The Ethical Eating month doesn’t start easily. We begin with the thorny issue of eating meat.
When I wrote the first draft of this post it was extremely long because I wanted to outline the ethical process that led to my personal decision to eat meat. After writing it and re-reading it, I couldn’t help feeling like I was lecturing people on why my life choices are superior to everyone else’s. I mean they are, obviously, because I’m awesome, but that’s not what you come here to read about.
So that blog, and the question of ‘should we want to eat meat’ has been shelved for now, and instead I’m going to focus on the ethics of meat production. If you don’t want to eat any meat at all, that’s your choice dudes, but this is for those who enjoy a steak now and again. How can we eat ethically?
There is a Coursera course, The Meat We Eat by the University of Florida, which many of my students have recommended. And this is really a topic that we could discuss for months on its own, so I’m going to cram a lot into this little blog post.
We’ll discuss the effect meat production has on our climate in a few weeks, today we’re concentrating on the process of producing meat. How do the most common meats end up on our table?
I often hear people saying how far removed we are from our food, or say something that either has a very idyllic picture-book idea of farming, or a gross misunderstanding based on pressure group videos, outdated or misrepresented. In the age of YouTube, there’s no excuse for not knowing what a real farming environment looks like because not only are our supermarkets, levy boards and colleges putting videos up, but so are actual farmers. I’ve cherrypicked some good resources that really demonstrate what I think of as good and realistic farm environments.
Chicken (Broiler Systems)
The broiler chicken is the breed we eat and they have been heavily selected for, so much so that most breeds can be patented. They grow exceptionally quickly and in intensive systems are packed into sheds without much in the way of environmental enrichment to stimulate them, which may be a good thing because they often break their bones because of their quick-growing physiology. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall made a really good program on this a few years ago, and here you can see a pretty damn good free range broiler system
The fact I call this a ‘pretty good’ system might surprise you, but it is. These birds are clean, active, and don’t look damaged. I agree completely with what Hugh says, that this should be the bare minimum standard for chicken production in the UK. A £1 extra per chicken, at the time of filming, that’s what you buy for it.
I try really hard not to buy chicken. It is the meat I am probably most squeamish about because I think their quality of life is pretty poor.
Which brings me neatly to . . .
Beef (Beef Cattle Systems)
If you were to reincarnate me as a production animal, I’d like to be reincarnated as a beef cow in Scotland. MrScottishFarmer on YouTube has a video showing the living conditions of beef steers (the castrated males we eat), and it’s a decent system I’d say. The steers aren’t too muddy, the straw is relatively clean, and they’re all calm and curious about the human.
The beef cows (remember ‘cow’ means female cattle) you’ll see out in the fields with calves are the mummys, who keep their calves with them until weaning age, typically around 7-8 months (although earlier weaning is a thing). Then the boys are grouped together and fattened up until slaughter. Beef cows will then have their next calf and the system starts again for them. The big welfare problems that have occurred in British beef farming systems have largely been man made.
Feedlots, which are what we call the area steers are raised, change country to country. Particularly in the Americas you’ll find much larger and more intensive systems.
Another video, which does contain some mild images of abbatoirs, comes from Quality Meat Scotland (and features quite a few SRUC researchers under our former ‘SAC’ banner). What you can see here is a very good beef handling system, watch how calm the steers are in handling. That’s a great sign.
Pork (Pig Production Systems)
Pig farming in Scotland has a large proportion of outdoor farming compared to many other countries producing pork meat, but we still have the intensive indoor systems.
You’ll be able to see examples of both in this QMS video
and in this great video from an Australian producer, showing a more intensive system:
Lamb (Sheep Production Systems)
Lamb is the meat of a sheep less than a year old, while mutton is the meat of a sheep older. Lamb is probably my least favourite meat (versus pork, which I would until the cows came home if I could).
We’re going travel south for this video, because in Scotland we tend to fling our sheep out into the hills and forget about them (gross exaggeration). Southern systems tend to be more intensive.
The girl who explains the lamb production system is very engaging (maybe Hugh should hire her). But how about a truly intensive system? Canada has us covered here:
And of course we can’t forget our fish! Fish are a hard one because it’s a huge range of species that you’re trying to cover, and we’re not so au fait with our understanding of their ability to feel pain, etc. (although note that our EU legislation considers all vertebrates to be sentient)
The Ethics of Meat?
You might be wondering what any of this has to do with the ethics of eating meat – well this is the welfare of how these animals live. While welfare at death is undeniably important, overall it’s a much shorter component of the animal’s overall experience. I’m more concerned about the welfare-at-life of my meat animals.
Farm assurance schemes such as Freedom Food and Red Tractor have some, possibly basic, welfare standards. Those are two schemes that I look for when I’m buying meat as a bare minimum. There’s also the Soil Association’s animal welfare standards if organic is a priority for you. Just as you would check calorie information, we really should be checking farming methods too before we buy. Take a look at the welfare standards of these organisations and decide if that’s the welfare you want your meat to have experienced when it was alive, because that is what we meat eaters must understand – these burgers were animals at one point.
Is meat too easy? Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (such a great name to type out) used to do a show where he took a number of bad cooks and got them to re-engage with the source of their food. In this clip, he makes the point of taking responsibility for the life and death of his chickens. Definitely worth a watch:
I would love to live in a world where my tenement block looked after a number of chickens in our garden, but my tenement block can’t even look after our garden. Our lifestyles encourage cheap, butchered meat. The last meat I ate was pollock steaks that I buy frozen and keep by to make curries with when I need to make a quick cupboard meal. It’s hugely convenient.
Reducing the number of animals we need to farm would greatly improve the overall welfare of production animals (the welfare of the farmers however is a topic to come . . . ) But is it realistic? What about people under financial pressure? Can we ask them to stop buying cheap meat? Well, yes, we can. A Girl Called Jack blogs about cooking on a very tight budget, and the majority of her recipes are meat free.
These are all strangely complicated questions, featuring a lot of human behaviour and many interconnecting issues that we’ll discuss later in the month.
But I think the biggest step in helping production animal welfare is showing people what farms are really like, and as you can see from this post, the internet is a vast repository of resources. Really, neither side of the ethical debate has any excuse to be ignorant about what real farming is like.