Legalize Dog Meat

Science, technology, and life.
April 15 2008 4:00 PM

Legalize Dog Meat

I feel strangely obliged to say something about today's dog-food story.

No, I'm not talking about food for dogs. I wish I were. I'm talking about making food from dogs —and serving it to people.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Yes, this is happening. It's been happening for a long time. I first wrote about it six years ago , when the soccer World Cup was coming to South Korea. In that country, at latest count,  2 to 4 million dogs are eaten each year. (This was shortly after I wrote about sex with dogs —but let's take our perversions one at a time.) Here are this week's developments, as reported yesterday by AFP:

Officials in the South Korean capital Seoul said Monday they will launch their first health inspection of illegal dog meat restaurants ... "We do not intend to regulate the selling of dog meat but to examine their safety," a food safety official told AFP ... The city will conduct regular inspections, publicize a list of restaurants that serve unhealthy dog meat and suspend their operations, he said. Such restaurants are technically illegal.

To avoid adverse publicity before the 1988 Olympics, the city banned dog meat and snake meat as "abhorrent food." But the order is now largely ignored.

"Many citizens enjoy dog meat despite the ban. But there have been no hygiene regulations on their slaughter and trade because dogs are not classed as livestock," the official said. The city government has proposed reclassifying dogs as livestock so it can set food safety standards. But the proposal, which will be sent to the central government next month, has sparked angry reactions from animal rights activists, who staged street protests and launched online signature campaigns.

Confused? I sure am. Let's sort this out. To comply with Western sensibilities, the Koreans officially banned dog meat. But they don't enforce the ban, presumably because they don't share the abhorrence. And why should they? Why exactly is it gross to eat dogs but OK to slaughter pigs, which, by most measures, are smarter? So we've started with irrationality compounded by hypocrisy.

Now we have a health problem. According to the article, Korean dog "slaughtering and processing is carried out in dirty environments and poses risks to diners' health." Why the dirty environments? Apparently because the formal ban prevents the government from classifying dogs as livestock so it can regulate their slaughter and processing as it does with pigs.

What are animal-rights activists doing about this? They're trying to stop the reclassification, which means, in effect, preserving the risks to human health.

In general, I have a soft spot for animal rights. Not just for adopting puppies, but for the broader agenda of recognizing higher animals as way smarter than we've given them credit for. I keep an entire directory of news clips about all the amazing things animals can do. (Here's a trivial example from this week's news file; here's a far more profound one from last week's file.) The reason we've underestimated animals is that we've overestimated ourselves. We haven't studied them carefully enough. When we do, we keep finding "new" abilities.

Conservatives who preach a binary distinction between human dignity and the status of animals will be in for many rude shocks as this research proceeds. And, for the rest of you, I'm sorry to say that your practice—and mine—of slaughtering and eating sentient beings will gradually be recognized, God willing, as barbaric and obsolete .

So that's my lefty position on eating animals. But I'm afraid it doesn't lead me to the same conclusion as the Korean animal-rights lobby. If dogs are no better than pigs, I don't see the point of maintaining the current hypocritical distinction, particularly at the expensive of human health.

The Korean debate also appeals to my libertarian pragmatism. One reason I'm against abortion bans is that abortions will happen anyway; they'll just be more dangerous to the born people involved, in addition to killing the unborn. The piety of being able to claim you've outlawed abortion doesn't amount to much next to the harm and suffering you cause by driving abortions underground. I'm for bringing it out in the open. I'd like to believe that if a practice is truly immoral and unnecessary, sunshine will lead to its erosion. In the case of abortion, the latest statistics seem to bear out that belief.

So I guess I'm for 1) getting rid of the hypocritical distinction between dogs and livestock, 2) legalizing and regulating dog meat like other meat, and 3) gradually persuading everybody, including us pious Westerners, to stop eating meat.

Note to self: How do I square this with my previous piece about fetal sex selection , which warned that reducing regulation of an abhorrent practice to "a mere question of consumer protection" leads us to declare it "adequately regulated" and no longer taboo? I'll have to keep, um, chewing on that one. In the meantime, all you pro-life vegetarians can feel free to consider me a hypocrite.

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