No matter how much things change, Americans remain fascinated with the super-wealthy, in much the same way that European nobility attract more than their fair share of curiosity, adulation and obsession.
That helps explain the spate of coverage in the last few years about a growing group of high-profile, high-income celebrities—our American royalty—who have decided to go vegan.
Or so they say.
The list includes publishing entrepreneur and billionaire Mort Zuckerman, music industry impresario Russell Simmons, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Whole Foods Markets CEO John Mackey and former President Bill Clinton.
Clinton, to be sure, has noted on numerous occasions that after undergoing heart surgery, he revamped his entire lifestyle—not only jettisoning the fast foods he used to consume with regularity but taking up a regular exercise and oh, yeah— there’s something to be said about the benefits of reducing one’s stress levels once you’re no longer a resident of the White House.
In other words, Clinton’s well-publicized weight loss and return to health can’t be pinned solely on his vegetarian food choices.
As for Biz Stone and John Mackey, their diets are as much a part of their overall marketing strategy of positioning their companies as hip and trendy as it is some deep devotion to a concern for all living creatures.
As a 2010 Bloomberg BusinessWeek article noted, “It shouldn't be surprising that so many CEOs are shunning meat, dairy, and eggs: It’s an exclusive club. Only 1% of the U.S. population is vegan, partly because veganism isn’t cheap: The cost comes from the value of specialty products made by specialty companies.
Anyone who’s shopped at a Whole Foods supermarket lately can relate to that statement.
A suspect epiphany
Whatever the reasons the rich and powerful decide to dabble in exotic diets, whenever it happens, you can be sure there’s an activist nearby with h is or her hand out. Sure enough, the article quoted Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, saying, “CEOs are smart. There just hadn’t been enough exposure for people to glom onto this trend. The information is everywhere now.”
Newkirk was referring specifically to Steve Wynn, the casino mogul who publicly went veggie a couple years ago. When Newkirk learned Wynn had become a vegan, she opined that she didn’t think it was crazy. “Having dolphins in a small tank outside a casino is crazy,” she said. “Ordering vegetables is not.”
Yeah—if those are the two choices, I agree.
Indeed, those who’ve had the good fortune (or bad luck) to stay at the Mirage Hotel property Wynn built and later sold for $6.6 billion in 2000—have seen the dolphins swimming around outside the casino’s elaborate artificial lake. Of course, according to numerous published profiles, Wynn is a self-described animal lover, someone who has famously included the Humane Society of the United States in his will.
Which helps explain Newkirk drooling over a guy who could fund PETA’s entire annual budget out of petty cash.
Well before his dietary epiphany, Wynn was busy using his share of the Mirage windfall to fund further gambling ventures in Macau, the Chinese province notorious for its Wild West-style gambling operations, and in Monaco and Qatar.
If we are to believe what he’s told reporters, Wynn then gave up meat and dairy a couple years ago, “converting” to a meat-free diet after watching the pro-veggie documentary Eating. “I watched it, and I changed the next morning," Wynn told BusinessWeek. “Bang! Just like that.”
Yes, just like that. Billionaires have that luxury. One phone call to their personal chef and they can order up any kind of diet or whatever cuisine a person with more money than they can count could possibly want. Cost doesn’t matter, a situation with which the majority of Wynn’s casino customers are unfamiliar.
And by the way, Wynn suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes severe “tunnel vision” and in fact is legally blind. His vegan conversion, not inconceivably, was likely in part an attempt to use strict dietary measures to reverse the effect of the disease.
Either way, the fact that a multi-billionaire whose primary claim to fame has been his ability to coax millions of working families to drop large chunks of their paychecks at his overpriced casinos in exchange for empty promises of sudden riches has no standing to lecture the rest of us—and certainly not livestock producers—about what we should be eating and how we should be treating animals.
In fact, according to the magazine story, Wynn’s come-to-Jesus vegan conversion occurred while he was sailing around on his yacht withhis personal chef aboard.
Yeah, that’s a scenario that’s as likely for most people to experience as winning the lotto and then deciding that since they can now afford it, maybe they are ready to sample a diet of tempeh, seitan and arugula.
That hardly makes veganism credible, it only reinforces the reality that in 21st Century America, nothing matters more than the size of one’s bank account.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
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