Doug and Adam and I watched Food, Inc. a month or so ago. I learned that the main reason for all these E. coli contamination scares and subsequent beef recalls we keep having is that a lot more E. coli grows in bovine digestive tracts when cows are fed corn instead of grass. If ranchers would just let their cattle feed on grass, one expert said, most of the E. coli problem would solve itself, without a need for all the prophylactic antibiotics that they’re giving the cattle now.
So I asked at my grocery store if any of their beef was grass-fed. None was. But when I was at a different grocery store last weekend, I noticed they had packages of ground beef with green labels. As we know, green labels mean the food is healthier for you, and more environmentally friendly, so I took a closer look. Great news! The label said that this beef had been produced with “no antibiotics ever.” OK, cool. Now how about the grass-fed thing? I kept looking, and saw that the label said “Vegetarian fed.” Excellent! I’d pay 20 cents extra for that! I threw it in the cart.
Then it occurred to me that the only place I’d ever heard of non-vegetarian fed cattle was in the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode from 2009. That’s the episode with the “Krusty Burger Squared,” made with the meat of cattle that have been fed with the meat of other cattle. But whether you’re feeding your cattle with corn or with grass, they’re vegetarian-fed. So what difference between this beef and the other beef was the label vegetarian-fed referring to? Maybe they meant that that the feedlot workers who fed these cattle each day were vegetarian. Or that the cows ate vegetarians!
Well, there is one other possibility: vegetarian-fed is the marketers’ way of violating the conversational Maxim of Relevance in order to get me to think their beef is grass-fed, without actually lying and saying it is. The Maxim of Relevance, as regular readers will know from previous posts, is the principle that if I tell you something, it is not something that I think you already know. If I think you already know that all the beef you’re going to find in the grocery store is vegetarian-fed, then I’m not going to tell you that. So if I go ahead and tell you anyway that the beef in this special green packaging is vegetarian-fed, you’re going to assume I’m telling you something you don’t already know about this beef, something that has to do with the way it was fed. If you already know that cattle are by and large corn-fed these days, then that might be all you need to fill in the gaps and conclude that this is grass-fed beef. That’s what happened with me.
But the company is not respecting Relevance, because that vegetarian-fed business really isn’t telling us anything unusual about this beef. Why not respect Relevance and actually say “grass-fed”? Well, that would be a lie. (In terms of Grice’s Conversational Maxims, this would be a violation of the Maxim of Quality: Don’t say stuff you know isn’t true.)
Despite the violation of Relevance, the opposing Maxim of Quantity makes things clear. That’s the principle that says to be as informative as necessary. Grass-fed is more informative than vegetarian-fed, so if it’s true, they should say it. Since they didn’t say it, it’s probably not true. And so it comes to pass that vegetarian-fed, which could theoretically encompass grass-fed, is sometimes understood to be a synonym for corn-fed. In practical terms, I guess it is.