Do the civilized eat dogs? That’s a stupid question

By Duc Hoang   October 3, 2018 | 10:00 pm PT
Whining about the ethics of eating dog meat is basically barking up the wrong tree.
Duc Hoang, a journalist

Duc Hoang, a journalist

The Vietnamese debate on dog consumption has lasted for over a decade now.

There is no way we can reach a mutually agreeable conclusion to it, unless, maybe, we look at this “problem” from a different perspective.

So far our arguments and counter-arguments have been based on a cultural standpoint. That’s why we’re stuck, authorities included.

Hanoi recently issued a statement suggesting that residents stop eating cats and dogs to “preserve the city’s image.” But that was it.

That statement failed to address the most important aspect of this discussion: the origins of dog meat sold in public and the health concerns associated with its consumption.

Take a chicken egg for example. In Vietnam, even an egg, which isn’t yet a living creature, is subjected to stringent food quality checks and has to be approved by veterinary departments. But that has never been the case for dog meat.

Some time ago I took part in a debate on TV, and the topic was Vietnam’s culture of eating dog meat.

I have to confess that I’d never given much thought to whether or not people should eat dog meat. I believe that in life, one survives simply by obeying two things. The first is one’s self-preservation instincts. To stay alive, people need to eat and drink and sleep and not run headfirst into a moving truck. The second is the law, or more specifically, the law of whichever country you live in. These are the fundamentals. All other norms, customs, etc. are subjective, so trying to debate yes or no, or ethical or unethical, about these things will end up at a dead end.

So these were the thoughts going through my head. But I couldn’t actually say all that on live TV. Debating wasn’t really my forte, I thought.

Anyway, I started talking about the legal aspects, more specifically about how all food products need to have clear origins and undergo strict quality checks.

Sounds lame? Think again.

If everyone knew where all the dog meat sold in the local markets actually came from, they would be wary of consuming them, and the number of dog theft cases would surely plummet, as many of the dogs sold are actually stolen pets.

Dogs wait to be slaughtered in a cage for sale as food in a village outside Hanoi. Photo by Reuters/Kham

Dogs wait to be slaughtered in a cage for sale as food in a village outside Hanoi. Photo by Reuters/Kham

The illegal act of robbing an animal, then killing it for food right under the nose of law enforcers, would be utterly unacceptable in any developed nation.

It would be even more so in Vietnam, where we are at home with complicated paperwork and certificates and stamping approval seals on absolutely everything.

However, the legal aspect, for some reason, gets almost no attention. Being humane, civilized and such abstract notions are at the forefront, and if this continues, they will remain there for a long, long time.

And it won’t get us anywhere.

But it just might be the law, and its enforcement, that could provide the key.

Once dog meat has to undergo all the quality checks and approval procedures, their prices would go up. Like... a lot.

What impact would expensive dog meat have on consumption?

Typically, people willing to pay a lot for gourmet food are young people in urban areas, but this is a demographic that is speaking out against consumption of dog meat. Then there are the working middle-class adults like me, who couldn’t care less about this debate, in the first place. If it’s too expensive, I just won’t buy it.

Historically speaking, tightening the flow of goods into the market and increasing their prices have always been effective in curbing consumption. And that’s not the only solution out there. Laws have proven their ability to dislodge even the most deep-rooted habits of a community.

Look at how Singapore handled smoking. As the government heavily fines people who buy, sell or use cigarettes and its related products, you won’t so easily see somebody casually puffing out rings of smoke there. It wasn’t a discussion or debate on whether people should stop smoking or not that purged the behavior, it was the law, in a law-abiding nation.

Hanoi isn’t taking notes.

Officials keep saying that people “shouldn’t” eat dogs and cats, while dog meat with no clear origins are publicly sold everywhere.

The dog meat debate needs to be scrutinized by the law, and people need to know where the things they eat actually came from. There would be no need to keep spouting words like “civilized” or “culture” or “humane,” and no one would need to feel offended either. There is nothing left to debate on, once we boil the conversation down to plain-old food safety concerns.

We didn’t succeed in making people wear helmets in traffic or banning firecrackers during the Lunar New Year by playing the “cultural” card; we simply made it part of our law.

Imagine what we can achieve with this.

Forget dog meat, the legal route can take us to a world free of plastic bags, buffalo fights, paper burning offerings... you name it.

But will we do it? Or let sleeping dogs lie?

*Duc Hoang is a Vietnamese journalist based in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

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