidable, even if the termination is carried out by means of so-called humane slaughter. This reservation is dominant in the killing for these purposes of live animals taken from the wild environment. Execution of these procedures and complicity with them sets human beings tasks degrading to our species and our ethics.

9.2 Connotations of pain, cruelty, and sentience in the foregoing context apply forcefully as intensification has increased in farming practice and generated powerful reactions as potential customers and consumers learn of the insults inflicted on the livestock. Thus, strict British vegetarians rate so-called and misleadingly labelled vegetarian cheese as objectionable as beef from closed suckler herds - or more so. (Most British beef - like BSE - originates in the diary/beef/veal system).

10. Although sentience is not defined in British law, the word has appeared in European regulations. It is almost synonymous with consciousness or sensibility, and the physiological workings of pathways substances, and indicators of pain can be recognised, even in beings e.g. shellfish and insects, with distributed centres in their nervous systems.

11. Thus, surgeons now recognise the need for anesthesia in operations on the human fetus and newborn baby (e.g. in circumcision of males), and in experimental procedures on animals according to British law the fertilised embryo is arbitrarily regarded as sentient after the first half of the gestation (this provision is actually more stringent than in the practice of aborting human pregnancy). These considerations apply to fertilised eggs. In the UK all eggs sold commercially are infertile; actually, this is also an indication of the objectionable practices in all methods of egg productions, particularly the need to destroy a male chick for nearly every laying hen and to kill spent hens exhausted after a brief life of intensive output.

12. As the public learns more of farming and manufacturing procedures and demands correspondingly accurate claims and labelling and as confusions may arise over issues such as fertile and infertile eggs and free-range and organic methods of husbandry, as well as GM-crops, GMOs, and transgenics, the strict definition of vegetarianism should be retained. Milk and eggs are not produced commercially without slaughter of the maternal animals and birds and their offspring.  

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