Is Caviar Vegetarian?


It all started with a tweet. In touting a pleasing omnibus collection of bread dips at Balkanika, I described it as: “My favorite vegetarian (and nearly vegan) meal of the last few months,” having forgotten that the small bowl of taramosalata in the center contained fish eggs.

Luckily, Michael Hoffman (@Hoffm) called me on it, firing back: “Vegetarian carp roe? What is this place, WD-50? 😉 (Looks delicious, btw.)”

I thanked him for pointing that out, but then caught myself and tweeted: “On the other hand, if hen eggs are considered vegetarian, why not fish eggs?” Reasoning that both chicken eggs and fish eggs are animal products, not the animal itself, and hence acceptable, vegetarian-wise.

Fellow critic Ryan Sutton (@qualityrye) chimed in “EXCELLENT POINT!”

But several other twitterers disagreed with me.

Jesse Sheidlower (@jessesheidlower), etymologist and author of the book The F-Word, replied: “Because you don’t cut open a hen to get its eggs.” Making the point that fish are killed to get at the eggs, hence the eggs can’t be vegetarian.

I could think of two refutations of this argument, both of them not very satisfying and only semi-convincing.

1. Hens we gather eggs from are destined to suffer just as cruel a death as the fish, though not so immediately. Hens that stop laying eggs are invariably sold as stewing chickens, and die a non-natural death.

2. Just because the fish is killed to get the eggs doesn’t necessarily make the eggs non-vegetarian, even though the death of the fish may seem cruel to vegetarians.

But then I began to wonder, do fish have to die just to harvest their eggs for human consumption? After doing some quick web searching, I came up with an article from the Gourmet website by sustainable food activist Barry Estabrook called, “Killing the Fish That Lays the Golden Eggs.”

In it he describes how a Latvian company uses ultrasound to determine when the eggs are ready in the sturgeon from which the best caviar are gathered, then massage the eggs out of the fish, first producing a tiny incision that makes the process more comfortable for the creature. From the way he describes it, it sounds like chickens never had it so good.

So, if the fish is not killed and the harvesting is humanely done, is the caviar vegetarian? I’d say yes, but this doesn’t address another fundamental vegetarian objection, which was succinctly stated by someone whose tweet has now gone missing (I’m paraphrasing here):

“Slimy fish eggs give me the creeps, and don’t seem very vegetarian at all.”