How a Former Vegetarian Became a Butcher and Ethical Meat Advocate | Civil Eats

How a Former Vegetarian Became a Butcher and Ethical Meat Advocate

Butcher and author Meredith Leigh encourages consumers to consider the life, death, butchering, and preparation of the animals on their plates.

Before she was a butcher, Meredith Leigh was a vegetarian. She was fascinated by plants and loved vegetables—how they grew, the way they tasted right out of the field, how they changed color and texture as they cooked. 

But during a trip to Vietnam in 2004—after Leigh had been a vegetarian for nine years and a vegan for two—a woman named Loi served her water buffalo. Aware that Loi had raised and slaughtered the animal herself, the act of eating it became an act of connecting, and Leigh began to consider the idea of ethical meat. 

“Eating gained new meaning,” she writes of that experience in The Ethical Meat Handbook: Complete Home Butchery, Charcuterie, and Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore. It was then, she says, “I began my journey into the meaningful consumption of animals.”

Concerned that her previous choice to forego meat had had little effect on the systems by which animals are raised—and virtually no impact on the lives or deaths of those animals—Leigh started to identify with the concept of ethical meat. 

Leigh considers meat “ethical” if certain factors hold true: if the animal enjoys a good life and experiences a humane death, if the butcher uses each part of the body, and if the cook prepares or preserves the food to maximize its nutrition and taste. In talking about ethical meat, Leigh describes a system of relationships that involve exchanges of purpose and skill between animal, farmer, butcher, and cook.

Pathway to the Butcher’s Block

After studying agriculture at Warren Wilson College near Asheville, North Carolina, Leigh went on to buy and run a farm with her then-husband in the nearby small, rural community of Old Fort. Like many small-scale farmers, they cycled through various enterprises—vegetables, cut flowers, cattle, broiler chickens—trying to find the profit centers that could sustain their livelihood. They also helped spearhead a farmers’ cooperative in their community, and Leigh served as executive director of the Organic Growers School, an agricultural nonprofit based in Asheville. 

For many of her 14 years working the land, Leigh observed and practiced the beneficial integration of livestock into farm systems. In 2013, she and her ex-husband took their study of meat a step further and opened a butcher shop, Foothills Deli and Butchery, in Asheville. 

Impressed by her expertise in meat, a publisher approached Leigh about writing a how-to book on home butchery. Leigh was excited for the chance to use meat to make points about the food system and for the opportunity to weave a personal narrative into what could otherwise be a technical subject. 

Published in 2015 by New Society Publishers, The Ethical Meat Handbook details the journey of a farmer who has stewarded land, a butcher who has raised and slaughtered animals, and a mother who has pulled calves from the insides of mother cows. “It felt really important to me to put soul into writing about animal farming,” Leigh says. 

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Over the years, Leigh has increasingly become an advocate for home butchery, a practice in which individual meat consumers buy larger portions of an animal and then break down the meat at home. She maintains that home butchery is a practical yet radical return to a food system that keeps vital relationships intact. Ideally, under this food system, animals enjoy ample space to move and root in the mud; land benefits from the animals that graze it; farmers receive a fair price for their product; and eaters feel empowered by new culinary skills. 

“[Home butchery] is not an unreasonable thing,” she says. “You don’t have to break down a half cow, but maybe you buy a top sirloin sub-primal for $6 a pound.” She goes on to describe the butchering process—pulling off the cap, removing the side muscle, and cutting enough steaks to last a family three months. She pauses. “The flip side of that is the farmer is paying a really high price to get it cut and wrapped and selling it for $13.99 a pound. And you touch it as little as possible.”

Since her book was released, Leigh has begun giving humane slaughter consultations and private butchery classes as well as butchery demonstrations in front of packed halls across the country. 

Vulnerability and Strength in the Act of Butchering

Both on paper and in person, Leigh’s respect for life and for the land shines through—as does, somewhat unexpectedly, her vulnerability. 

In her book, for instance, she includes a scene in which she prepares to slaughter a lamb named Hercules at a friend’s farm. “I drove all the way there with my troubles thick upon my back,” she writes, and then describes the smell of hay in the barn, the look of the lamb’s eyes, and the mountains rising up in front of them as the lamb dies. 

Leigh’s acknowledgement of her vulnerability is perhaps why so many people—women especially—feel comfortable approaching her for guidance as they navigate farming or prepare to take the life of an animal for the first time, she says. 

“In my work, I have watched many animals pass,” she says. “In my classes, people ask me sometimes how to ensure that it will go well. I’ve even had people ask me if there is a way to make it easier… It is never easy. It isn’t supposed to be.” 

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As a female butcher, Leigh faces an industry largely designed and occupied by men. She’s made some tangible adjustments—commissioning a custom-made cimeter knife and lowering the height of her work table, for example. But she has also thought a lot about the concept of women and strength. 

“As young girls, we are often not taught to use our power to do things,” she says. “I remember leaving the [butcher] shop some days and thinking, ‘I’m not strong enough to do my work. I have to get stronger.’” But then she began to cultivate a different mindset. “Strength is much more of a mind thing,” she says. “Then the body and the muscle respond and grow stronger. [This mindset] has informed the way I parent and the way I talk to other women learning to butcher or farm.” 

With her book, Leigh does not seek to change the minds of vegetarians or vegans. Instead, she speaks directly to the people who make the most impact—people who raise, eat, and buy meat—encouraging them to make ethical choices. 

“At this point in our culture, the people who will have the greatest influence on the lives and deaths of animals are the people who eat meat, and not the people who don’t,” she says. “I want people to be able to look at the entire system of how meat gets on our plate and to understand that the enlightened consumer has the greatest flexibility to move the needle on good meat. Sure, the farmer has a role, the butcher has a role. But the person with the greatest agility is the eater.”

In the end, when we choose ethical meat, Leigh says, we will taste the difference. “The pig cannot resist the land, and when the pig dies, we eat its body,” she writes. “If we’re really eating, we muse on whether the body is enough homage to the land. Whether we can taste the fog, and the seeds, and the fruit. For the better it tastes, and the better it feels, the better we know it lived.”

Debbie Weingarten is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona and a 2019 finalist for the James Beard Award for Investigative Reporting. Follow her on Twitter at @cactuswrenwrite. Read more >

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  1. Alberta
    I did not like the part where she butchered a lamb. I feel like all baby animals should not be butchered but mature ones that are humanely butchered is ok. I read where Kosher butchers say they do it painlessly and i wish all meat industries would do the same.
  2. Lisa
    There is no such thing as "ethical meat" that comes from the violent slaughter of animals. This article and this woman is nonsense. Compassion for all animals, no animal wants to be killed and eaten, wake up.
  3. Chad
    Being against CAFO's and factory farms IS the 'ethical' stance and I agree with you there, BUT....Ethical meat? I don't think that is possible when there is no need to consume animal flesh/fluids except for taste. "If the animal enjoys a good life". Seems like that can't be true if a human is slaughtering it and ending it's life prematurely. A baby lamb was killed and you think that baby enjoyed a good life by shortening it's life by about 10 years? I'm so confused by this article. If meat eaters stopped eating so many animals, then that would change how meat is raised. i want to say so much more but I'm at a loss for words with this strange article..."I'm a vegan, can I please try some of your water buffalo." Seems legit
  4. Alex LaBorie
    There's something deeply disturbing about this entire premise. This woman is painting herself as some sort of angel of death -- all while she forcibly takes the lives of living, feeling beings -- solely for the sake of palate pleasure. Humans have no physiological need to consume meat or animal products (and in fact doing so has led to the leading diseases of our time including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and many kinds of cancers). Would this article be so positive is she were talking about slaughtering dogs? Cats? What's the difference? There's no "ethical" way to kill an animal who thinks, feels, and has a life of its own. Period. Please stop perpetuating the "humane slaughter" myth.
  5. Pr
    Every creature wants to live.
  6. Susan
    It takes nothing from a human to be kind to an animal.
  7. Andrea Davis
    I am also a former vegetarian and farmer.

    Yet i found a very different way to find meaningful connection with animals...I went vegan and set up a farm animal sanctuary.

    Going into the dairy industry as a vegetarian, and finding an incredible amount of kinship and connection with these vibrant, life-loving animals, it is completely absurd to claim doing them, humans or the planet favor by bringing them into the world for the purpose of being slaughtered.

    There is no way to responsibly breed someone for profit. There is no humane way to take and kill someone's child. There is no kind way to take a life from someone who wants to live.

    As a feminist, i find it insulting that the media is embracing the use of images of women butchers to try to soften and moralize a morally reprehensible practice.
  8. Jordie
    Eating animals is thinking of them as inanimate objects that have to serve a function for humans. The line is drown for some reason between pet animals and food animals based on their function. The line should be drawn at sentient beings or non sentient beings. That is ethical. The only humane farming is plant-based farming. Animals are not here for us, but with us. And they have no rights because humans are losing their empathy. It's time to evolve.
  9. Camille
    To me this feels like someone making lots of "lovely" excuses in order feel good about the horror of taking the life of another living being. Eating animals is an utterly unnecessary cruelty. There's no such thing as "humane slaughter" because all beings deserve life and the arrogance of the human species thinking that they have the right to decide who lives and who dies is beyond stunning. There are also many health reasons for avoiding animal products.
  10. Rachel Herriott
    The very existence of labels like “free range,” “cage-free,” and “humane certified” attests to society’s growing concern for the welfare of animals raised for food. But any time consumers of meat, eggs or dairy advocate for “humane” treatment of farm animals, they confront an unavoidable paradox: the movement to treat farm animals better is based on the idea that it is wrong to subject them to unnecessary harm; yet, killing animals we have no need to eat constitutes the ultimate act of unnecessary harm.
    Scientific evidence has irrefutably demonstrated that we do not need meat, milk or eggs to thrive, and that in fact these foods are among the greatest contributors to the leading fatal Western diseases. Unlike animals who kill other animals for food, we have a choice. They kill from necessity. We do so for pleasure. There is a huge moral difference between killing from necessity and killing for pleasure. When we have plentiful access to plant-based food options, and a choice between sparing life or taking it — there is nothing remotely humane about rejecting compassion, and choosing violence and death for others just because we like the taste of their flesh, and because they cannot fight back. Might does not equal right.
  11. So we agile eaters, what do we do? Particularly the less-than-middle class, who can't quadruple their meat budgets to ensure humane treatment? Personally, I think all meat should cost four times as much, and it should be exclusively produced the way Leigh produces it, but in the current system, where that is not true, what do we do? Do we adopt an almost-vegan lifestyle, but punctuate it with by rare, ethical carnivory and savour those occasions even more? I've been edging into this by cooking exclusively vegetarian, but it doesn't feel like enough.
  12. Dr. Patricia Tallman
    not buying your argument - no animal wants to die voluntarily to satisfy anyone's palate.
    "You have just dined, and however scrupulously the [humane] slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity." Ralph Waldo Emerson
  13. M. Moore
    It's impossible to humanely kill an animal. Every creature wants to live, especially those that are living a good life prior to being murdered for their flesh. But people who crave flesh will find ways to justify it. Some of my family and best friends are meat eaters and I still love them of course, but to glorify the killing of sentient beings and praise those who promote it is distasteful to those of us who respect and love all creatures enough to choose a diet that doesn't require butchery. Ethical meat? Of course it's better than factory farming, but better to raise animals for their milk and eggs in an ethical environment and let them live out their lives in peace. That would be the high road.
  14. Michael Broadhead
    There is no humane way to kill something that wants to live. They, like you, have a right to live. To deny them of that is murder, regardless of how you kill them.
  15. Donna Cunningham
    I notice that the key lines at the beginning were 'fascinated by plants and loved vegetables—how they grew, the way they tasted right out of the field, how they changed color and texture as they cooked.' and not loved animals and was horrified that they were being killed unnecessarily where there were plenty of plant alternatives. I personally could never believe in humane slaughter as how is it humane to kill something that does not want to die.

    I think the fact that she was able to so easily make this transition towards killing is the fascination was always with the plants, not a love for the animals.
  16. Katie W.
    "Ethical meat" & "humane slaughter" are oxymorons. There is no such thing as humane meat.
  17. Monika Robinson M.A.
    There is no humane slaughter, the animal does not want to die. Humans don't need meat to survive. This woman is a disgrace to humanity. That's that.
  18. R.
    There is no such thing as ethical meat! That is a contradiction in terms. The taking of life is a grave matter. If you rob another of life you are a murderer by virtue of committing the act of killing. Meredith Leigh is blurring the lines of ethics and morality. From an environmental perspective meat makes no sense whatsoever. Ireland has the dubious honour of producing the highest GHGs in Europe from agriculture - meat production. A meat-free diet is the only way that the planet's ecosystem can be healthy
  19. Cee
    If it was necessary for her to eat meat kudos- but it isn't. Giving people the choice to "butcher at home" doesn't connect with the animal, it's merely giving people the feeling of power they so crave- now with a pinch of pseudo compassion.

    The biggest compassion is to be vegan. Unless you live in an area that needs meat you can give the world that gift.
  20. Elle
    Thank you for this article. In my apartment lifestyle, and full time student budget I have made the life decision of only buying grass-fed, humanely raised, cage free or other indications of a higher quality of life. I also took this philosophy with fish products by buying pole caught, and sustainable seas brands. It is a long way off from where I want to be and to being able to butcher my own meat. By consciously buying meat for the treatment of the animal itself, it has changed my relationship with food.

    Thank you again for bringing a fresh outlook,
  21. Jenna Miles
    The idea of a vegetarian becoming a butcher is so obscene to me, so terrible I didn't even know what to say at first. And then one trying to justify killing animals by saying she is somehow helping them. Killing them isn't helping them, especially not for a product nobody needs. If animals were the concern, why not become an animal rights activist? Something someone who becomes a butcher clearly never was. Ethical meat does not exist. Because ethical killing of animals who wanted to live, for our taste buds doesn't exist. Maybe they had more kindnesses in their life, but that doesn't make it less a betrayal. It doesn't make it nice or kind.
  22. Vince
    Killing is wrong.

    You can't put a fresh spin on it. Clever though - well done.
  23. Ian Somerville
    She says, 'the people who will have the greatest influence on the lives and deaths of animals are the people who eat meat, and not the people who don’t' and 'the butcher has a role. But the person with the greatest agility is the eater'. . . . . . True. So in order to make the world more ethical, it would a better idea to encourage people not to eat meat, rather than to eat 'ethical meat'. There's nothing ethical about killing a baby sheep. She's written a book so she can profit from killing. Not very ethical.
  24. KaD
    The fact is 85% of vegetarians will not stay that way. It is an unnatural and unhealthy diet for humans. Kudos to her for what she does and the emphasis where it needs to be.
    • Azna Vishwa Dharini
      I find it astonishing that you mention that being a vegetarian is "unnatural and unhealthy." Eating meat is "unnatural" because we humans are not equipped with long, sharp, teeth to bite into meat. Would you pounce on a pig or cow and tear it apart with your teeth and hands and eat it that way? If the meat were not cooked, would you eat it? Human beings are not equipped by our Creator with the digestive system to digest meat!!!! It rots in our body. It has parasites which hatch in your intestines. It wreaks havoc on our health. So, if you think that eating meat is natural, then do it the way lions and tigers do it: pounce on one in the wild and tear into it. And as far as being an unhealthy diet, that is laughable. Yes, if vegetarians eat processed foods, desserts and other junk foods, then vegetarians are not going to be healthy. If they stick to vegan foods and avoid all meat, seafood, dairy, eggs, etc. and eat a whole foods plant based diet, then they will become healthier. Please do your research before you make such claims. Heart disease and cancer all are caused by eating meat and seafood. They are the leading causes of death. You are kidding yourself if you think that a vegetarian diet is unhealthy. I feel so much compassion for you because of your ignorance.
  25. Margarita
    What a load of excuses! She isn't trying to help animals or improve meat farming practices, she's just trying to appeal to a group of people who feel guilty about eating meat and giving them a reason to feel justified. That is her target market for the new business she started. If you ask me, this is just a cleverly-disguised philosophy of cruelty used to do marketing for her business, furthering the profits of the meat industry. For me, she lost any credibility in the first paragraph.
  26. Carola Chueca
    I am really in shock after reading how you try to convince people about eating meat, trying to show it like a simple act.
    And that if you kill the animal is cheaper and can connect you with the land the poor animal had walked bla bla...etc. etc.
    Sorry but this has no sense to me.
    Tell me please, where did you left the "health" issue??
    Of course you know that eating corps can bring you heartattacks, cancer etc
    Is so out of the mind your trying to sell us an idea that is inmoral when we think of killing sentience beings...but for you killing them at home is cheaper and wonderful.
    I think the only thing that can move you is MONEY...because how can a vegan activist, a person that gets inside the world of compassion, health etc can turn to be a butcher and write books and give speeches about killing animals forgetting the most important.
    Shame on you Meredith Leigh!
  27. Johanna Tunks
    I am utterly appalled. That woman was never a vegan. She may have eaten only plants, but a vegan is much more than a diet! There is NO such thing as ethical meat, let alone an ethical way of killing a sentient being who wants to live. How she justifies the atrocity of killing and eating other beings is beyond me! Sickening!
  28. Kelly
    I'm astonished and extremely disheartened that you could kill an innocent animal, and give lessons on it. Absolutely appalling to me. You were once a vegetarian/vegan and now you murder animals? Sorry, I will never understand people like you, nor do I want to.
  29. I am unimpressed by Leigh's self-professed vulnerability. She is still choosing to kill animals when there are viable, healthy options and alternatives to eating meat. The animals that she kills do not want to die.

    There is no such thing as an ethical butcher. Shame on her and on the people she cons into thinking she is being kind and humane when she kills their animals.
  30. Great article! I have read her book and have been thinking about learning butchery myself.
  31. Adela Rodrigo
    "watch them pass" eeehrm you mean killing them... not really the same thing

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