Archive for August, 2013

Waiter, There’s Woo in My Food, Part 4: Landmark Forum & Cafe Gratitude

August 31, 2013

Cafe Gratitude started as the brainchild of millionaires Terces and Matthew Engelhart and has since grown into a small but successful chain. But more than just another rawist eatery, it is an unique experience. This raw vegan1 cafe is dedicated to what the Engelhart’s call “Sacred Commerce” and they have described it as “a school of transformation disguised as a cafe.” What began as a single location in San Francisco has since expanded into to several locations in California along with a sister-restaurant called Gracias Madre2 serving up Latin American inspired dishes.

One of the quirks of Cafe Gratitude is that the names of all the dishes are various self-affirmations that you say out load and your server repeats back to you. It ends up making ordering feel like being on an episode of Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley. You can order the “I AM HAPPY” (a Mediterranean wrap with live falafels) or the “I AM PURE” (a Ginger-Tahini kale salad) and wash it down with a “I AM IMMORTAL” (an “immune system enhancing, consciousness expanding, ancient tonifying elixir made from Reishi, Shilajit and Ormus”) or the “I AM POWERFUL” (an “ancient alchemy of Chinese herbs that support digestion, spleen function and weight control”) all while playing their in house board game Abounding River. A bit strange and over priced, but “where’s the problem?” one may ask.

One problem3 is Cafe Gratitude’s enthusiasm for a self-help program known as Landmark Forum. According to former employees attending Landmark’s introductory seminar is a requirement for management and highly encouraged for employees. (The Engleharts say the majority of employees go through at least the first seminar, which at around $500 is not cheap.) It was this policy that caused a public stir in 2009 when it was reported on in the East Bay Express that Ash Ritter, a former manager had been demoted and then fired for refusing to attend a Landmark seminar,

After being promoted, Ritter says her first manager’s meeting involved managers sharing their experiences at Landmark — often emotionally explaining the ways in which it changed their lives. “It was the theme,” she said. “‘Landmark saved my life.'”

According to Ritter, the leaders of the meeting then asked every manager to enroll ten people to come to an introduction to Landmark. They didn’t say it was a required part of the job, but Ritter felt pressured to attend because they asked all managers to e-mail the district manager every time they spoke to an employee who had not attended Landmark about giving it a try. She said they encouraged managers to keep track of the people they talked to, even if they declined the invitation.

Other workers have come forward such as former employee Carina Lomeli who also refused Landmark and expressed other concerns over workers being pressured to take part in a “holotropic breathing” event designed to induce alter states of consciousness through hyperventilation. Even then-current general manager Paddy Smith, a grateful veteran of Landmark, was unable to deny a strong sense of pressure to attend,

“It is definitely a challenge for those people to stay comfortable saying no,” admitted Paddy Smith, general manager of the Berkeley Café Gratitude. Although Smith says she was initially “offended” by the invitation to attend one of the seminars, she eventually signed up and found it to be a “life-changing” experience. “I learned how to be empowered and creative, get the results I want,” she said. At Café Gratitude, she added, Landmark’s teachings manifest themselves in the form of better communication, honesty, openness, and a no-gossip policy, and are so ingrained into company culture that she has a hard time differentiating between the two. In fact, Café Gratitude wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Landmark.

So just what is Landmark exactly? Landmark describes themselves on their website,

The Landmark Forum is designed to bring about a transformation in what is possible in people’s lives. Grounded in a model of transformative learning, it gives participants an awareness of the basic structures in which we know, think, and act in the world. From that awareness comes a fundamental shift that leaves us more fully in accord with our own possibilities and those of others. This shift is not a one-time event, but an ongoing access to a previously untapped dimension of effectiveness and creativity. The Landmark Forum offers a practical methodology for producing breakthroughs—achievements that are extraordinary, outside the limits of what’s already predictable, attainable, or known. Participants find themselves able to think and act beyond existing views and limits—in their personal and professional lives, relationships, and wider communities of interest. Read the course syllabus for a day-by-day description.

Find out about transformative learning and Landmark’s breakthrough technology

Of course when you actually do click that hyperlink to learn more about Landmark’s “breakthrough technology” you are led to a page that repeats the same vague statements and buzzwords. If you are a bit confused about what Landmark is all about then you aren’t alone. As Padraig Reidy wrote in the New Humanist,

Well, that’s the problem. It’s not entirely clear what the message is. The programme seems to combine elements of pop psychology with an odd form of existentialism. At one point, I’m fairly sure, the assembled are collectively accused of ‘bad faith’, or what Landmark calls ‘inauthenticity’. A look through the course syllabus also dredges up concepts such as ‘dealing powerfully with breakdowns’, where we learn to welcome breakdowns [defined as ‘something that we shouldn’t be’] “as an occasion for leadership and accomplishment.” This deconstruction is intended to lead to some sort of ‘breakthrough’ after which, presumably, we all become better people. In reality, all that they seem to be promising is a little self–awareness.

Landmark is actually the descendant of another popular 1970’s large group awareness organization, originally developed by Werner Erhard (an assumed name). Erhard took his inspiration from various sources in the burgeoning human potential movement and called his program “est“. Perhaps the most striking thing about est was its use of a controlling atmosphere and a problematic technique known as attack therapy, in which participants are psychologically attacked and verbally abused until the subject has a “breakthrough”. est soon became the subject of much controversy and eventually worried mental health professionals enough to make it (as well as Landmark) the subject of a number of psychological studies. Charlotte Faltermayer, writing for Time Magazine, had this to say about Erhard and est,

Erhard’s 60-hour seminars were strenuous ordeals, complete with “body catchers” and barf bags for the weak of mind and stomach. Trainers applauded bladder control and cursed those who didn’t get it. Still, Erhard and his message proved popular, even winning celebrity advocates.

est quickly grew in popularity and it wasn’t long before it held a significant share of the large group awareness training/self-help market. In conference rooms across the world veterans and new recruits forked over hundreds of dollars to be torn down and (hopefully) built back up. It continued on like that for years. Both the money and the critical reports kept piling up. But then the controversy reached a climax in 1991 when CBS aired a shocking 60 Minutes expose of Erhard and his organization. Surrounded by a host of devastating allegations4, Erhard left the US, conveniently selling the rights to the est “technology” to his brother Harry Rosenberg only just before the airing of the 60 Minutes program.

After this passing off the mantle the new organization took on the name Landmark Education Corporation and began offering its own seminars. Like its predecessor Landmark was steep in controversy5 from the very beginning. Participants in these seminars are encouraged to be “coachable”, ie accepting and pliable. They are told that they must remain in the room for all the sessions and follow all the “agreements” or they will not get the desired result. They are encouraged to see how their own “inauthenticity” is holding them back and then to create new possibilities. A repeated theme is that participants are “assholes”, that their beliefs systems are “worthless”, and that their lives are “meaningless”. But Landmark can help, rest assured.

Participants are led through a variety of exercises. At one point they may be asked to dredge up past hurts and traumas, exposing them to the group, to be met not with compassion and empathy but blame and derision. The core message of Landmark, that we are ultimately responsible for our lives, may be an empowering kick-in-the-butt for some. But for others, especially survivors of abuse and rape, it is a distressing or even devastating message. It is probably this aspect that I find most troubling. Along with all the many positive testimonials, the internet is filled with horror stories. Sarah Fazeli described one such experience,

I nearly walked out so many times, usually during the abusive interactions between the leader and whatever emotionally wracked person onstage. These were serious emotional breakdowns being handled in five-minute increments by this Landmark leader. Not a well-trained, experienced therapist in a safe environment but an arrogant, would-be dictator who egged on these breakdowns, gave them a quickie “tool” to get over their childhood trauma, and moved right along to the next person.

There were first-time revelations of childhood molestations, my-father-murdered-my-mother divulgements, I-think-I’m-gay moments. The words that best sum up Landmark’s catch-and-release handling of these fragile situations are dangerous and irresponsible.

One could spend many hours reading similar experiences. I couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface here. Instead I’ll direct interested readers to the links below which offer at least a starting point.


1. While they bill themselves as vegan some of their dishes do contain honey.

2. Serving pricey, less-than-authentic Latin American food in the Mission district has won Gracias Madre its own share of detractors.

3. Additionally there have been past allegations of labor issues. See more here.

4. These allegations included abuse and incest (later recanted), as well as tax fraud. However, Erhard it appears was never convicted of a crime based on these allegations. To add an interesting twist, his supporters sometimes claim that these allegations and other troubles Erhard encountered are simply a part of a larger attack orchestrated by the Church of Scientology . You can get some more details here.
Now that’s a Celebrity Death Match I would watch, Werner Erhard vs. L. Ron Hubbard.

5. Another side of the controversy is Landmarks labor practices. Interested readers can find out more about this issue from the excellent “Background Briefing” documentary on Landmark Education from ABC Radio National.

Further Resources:

I am Annoyed and Disappointed by Sam Levin

Landmark Forum on The Skeptic’s Dictionary

Landmark Education on Cult (contains an extensive collection of documents regarding Landmark)

ABC Radio National “Background Briefing” documentary on Landmark Education (audio)

The Landmark Forum: 42 Hours, $500, 65 Breakdowns by Laura McClure in Mother Jones

Do you believe in miracles?  by Rosemary Mahoney in Elle Magazine (Elle was sued for this article)

est, Werner Erhard, and the corporatization of Self-Help by Suzanna Snider

Attack therapy and the Landmark Forum by Jules Evans

Drive-thru Deliverance By Amanda Scioscia

It Happens by Steve Jackson

We’re Gonna Tear You Down and Put You Back Together by Mark Brewer in Psychology Today

Pay Money, Be Happy by Vanessa Grigoriadis

Cultured Meat

August 16, 2013

Cultured meat, or meat grown from cells in a petri dish, has been the dream of science fiction authors, futurist vegans, and other visionaries for years. Earlier this month that dream appeared to take one step close to becoming reality when nutritional scientist Hanni Rutzler and author Josh Schonwald participated in the very first public taste test of cultured meat made by Dr. Mark Post and his team at Maastricht University. Their review of the burger appeared to be mainly positive, though they noted that it was lacking in fat.  The event was widely covered in the media and generated a lot of discussion across the internet, especially among vegans and science bloggers.

Many reacted with enthusiasm including the hosts of one of my favorite podcasts, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, in their latest episode. However not everyone was as excited. Another skeptical blogger, Dr. Ricky, makes some good points in their response to the panel,

First problem: the Skeptics actually used the term “peak meat” – that there’s an impending shortage of meat due to increasing demand, echoing the talking point that cultured beef technology solves a food security problem. Meat is a dispensable part of the human diet, can come from multiple sources, and beef itself is a luxury meat. Most of the world does not consume beef regularly because of cost. It has a lower cultural impact that you would expect on a global scale – unless you’re viewing it from a privileged First Worlder point of view.

I would add that along with the dispensability of meat in the human diet, there already exist a wide variety of nutritious meat alternatives of many different types. Some of which are indistinguishable from the real thing. With great alternatives already on the market why not focus on vegan advocacy to build further demand and access?

And just how ethical is the current incarnation of cultured meat? Most people are aware that the necessary starter cells must be gathered from an animal. Though this can be done today using a relativity harmless biopsy, it still presents some ethical problems. Unless the cell lines can be made immortal it would still necessitates the ongoing use of animals as Dr. Post explains,

Eventually my vision is that you have a limited herd of donor animals in the world that you keep in stock and that you get your cells form there.

Dr. Diana Fleischman points out the even larger issue of Fetal Bovine Serum in her piece on the Sentientist blog,

in vitro cells are grown on a substrate called “Fetal Bovine Serum” (FBS) (as detailed in this fact sheet from Maastricht University). Here is an excerpt from an article, “The use of fetal bovine serum: ethical or scientific problem?”. Keep in mind that the description here is derived from less than 4% of FBS harvesters that supplied technical information to the authors.

The bovine fetuses from which blood is drawn for (commercial) FBS production are obtained from pregnant cows which are sent to slaughter for reasons such as crippling lameness, or when slaughtering herds of extensively kept beef cattle…Fetuses should be at least 3 months old; otherwise the heart is too small for puncture…Bovine fetal blood is commonly harvested by cardiac puncture…At the time of slaughter, the cow is found to be pregnant during evisceration (removal of the internal organs in the thorax and abdomen during processing of the slaughtered cow). The reproductive tract is removed from the carcass…The calf is removed quickly from the uterus and the umbilical cord is tied off….A cardiac puncture is performed by inserting a needle between the ribs directly into the heart of the unanaesthesised fetus and blood is extracted under vacuum into a sterile blood collection bag via a tube. In the absence of a vacuum pump, fetal blood may be obtained by means of gravity or massage.

The article goes on to explore whether or not the fetus can feel pain but the calf’s mother who is eviscerated certainly can and thus it’s a huge stretch to say something that involves slaughter and evisceration is “cruelty free”.

For ethical vegans in particular this is a huge stumbling block. Dr. Ricky explains further,

The efficiency [of FBS] is far from ideal as well – it takes a lot of fetuses worth of serum to grow a single patty of “cultured beef”. In a weird sense, we are killing cattle to feed the “cruelty free” cultured beef. Media coverage is quick to handwave this requirement away as some small technical glitch that will be solved eventually, replacing FBS with a sustainable, non animal destroying substitute.  This does not exist, and the quest to make a synthetic replacement for FBS has been going on for decades – and we are nowhere near an acceptable solution.

Fetal Bovine Serum is not just an issue for cultured meat but for many types of science including vaccine production and other research. Perhaps PETA would do better by offering that million dollars for a suitable serum replacement first. I personally feel that our resources are better spent in improving and promoting the awesome alternatives to meat that already exist. It’s not that I think cultured meat it is a horrible idea in itself, just that I really don’t see it being a realistic alternative anytime soon.

So is this really something to get excited about? Is it worth expending significant resources on? From my perspective not really. This project, while scientifically interesting, still involves a good deal of entirely unnecessary suffering and exploitation. Even if this project were entirely free of animal use there is still the issue of cost and scalability. Currently cultured meat is no where near a marketable price (at £200,000 a burger) and the process is far from being resource efficient. Even the project’s lead researcher, Dr. Mark Post, has said, “Vegetarians should remain vegetarian. That’s even better for the environment.” Perhaps future advances will be able to address these issues, but for now we shouldn’t hold our breath. In reality there is no need to wait to address the issues purported to be addressed by cultured meat. By going vegan you can begin to help animals and reduce the impact of meat production now, not in some hypothetical future.

Further Resources:

Will in vitro meat become cruelty free? on The Sentientist

Lab Meat on The Vegan Option podcast

Vat Meat on The Vegan Scientist

Why Lab-Grown Meat is the Future of Food by Ingrid Newkirk

The Future of Food, Why Lab Grown Meat is Not the Solution by Jasmijn de Boo

Vegan Cats?

August 10, 2013

The practical and ethical problems of feeding cats a vegan diet have been fairly contentious issues among both veterinarians and vegan activists alike and I myself have jumped into the fray a number of times. While reasons vary among those that advocate or are interested in the idea of animal product-free diets, most express ethical reasons and the desire to avoid contributing to animal slaughter. These advocates claim that cats can get all their nutrition from a properly formulated vegan diet and point to their own personal stories of cats that have lived long term on a vegan diet. The other side claims that cats are obligate carnivores and need meat to survive and often cite personal anecdotes of cats that developed medical problems.

So what does the published science on this issue say? A little bit, but not a whole lot really. An early study from 1992 touched on the issue but its findings are not too impressive scientifically (and sound pretty cruel), notably that cats fed a potassium deficient diets developed a muscle condition typical of potassium deficiency, while cats given supplemental potassium did not develop the condition. Another study in 2001 from Germany titled, “A field study on the nutrition of vegetarian dogs and cats in Europe”, was not encouraging. However this study only looked at eight cats and is at best preliminary.

A 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) examined the nutrient content of two commercial brands of vegan cat food (Evolution Diet and Vegepet) and found them to be lacking in key nutrients. With its small sample size this study is hardly a slam dunk for those that argue against the idea of vegan cat food but it is worrying nonetheless. The manufactures of both foods responded that they felt that it was likely the result of a mixing error at the factory. But if researchers found such an error in two independent products it leads one to wonder how often such mixing errors occur. The makers of Vegepet promised to look into it and reformulate. The owner of Evolution Diet, Eric Weisman, for his part dismissed the finding altogether as unimportant.

I would be amiss if I were to not also mention that Mr. Weisman has had a history of shady conduct. Aside from lying about the benefits of his products and practicing medical quackery, he has also been accused of some not-so-ethical treatment of animals. And for a taste of Weisman’s argument style listen to his teeth-grating interview on The Vegan Option podcast. Take it for what you will but he certainly doesn’t sound like someone I would trust.

A 2006 study titled, “Evaluation of cats fed vegetarian diets and attitudes of their caregivers”, found that most of the cats in the study were quite healthy. However the sample size was on the small side (34 cats in the vegetarian diet group) and the only objective measures taken were cobalamin and taurine levels. Ian MacDonald (with guest Erin Red) of The Vegan Option podcast speaks with the lead author of this last study in what I consider to be one of the best examples of engaging the issue for a popular audience in their episode Cats: Can they be vegan? and further explores the issue in the follow-up episode Cats: Ethics.

Aside from micro-nutrient balance, the main medical issue that comes up when discussing feeding cats a commercially formulated vegan diet is that of urinary tract obstruction from the formation of small struvite crystals, particularly with male cats. Dr. Armaiti May explains,

Cats on a vegan diet can develop abnormally alkaline (high pH) urine due to the more alkaline pH of plant based proteins in comparison to the acidic pH of meat-based foods which cats have evolved to eat. When the urine pH becomes too alkaline, there is an increased risk of formation of struvite (also known as magnesium ammonium phosphate) bladder crystals and/or stones. Calcium oxalate stones can also occur, but these do not occur if the urine is too alkaline, but rather if it is too acidic. Such stones can create irritation and infection of the urinary tract and require veterinary treatment. In male cats who form such crystals or stones, they can suffer more severe consequences than simply irritation or infection of the urinary tract because the stones can actually cause an obstruction of the urethra so the cat cannot urinate. This is a life-threatening emergency requiring immediate veterinary care…

Thats about it, a little bit of published science and a whole lot of anecdote. So where does that leave us? I myself have serious reservations about feeding cats a vegan diet. I simply don’t think that we have enough information or research. It appears that many cats do quite fine on a vegan diet for much or all of their life. But there also appears to be a potentially serious health risk to a certain subset of cats. Perhaps better food formulations are all that’s needed to do the job, maybe not. And if not then perhaps alternatives such as farmed sessile bivalves or insects may be a route to reduce suffering.

I don’t really have any solid answers here. All I can say is, think critically and think compassionately.

Further Resources:

Cats: Can they be vegan? on The Vegan Option

Cats: Ethics on The Vegan Option

Vegan Cats & Dogs with Jed Gillen, Author of Obligate Carnivore on Animal Voices

Vegan Pet Food: A Discussion on Animal Voices

Evolution Diet – Selling Food with Fear and Lies by Skeptvet

Evolution Diet Update: Selling Food with Fraud by Skeptvet

Mr. Eric Weisman, Promoter of Evolution Diet, Finally Prosecuted by Skeptvet

Eric Weisman Gets Fine and Probation for Violating Court Order by Skeptvet


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 277 other followers