Beef is the flesh of a formerly sentient being, a dead cow. And of course beef is edible. For present purposes, to be edible is to be ingestible by mastication, swallowing, etc., non-poisonous, and sufficiently nutritious to sustain human life.
But is everything that is edible food? Obviously not: your pets and your children are edible but they are not food. People don't feed their pets and children to fatten them up for slaughter. So while all food is edible, not everything edible is food.
What then is the missing 'ingredient'? What must be added to the edible to make it food? We must move from merely biological concern with human animals and the nutrients necessary to keep them alive to the cultural and normative. Sally Haslanger: "Food, I submit, is a cultural and normative category." ("Ideology, Generics, and Common Ground," Chapter 11 of Feminist Metaphysics, 192)
This is surely on the right track, though I would add that food is not merely cultural and normative. Food, we can agree, is what it is socially acceptable to eat and/or morally permissible to eat. But food, to be food, must be material stuff ingestible by material beings, and so cannot be in toto a social or cultural construct. Or do you want to say that potatoes in the ground are social constructs? I hope not. Haslanger seems to accept my obvious point, as witness her remark to the effect that one cannot chow down on aluminum soda cans. As she puts it, "not just anything could count as food."(192) No construing of aluminum cans, social or otherwise, could make them edible to humans.
Could it be that certain food stuffs are by nature food, and not by convention? Could it be that the flesh of certain non-human animals such as cows is by nature food for humans? If beef is by nature food for humans, then it is normal in the normative sense for humans to eat beef, and thus morally acceptable that they eat it. Of course, what it is morally acceptable to eat need not be morally obligatory to eat.
Haslanger rejects the moral acceptability of eating beef but I don't quite find an argument against it, at least not in the article under examination. What she does is suggest how someone could come to accept the (to her) mistaken view that it is morally acceptable to eat meat. Given that 'Beef is food' is a generic statement, one will be tempted to accept the pragmatic or conversational implicature that "there is something about the nature of beef (or cows) that makes it food." (192)
For Haslanger, 'Beef is food' is in the close conceptual vicinity of 'Sagging pants are cool' and 'Women wear lipstick.'
Surely there is nothing intrinsic to sagging pants that makes them 'cool': 'coolness' is a relational property had by sagging pants in virtue of their being regarded as 'cool' by certain individuals. It is not in the nature of pants to sag such that non-sagging pants would count as sartorially defective. We can also easily agree that it is it not in the nature of women to wear lipstick such that non-lipstick-wearing women such as Haslanger are defective women in the way that a cat born with only three legs is a defective cat, an abnormal cat in both the normative and statistical senses of 'abnormal.' One can be a real woman, a good woman, a non-defective woman without wearing lipstick.
These fashion examples, which could be multiplied ad libitum (caps worn backward or sideways, high heels, etc.), are clear. What is not clear is why 'Beef is food' and 'Cows are food' are like the fashion examples rather than like such examples as 'Cats are four-legged' and 'Humans are rational.'
Cats are four-legged by nature, not by social construction. Accordingly, a three-legged cat is a defective cat. As such, it is no counterexample to the truth that cats are four-legged. 'Cats are four-legged' is presumably about a generic essence, one that has normative 'bite': a good cat, a normal cat has four legs. 'Cats are four-legged' is not replaceable salva veritate by 'All cats are four-legged.'
Why isn't 'Cows are food' assimilable to 'Cats are four-legged' rather than to 'Sagging pants are cool'? I am not finding an argument. Haslanger denies that "cows are for eating, that beef just is food":
Given that I believe this to be a pernicious and morally damaging assumption, it is reasonable for me to block the implicature by denying the claim: cows are not food. I would even be willing to say that beef is not food. (192)
Beef is not food for Haslanger because raising and slaughtering cows to eat their flesh is an "immoral human practice." But what exactly is the argument here? Where's the beef? Joking aside, what is the argument to the conclusion that eating beef is immoral?
There isn't one. She just assumes that eating beef is immoral. In lieu of an argument she provides a psycholinguistic explanation of how one might come to think that beef is food.
The explanation is that people believe that beef is food because they accept a certain pragmatic implicature, namely the one from 'Beef is food' to 'Beef has a nature that makes it food.' The inferential slide is structurally the same as the one from 'Sagging pants are cool' to 'There is something in the nature of sagging pants that grounds their intrinsic coolness.'
Now it is obvious that the pragmatic implicature is bogus is the fashion examples. To assume that it is also bogus in the beef example is to beg the question.
We noted that not everything edible is food. To be food, a stuff must not only be edible; it must also be socially acceptable to eat it. Food is "a cultural and normative category." (192) But Haslanger admits that "cows are food, given existing social practices." (193) So beef is, as a matter of fact, food. To have a reason to overturn the existing social practices, Haslanger need to give us a reason why eating beef is immoral -- which she hasn't done.