As humans and foodies, we are particularly interested in food as an important part of life. Generally, I try to live my life in an informed manner, in which I understand and can make decisions upon various ethical questions that arise.
On our travels, we have encountered more than a couple foods that have ethical problems associated with them. Instead of simply trying everything blindly and learning about it later, we have attempted to keep in the know about these problem foods, at least enough to be able to choose whether it’s okay to eat them.
Before the move to South Korea, I was a semi-vegetarian. Now, that was only for four months, and I must admit I ate meat at least once during that time. If ‘flexitarian‘ is an okay term to use, that is what I chose to be. But since that can be difficult to explain, I simply said I was vegetarian. Why did I choose to cut back substantially on my meat intake? First of all, I had tried out going vegetarian for a month in 2009 and liked it just fine. Second, I realized there was no reason I couldn’t be vegetarian for a while, at least until I started traveling. I was really committed for the first couple of months and then I decided that I was okay with eating meat very occasionally, so I had a burger or two. Many of my friends are vegetarian or vegan or pescetarian (someone who eats fish but no other meats). Through a lot of reading and research, I have decided that the American way of raising meat animals is very cruel and harmful to the environment. Eating less meat is also great for your health. All of these factors went into my decision.
But when I moved to South Korea, I started eating meat again. I did this because meat is very important in South Korean food culture. Food is very central to communal bonding in South Korea. Go to any restaurant in Korea and you will see that it is rare to eat alone. In fact, some types of restaurants are designed only for groups and will even turn away lone diners. At school, eating together in the cafeteria was a clearly important part of the day. Were I to have remained vegetarian, and brought in my own lunches, an element of bonding would have been missed. The other teachers may have even been offended on behalf of Korea that I wasn’t eating and enjoying the food. This of course is not necessarily a great reason to change your eating behavior, but since I was open to eating meat again, I decided to do it.
And then, I met a Korean man who enjoyed eating dog meat. He invited Jeff and I out to have a dinner of the stuff. Without doing much research into dog-eating-ethics (I thought the main reasons people didn’t do it were cultural ones – that they couldn’t get past their upbringing of ‘dogs-should-be-pets’), we went. We ate it. It was good. I was even proud of myself for pushing past my instinctual revulsion, but decided not to try it again, because the fact that I enjoyed it haunted me. I justified it by saying it was a part of the culture, which it is, though a dying part.
Not long after, I discovered some things about livestock dogs in Korea. I had known they were a certain breed, the Nureongi. I had assumed they were probably raised in substandard conditions much like basically any other meat animal. This is true. In fact, dogs don’t legally count as livestock so the people who raise them aren’t subject even to the same standards as those who raise pigs or cows. So the dog raising and slaughtering industry is, then, mostly unregulated. There is an old belief that a dog beaten to death is most tasty. Some say that this practice is not employed today, that most dogs are slaughtered with electrocution as this is most cost-effective, but it is unclear whether this is true.
I realized, then, that I had probably made a mistake. Eating dog was not one of my proudest moments, and I resolved to be more informed in the future.
This brings me to the titular questions: Should I eat shark fin soup? My short answer is no, and I even try to avoid restaurants whose main dish involves shark fins.
This one, however, is not just about cruelty though that plays a role as well. I see shark and shark fin dishes for sale in many places in Asia, most prominently in China. It’s also readily available here in Thailand. It’s a delicacy, and an expensive one at that. Sharks are caught, their fins are removed, and they are thrown back, still alive, because it’s basically just the fins that are worth anything [Note: I am linking to Wikipedia largely because it is the only unbiased source I could find]. The shark can’t survive without its fins, so it dies anyway.
In addition to the cruelty aspect, this practice is very harmful to the environment (boy, are we ever bad to our oceans). Sharks are a vital part of a healthy ocean ecosystem. Having grown up in an area where waterways were of huge importance – in fact, everyone at my school had to take Oceanography – I find myself often rather concerned about things that impact the health of the oceans.
So for me, personally, shark fin dishes are completely out of the question. I realize that everyone has a different moral and ethical compass, and for you, maybe eating shark fin soup is alright. That’s fine; it’s your choice.
But when you are traveling around, trying lots of new foods, this is definitely something to keep in mind. Where do you draw the line? When is it okay to eat or not eat a certain food? It can be hard to stay on top of every single controversial food, but I feel it is our responsibility simply as eaters to know at least a little bit about the most-talked-about ones.
How about you? Would you eat shark fin soup?