Vegan restaurants struggle with quandary of pest control

The Wild Cow vegan restaurant
As more fine dining meat-free restaurants are cropping up, establishment owners are struggling to balance humane ways to kill unwanted pests and their no-kill values. Here, Melanie Cochran works the cash register at her vegetarian restaurant, The Wild Cow, in Nashville, Tenn.
Mark Humphrey | AP

Even the well-being of rats, roaches and spiders are a concern for animal activists. But they also pose ethical dilemmas for owners of vegan restaurants who need to keep those pests out of their kitchens while trying to abide by no-kill values.

Melanie Cochran, owner of The Wild Cow Vegetarian Restaurant in Nashville, Tenn., was adamant about not using traditional pest control services when it first opened. For a few years she was able to keep pests at bay, but when the restaurant developed a problem, she called an exterminator even though she said it went against her vegan principles.

"We have to focus on the bigger picture. Vegan restaurants need to stay in business as a way to put a dent in the dominance of the factory farm system. We want to show people that it is possible and easy to reduce one's meat intake, or even eliminate it entirely," she said. "We always have to make tough decisions and remind ourselves of our priorities, even when it comes to things like using flea killer on a flea-infested dog. Any vegan who claims to not harm animals in any way is either a liar or in denial."

Most restaurant owners agree that closing off small entry spaces, keeping a clean kitchen and other preventive measures are the first line of defense. But that isn't always enough, especially when factoring in weather, neighboring businesses and other things beyond a restaurant's control.

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The issue is cropping up more frequently as the meat-free, dairy-free trend has proliferated. There are no detailed figures on the number of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in the U.S., but the market for vegetarian food products grew from $646 million in 1998 to over $2 billion in 2009, according to the analyst group Mintel.

Wild Cow restaurant
Andrew Locke, left, and Matthew McCord prepare orders at The Wild Cow Vegetarian Restaurant in Nashville, Tenn.
Mark Humphrey | AP

The animal rights group PETA even has issued guidelines on humane ways for restaurants to deal with pests: orange peels to ward off flies, bay leaves to keep roaches away and rags soaked in peppermint oil to deter rodents. Glue traps are a no-no because they can cause an animal a painful death when they break a limb or chew it off to escape.

Some measures seem impractical or time-consuming for a busy restaurant. Spiders should be caught in a jar and released somewhere safe, humane rodent traps should be checked hourly. PETA acknowledges that sometimes more aggressive methods are necessary if the circumstances are dire.

"It all depends on the situation, the time of year and what's happening outside. But for the most part natural deterrents rarely work if you have a serious problem," said chef Rich Landau of Vedge restaurant in Philadelphia.

Paul Curtis, an entomologist for Memphis-based exterminator Terminix, once visited a restaurant in Florida that seemed to follow everything on the checklist for a pest-free kitchen. Yet it still would occasionally get surges of hundreds of roaches. After carefully documenting the times of the day and year when the surge came, Curtis found his answer.

"When there was a lot of rain and the sewer system got full it would push roaches up ... into the facility. So it wasn't a failure on anybody's part," said Curtis, who fixed the problem by closing off a sewer drain.

In another case, health officials threatened an Arkansas restaurant with closure because of an infestation of flies that eventually was traced to deliveries from a fruit and vegetable supplier.

That kind of investigation is "probably the most overlooked and beneficial element of a considerate pest management program," Curtis said.

Miyoko Schinner, founder of a California-based vegan cheese line, agrees that pest control can sometimes fall into a grey area.

"What we call pests might very well be very close to creatures you would otherwise try to rescue as a vegan, for example, rats that have undergone various procedures in labs. But put that very same rat in a restaurant kitchen, and he becomes a pest," said Schinner, who rescues farm animals on her ranch in West Marin.

If your business is in the country, "you can release the creature in a field or forest," she said. "But if the business is in an urban setting, your solution simply becomes someone else's problem, and they may or may not be as compassionate."