Advocate Definitions of Vegan

This essay analyzes how ‘animal advocates’ use the term vegan. Related pages look at definitions offered by dictionaries and the news media. Ultimately, animal advocates will determine how these sources define ‘vegan’. My use of the term is unlike any found here, but I believe it's more consistent with the history of veganism.

written 2009-10; November to February
In her 2010 article "Making Farms Friendlier: Watchdogs Expose Myth Behind ‘Humane’ Food Labeling", journalist Michelle Chen wrote about Farm Sanctuary [0]. She highlights the group's "Truth Behind Labels" campaign, which "aims to hold companies accountable for their claims about how animals were raised, slaughtered and processed". Another of their campaigns is called "Veg For Life", the materials of which state that "strict vegetarians, or vegans, are people who do not consume animal products of any kind, including dairy, eggs, honey and gelatin" [1]. Given how Farm Sanctuary writes about veganism, it is not surprising Chen uses the term as a synonym for "completely vegetarian diet":

Generally, groups like Farm Sanctuary advocate a completely vegetarian diet, and so see animal consumption as fundamentally unethical. Yet activists acknowledge that veganism isn't about to take over the American palate any time soon.

Conflate Vegan & Vegetarian

It is increasingly popular to merge veganism and vegetarianism. The difference between them is cast as unimportant, or simply denied. This phenomenon manifests as linguistic devices like ‘veg’, ‘veg*n’, and ‘veggie’. It can be partially explained by the fact that many advocates are either not vegan, or do not view veganism as a moral baseline.

Some advocates present veganism as a kind of vegetarianism. Happy Cow, an online "Compassionate Eating Guide", describes veganism as a "subset of vegetarianism" [2]. Animal Place is a "sanctuary for abused and discarded farmed animals" that encourages "going vegan", which denotes the "switch to a strict vegetarian (vegan) diet" [3]. VegSource, provider of news and commentary on a wide range of topics related to using nonhumans for food, hosts an article that identifies the "pure vegetarian (or ‘vegan’) diet" [4].

Blurring the line between vegan and vegetarian allows large advocacy groups to cover more donor bases. A clear vegan message would deter many current and potential contributors. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is among the organizations guided by this fact. Dan Matthews, their senior vice president of campaigns, approximated in a 2003 interview that just "half" of PETA's membership is "vegetarian" [5]. A sense of absolution for not being vegan is provided to members at every turn. For instance, their main website features a "Get Active Center" that lists dozen of ideas in three time categories: "5 minutes", "15 minutes", and "commitment" [6]. The ‘become vegan’ message is nowhere to be found. On an external site, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk recently responded to a question by saying "go vegan", though she described this as "refusing to put meat, eggs, and dairy on your plate" [7].

When PETA materials do use ‘vegan’, it appears interchangeably with ‘vegetarian’. The effect is dizzying for anyone with the slightest interest in conceptual clarity. For instance, clicking the "Intro to Veganism" link in the sidebar of their "Veg Cooking" site leads to the URL where you find "Vegetarianism in a Nutshell" by Bruce Friedrich, PETA's vice-president of policy and government affairs [8]. This staple of their advocacy efforts is placed under the heading "Vegetarian 101". First textual mention of a v-word comes in the fourth sentence: "veganism and vegetarianism are about leading an examined life". In just a few short moments, the reader is exposed to a relentless barrage of similar looking terms: veg, veganism, veg, veganism, vegetarian, vegetarian, veganism, vegetarianism. An explanation of the relevant differences between them is never offered, but more blaringly imprecise messages are:

[One] reason for adopting a vegetarian diet is that eating animal products supports cruelty to animals. If we don't want to pay people to inflict gratuitous abuse on animals, a vegan diet is the only diet that makes sense.

Mercy for Animals runs the "Choose Veg" website, which is "your guide to vegetarian and vegan living" [9]. A page titled "making the switch" provides "five helpful tips for going and staying veg", all of which address what and where to eat. Visitors are told that after "becoming vegetarian" they can still enjoy "vegan substitutes". MFA has an "Action Center" at their main site that lists ten ways to "help animals". First is "becoming vegetarian or vegan", which requires taking the "time to develop new eating habits" [10]. A similar "Take Action" page exists for their "special investigation" of treatment standards at an operation in Iowa that enslaves chickens for eggs [11]. It urges "Go Vegan!", which means choosing "compassion over cruelty" by "adopting a diet free of meat, dairy and eggs".

Compassion Over Killing provides a "Vegetarian Starter Guide" that openly defines its terms: "[vegetarian] describes avoiding meat, eggs, and dairy products — also called vegan" [12]. The executive director of COK, Erica Meier, has demonstrated this interchangeability with contributions to COK's "writers group". A letter from 2009 published by The Washington Times uses ‘vegan’ in the context of "leaving meat, eggs and dairy off our plates" [13]. That same year, a letter appeared in the student paper for Villanova University that employs ‘vegetarian’ to describe a diet without any substances taken from animals "treated like mere meat-, milk-, and egg-producing machines" [14].

Animal Aid operates a "Go Vegan!" campaign, subset of their efforts to promote "Veggie and Vegan" lifestyles [15]. In recent years, Animal Aid has been organizing around "Vegan Month", which they view as a continuation of World Vegan Day on November 1st (initiated by the UK Vegan Society in 1994) [16]. The website dedicated to this yearly event offers a "Why go Vegan?" section that states: [17]:

"Vegans, like vegetarians, do not eat animal or fish flesh. However, vegans also avoid eating products that contain eggs, milk and honey. The vegan diet is 100% plant-based, and very healthy it is, too!"

Explicitly Described as Diet
Compassionate Action for Animals proclaims in the "Explore Veganism" section of their website that "adopting a vegan diet (one without any animal products) is one of the most important things you can do to combat factory farming practices" [18]. The FAQ page at the website for In Defense of Animals describes a vegan as "someone who chooses not to eat any food that comes from animals (i.e., meat, dairy and eggs)" [19].

Vegetarians International Voice for Animals provides at least two distinct accounts of ‘vegan’. One entails clothing issues, while the other does not. Their main website states that a vegan "eats and wears no animal products of any kind" [20]. Elsewhere, the definition is restricted to food. Their leaflet titled "A Matter of Life and Death" is primarily about vegetarianism, but mentions in passing how vegans "don't eat any animal products, like milk and eggs" [21]. VIVA's pamphlet "How to be Dairy Free" says that a vegan is someone who "eats no animal products – red and white meats, fish and other water creatures, dairy and insect products (such as honey and cochineal) or eggs" [22].

Erik Marcus runs the website and podcast at He has written three books, including "Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating" (2000), the very title of which reveals his focus and the definition he supports [23]. The FAQ at his site defines a vegan as "someone who doesn't eat animal products: meat, fish, milk products, eggs, or honey" [24]. He clarifies that "many vegans also avoid fur, leather, and wool". However, this sentence is the only mention of non-food purposed transgressions in the document. It suggests that diet is the only aspect of life necessarily affected by veganism. He confirms this with the response to "How do I go about becoming vegan?", which only discusses dietary change.

WVD Melbourne organizes a yearly fair in Australia for World Vegan Day. Their FAQ page states that vegans eat "a plant-based diet free from all animal products, including milk, eggs and honey" [25]. This is followed by the claim that "most vegans do not wear leather, wool or silk". Like Marcus, their definition requires ‘vegans’ to avoid food that involves nonhuman exploitation, but clothing and everything else is left optional.

Implicit Dietary Definitions
The group that calls itself Vegan Outreach has distributed over 11 million copies of their "Why Vegan?" pamphlet [26]. This is by far the most popular piece of ‘vegan literature’ among advocates. Although it never attempts to define vegan, the content gives readers no indication of any non-food implications. This pattern is followed by the "Life Can Be Beautiful – Go Vegan!" brochure from United Poultry Concerns [27].

Pamela Rice is responsible for the long-running pamphlet "101 Reasons Why I'm a Vegetarian", which she expanded to a book in 2005 [28]. The term vegan appears eleven times in the pamphlet (8th edition), and fourteen in the book. Most instances take the form "vegan diet". The rest relate to sustenance in other ways, such as "vegan food tends often to be lower in calories by volume". Rice wants ‘vegetarian’ to be commonly recognized as excluding not only nonhuman flesh, but birds' eggs and mammals' milk too. During a 2007 presentation, she commented: "I don't like the word vegan, I don't think we should even use it" [29]. Following through on this idea should help bring clarity to her work.

Virginia Messina is a dietitian who writes about both nutrition and ‘vegan’ advocacy. Her 2009 essay "Go Vegan in Ten Easy Steps" aims to show readers how "going vegan can be a fun adventure" [30]. All ten steps are advice on buying or preparing food.

Authors in the Mainstream
Mark Bittman is a NY Times columnist, and creator of several cookbooks. In 2008 he introduced the notion of ‘VB6’ (vegan before six): "no animal products, processed food or simple carbohydrates during the day", but "after 6 p.m., anything goes" [31]. This suggests that ‘V24’ (vegan always — the only kind) is a diet. Questioned directly about veganism during an online chat session, Bittman described it as the "most principled position one can take when it comes to eating" [32]. This stems not from anything we owe directly to nonhuman animals, but from the fact that, excluding "processed food", flesh and secretions are the "most damaging foods produced, both from a personal and a global perspective". He labeled veganism "a very tough sell" and said he would rather see "millions of people significantly reduce their consumption of animal products than see tens of thousands eliminate them". This utilitarian reasoning is also popular among many advocates, most notably Peter Singer and the group ‘Vegan Outreach’. It manifests in "less-meatatarian", one of Bittman's rallying cries [33]. He would like the fat and muscle tissue of nonhuman animals to be thought of more as "condiments" that we "treasure" [34]. Following through on this macabre vision, his 2008 manifesto "Food Matters, a Guide to Conscious Eating" contains 77 recipes, two of which include ‘bacon’ [35]. There are 10 such recipes out of the 404 in his 2009 cookbook "Kitchen Express" [36]. In both cases, cured pigs' flesh is just one of several frequently used ingredients derived from nonhumans' bodies.

Rory Freedman is the coauthor on a series of lifestyle books, from the original "Skinny Bitch" (2005), aimed at women, to "Skinny Bastard" (2009), written for men. She is a self-identifying vegan who claims that her purpose in life is to promote "animal rights" [37]. However, she ultimately plays almost the exact the same role as Bittman by being overly accommodating of mainstream values (including harmful gendered beauty standards). In the case of "Skinny Bitch", she trims and tailors her content to write a "no-nonsense, tough-love guide for savvy girls who want to stop eating crap and start looking fabulous!" After recommending a "vegetarian starter kit" from PETA, page 79 of this book declares a vegan to be someone "who doesn't eat any animal products" [38]. Readers come looking for improved well-being, and her books rarely deviate from that topic. Her ‘vegan’ message is not just overwhelmingly tied to potential benefits for humans, but placed alongside a bevy of health recommendations against smoking, not exercising, soda, alcohol, aspartame, coffee, refined sugar, and so on [39]. During her 2008 appearance on the TV talk show Ellen, Freedman elected to not even mention nonhuman exploitation [40]. When questioned by a popular environmental website about the "takeaway message of her books", rather than being dishonest and promoting veganism or asserting that nonhuman animals have rights, she offered this incisive account: "be more attached and more conscious about what you're putting in your mouth and what you're putting in your body" [41].

Jonathan Foer is a novelist who garnered considerable attention following his foray into nonfiction with "Eating Animals" (2009). Among his answers to questions from readers of a major newspaper, what stands out is a speciesist rejection of taking clear-cut positions on the morality of using nonhuman animals [42]. Of course, Foer would never think of expressing similar ideas about human animals. In his view the "important question" is not if "it's ‘right’ to eat animals", but how one should act "given the ways we are actually raising and killing them". Veganism and vegetarianism are "black and white" approaches that do a "disservice" to the dialog. Rather than being "extreme" and striving for "perfection" like vegans, he suggested that a questioner eliminate "one serving of meat a week". Returning to these themes in an article for the Huffington Post, he analogizes not eating nonhuman animals' muscle tissue to "caring about the environment" [43]. Just as "occasional" negligence when it comes to recycling or turning off the lights is to be expected, we can be excused for not being consistent vegetarians. Elsewhere, he offered an interviewer advice on buying "good cage-free stuff" (chickens' eggs) from local suppliers [44]. Foer believes that everyone who takes a careful look at the situation will come to at least "eat vegetarian almost all the time", but this is partly because flesh and secretions taken from individuals treated in a truly "humane" manner aren't widely available yet [45].









[8] — Friedrich’s article can be discovered from multiple locations, including the FAQ "How do I go vegan/vegetarian?" found at the website for their youth oriented branch PETA2 []. At a minimum, clarity demands this question be reposed as "How do I go vegan or vegetarian?"








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