“What is the secret ingredient in this Crunch Burger that makes it so addictive?” is my standard line of thinking every Tuesday as my family sits down for our take-out night. I’m sure we aren’t the only ones whose fast-food intake has increased during the pandemic (we went from 0 nights a week to Tuesday night KFC specials).

We simply love ourselves a ‘Finger Licking Good’ piece of KFC (sometimes coupled with a cheeky Caramel Oreo McFLurry; merely because the franchises are less than two kilometres from each other in my neighbourhood). Convenience aside, the ‘treat yourself’ mindset is one which has noticeably increased during the lockdown. ‘I’m lovin’ it’, for sure!

Be it a Big Mac, Streetwise Burger or Whopper Meal, the ease and temptation of take-out makes the fast-food experience a generally positive one. The feeling I get in my tummy after devouring my sneaky treat, however, is not only caused by the unhealthy, nearly nutrient-free meal. It is caused by guilt. This guilt is not a reaction to spending money on more food “when there is a fridge full of perfectly good groceries at home” (queue mom’s voice), nor is it body-image guilt or the inevitability of weight gain.This guilt is knowing that I am a participant in the suffering of farm animals (see the article “The World’s Largest Fast Food Companies Are Failing Chickens”) for use by global food brands.

While eating my KFC, I consciously try to push confrontational vegan shock-tactics images out of my mind.

I try to suppress knowing that I have, in fact, given my stamp of approval to brands and franchises that ignore, or selectively adhere to, the World Animal Protection standards.

You can understand how, in being an animal lover (my dogs eat better than most people I know) who sees red at any mention of animal abuse or mistreatment, this dilemma is more than a passing one.

Matt Zampa’s article, which reports statements by World Animal Protection, identifies the cruellest mistreatment of animals (especially chickens) “by suppliers to eight of the world’s largest fast-food companies—including Burger King, Domino’s, Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut, Subway, Nando’s, and McDonald’s.” (Matt Zampa). With one article, my KFC indulgence and McFlurry treat turned very, sour very fast. Naturally, I started the hike up the vegan mountain of information, opinions and controversies in an attempt to come to terms with my guilt.

“When I was younger, something about eating animals already felt ‘off’ to me. I just knew it wasn’t something that I want to be a part of and it felt so wrong” explains Celia van der Walt, who has been a vegetarian for most of her adult life and a vegan since her second year of studies.

Like most vegans (and like myself, whose research for this article took me to some pretty dark places), her dietary transformation started with investigations into the dairy and egg industry. Celia tells of the  ‘horrors’ she found on the treatment of animals by fast-food brands, which ultimately caused her to commit to full veganism. “It is just the right thing to do”, she said.

The connotation of vegan food, specifically in South Africa, is that it is expensive and hard to come by. While this is not entirely true, committing to a full vegan lifestyle is inconvenient, difficult to maintain (my withdrawal from Lindt would be crippling) and yes, more financially strenuous. 

When I asked Celia how her conversion to strict veganism influenced her relationship with food, she said that paying attention to labels and ingredients “made me more aware of what I put in my body.” Instead of seeing her diet change as a sacrifice of certain dishes and tastes, Celia views her decision as an undeniably positive one. “I know exactly what I am putting in [to my body] and what makes me feel the best” she added.

All this talk about veganism and the idea of a positive diet change made me think of my honours year in university, in which I wrote an essay for my final examination on the Anthropocene (say that three times in a row). I studied and wrote on various advertisements by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals): an organisation renowned for using shock tactics and confrontational images to draw attention to animal cruelty (below is one of the less graphic, more ‘tame’ PETA advertisements urging people to boycott Canada Goose).

Like most sensitive and compassionate souls, seeing these confrontational images of animals in distress at the hands of humans, while unsuspectingly scrolling through Facebook, repulses me.

This repulsion always makes me think whether these shock tactics are the most efficient in educating people and spreading the message of veganism.

“I know that people who support PETA could be ‘aggressively vegan’ – they almost want to force their [beliefs] on other people”, replied Celia when I asked for her opinion on PETA’s techniques. “But”, she added, “I also support PETA because they are for treating animals with respect: for not killing and abusing animals, or using animals for things that we don’t need”. Convincing someone to go vegan should rather be done by setting a positive example and “explaining how it has affected my life and how it is a positive thing” explains Celia. ” At the end of the day,” she added, “veganism is about being kind and treating all other beings with kindness.” To this end, Celia believes that “people need to be made aware of where their food is coming from” because “there is an abundance of other food for us to eat that didn’t require the death of animals…”.

A positive approach must be favoured when educating people about veganism, according to Celia, who elaborates by saying “I don’t feel like veganism has to be this thing where vegans are screaming and forcing you to do something. That is not right: it should be a positive change.”

For Celia, the positives of a vegan diet aren’t only health-related, but also impact her compassion and environmental awareness. As a proponent of ‘Vegan for Everything’, she researches new brands before committing to buying from them. She also uses cruelty-free makeup and skincare products, and is actively trying to avid supporting ‘fast fashion’.

Wow. Talk about dedication.

After chatting to Celia, who I now regard as rather saintly in her commitment to ‘do no harm’ against living beings, I feel very conflicted.

While the move to veganism is one that is undeniably attractive to me, having the funds and social setbacks to support a vegan-only lifestyle is one (rather significant) roadblock on my way to moral absolution.

Now, buying KFC every Tuesday along with a cheeky McFlurry is going to be more challenging for me: I know that I’ll continue to struggle with the feeling of guilt. Perhaps ‘ignorance is bliss’ in this scenario, but, more accurately, choosing ignorance is a cop-out and voluntary rejection of environmental and moral responsibility.

Cutting down on (or completely eliminating, which is more appealing to me at this point) my fast-food consumption is a step in the right direction. Right now, my resolve may be a happy compromise, but it is not a solution. Veganism is a mutually inclusive decision: to be an environmentally conscious animal lover is to reject anthropocentrism entirely.

Veganism is an ‘all in or all out’ philosophy. However, like Celia says, “if everyone starts by trying, a lot of things can change for the better.”

Kathryn van den Berg

When trying to come up with an alias for my blog, I turned to words people have used to describe me for inspiration. The term 'control freak' popped up in my mind, but I'm not that confrontational and opinionated (anymore...). And so came into existence a happy compromise between my A-type personality and sense of humour.

Kathryn is The Control Enthusiast.

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