Ask Umbra: Is it OK to eat kangaroo?
Send your question to Umbra!
Q. Dear Umbra,
As an American currently living in Australia, I would appreciate if you could shed some light on the kangaroo meat industry. I consider myself a conscientious carnivore for reasons relating to environmental sustainability and wellness, but in practice am essentially a vegetarian since organic free-range meat doesn’t usually fit into my budget. But now everywhere I shop there is an inexpensive, free-range, all-natural, delicious game meat available: kangaroo! Is this too good to be true?
A. Dearest Maia,
My duties do not generally entail analyzing the appropriateness of eating one animal versus another. In fact, I tend to gently encourage my dearest readers to eat less meat overall. But your question is too juicy to resist. Though I had never explored the seamy underbelly of the kangaroo meat industry, it turns out this is one “hop” topic. (Oh yes I did.)
The meat of Australia’s iconic macropod is, by all accounts, delicious and nutritious: low in fat, high in protein and iron, with a taste described by one New York City chef as “like sweet filet mignon.” Kangaroo meat is currently exported to more than 50 countries, including the good ol’ U.S. of A, and is often marketed as “good for you and good for the environment.” On top of all this, you have informed us that the meat is sold, locally at least, for a not-exorbitant amount of money.
Actually, the local angle is a key detail. If you were craving kangaroo in Kalamazoo, I would tell you not to bother. But I confirmed with Clare, my highly placed vegetarian source in Melbourne, that kangaroo is widely perceived in those parts as “a good choice of meat: organic, lean, and local.”
So should you become, like one of Clare’s friends and assorted other vegetarians who make an exception for this product, “kangatarian”? Proponents of this $280 million industry say the kangaroo, long a traditional food source in its native land, has a leg up over Australia’s other livestock when it comes to sustainability. Kangaroos produce less climate-addling methane than sheep and cattle, require less water, and cause less damage to the land. Unlike their factory-farmed brethren, kangaroos roam about the wild until they are “culled” — aka shot. The government sets annual quotas for the number of kangaroos that can be killed, by licensed hunters only, via a specific code of practice [PDF].
That all sounds like a nice alternative to factory farming and pink slime, until the critics pipe up. They say the kangaroo industry is unsanitary and the meat presents pathogen-based health risks (Russia just ended a crippling four-year ban brought on by contaminated shipments). But their primary concern is the very killing of the animals — and the attendant killing, in accordance with the laws, of the young that are left behind. This statement is characteristic of the anti-meat forces: “Kangaroos have a social life not unlike humans, with strong mother and joey ties, companions, relatives, and the like. When continually shot, kangaroos fret for loved ones, their own lives being forced to live in a state of spasmodic terror.”
Spasmodic terror, while perhaps an excellent band name, does not sound like a very nice condition for any creature to experience. Therefore animal-rights groups would like to see an end to this industry, which has been actively exporting products since the 1950s.
Time to ponder, Maia. Do you believe a wild animal is fair game? Do you trust the government of that very nice country where you’re squatting to set quotas and oversee the licensing of hunters? Do you cringe at the thought of baby kangaroos being bludgeoned, beheaded, or abandoned when their mothers are shot? Is it worth navigating this rocky moral ground for a delicious, locally grown burger?
Only you can answer these questions. But since you asked my opinion: If you are going to indulge in meat, I think you could probably eat kangaroo once in a while with a relatively clear conscience. Better yet, you could continue along your “essentially a vegetarian” path — and still be able to read Winnie the Pooh without wincing.