The Me in Meat

When we eat factory-farmed meat we live, literally, on tortured flesh.’

The above quote from Eating Animals, and all my words below, are not hyperbole.

I was a fussy child, to the point that I genuinely don’t know how I didn’t end up malnourished. I loved pretty much any kind of meat, and hated pretty much any kind of vegetable. I had only the briefest of flirtations with vegetarianism when I was twelve, a miserable month of cheese, steamed vegetables, and plain Quorn fillets.

As with climate breakdown, I can’t pinpoint the exact moment in time that I learned what meat was doing to the planet. Realisation was not a lightning bolt but a door creaking open. Moving out of the parental home in my twenties shoved me into action. I didn’t cut meat out completely, but I more or less stopped eating it, except when I visited my mother and father (they only bought free range meat, or game, which soothed my conscience). Cooking sans meat could, to my delight, be a joy. My diet diversified exponentially, and my culinary skills evolved.

Since then, I’ve mainly cruised along on my flexitarian journey, with a few bumps along the way: I’ve tried to cut down on dairy, but my arthritis leaves me at a higher risk of osteoporosis, so calcium is a priority for me. My IBS, meanwhile, makes all beans and lentils the devil incarnate.

I call myself an animal lover. Yet the knowledge of meat’s contribution to climate breakdown and biodiversity loss has always weighed heavier in my mind than the welfare of the animals I still eat.

Here’s the thing. A wild deer is good to shoot and turn into meat. It’s lived a self-willed life, full of deer rites, and the bullet is hopefully quick, and its last breath is of the grassy, woody air.

My free-range pigs, chickens, sheep, cows, were still packed into lorries and corralled into holding pens and funnelled into the slaughterhouse and then hopefully dear God, please stunned into oblivion before their throats were cut.

But I have no guarantee that the stunning worked on all of them. And, while free-range farm animals in the UK are meant to experience better lives than factory-farmed ones, what about all the animals I ate before I cared? What about all the other countries I’ve visited and eaten meat in, where welfare law and enforcement are either toothless or non-existent?

I have to live with knowing that I have eaten animals that lived, and died, in agony.

Remember, no hyperbole. Go and read Eating Animals, the quoted book by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s mostly about the US, but if you’re reading these words from the UK, please don’t let out a sigh of relief. In percentage terms, we probably don’t skin and scald alive as many animals as the US does; the killing lines in most American abattoirs are rapid, slapdash, and make mistakes all the time, so animals may still be conscious as their bodies are taken apart. That’s not even counting the number of deliberate cases of animal abuse that undercover filming has revealed. And before the abattoir, the chickens have hunkered in their shoebox cages, the pigs have stood forever in their farrowing crates.

The UK’s welfare record is better, on the whole. We aren’t as wholly enslaved to agri-business as the US is. Yet those quick bursts of flavour on our tongue apparently still require our country to use farrowing crates for pigs; for nearly half of all hens to be stuffed for their lifetimes in tiny cages, beaks partially amputated; and for some dairy cows to ‘rarely or never allowed outside of their barn’. As for the abattoirs? Also better than in the US, but breaches in animal welfare inadequate stunning or deliberate abuse are still being uncovered far too often; over 4,000 times between 2014-16.

None of us can eat factory or free-range meat without running the torture roulette.

I won’t do it anymore. From now on it’s wild game only for me, and even then, I’d better avoid reared non-native game animals like pheasant given the growing evidence of their impact on British ecosystems.

It’ll still be impossible for me to extricate myself from all the skeins of factory-farmed meat that I’m tangled up in; apart from the leather I own and the dairy I eat, my family has a cat and a dog, and what do we feed them?

Do not be disheartened. Your every choice matters. We are all, in the words of Wendell Berry, ‘farming by proxy’. Each meal without meat is a vote, and you probably vote in actual elections, don’t you? Why? When you’re just one person?

We need to reform our entire food production system, and that isn’t down to us as individuals. But our individual acts matter. Just look at the fact that Quorn has had to open a whole new factory to meet growing demand in the UK its meat substitutes. Or how most restaurants have massively upped their game when it comes to vegetarian and vegan options on menus. Post-Covid, if you usually eat meat when you go to a restaurant, pause and ask yourself: “what is the likelihood that their meat is free-range? And what is the likelihood that the animal was unconscious when it died?” Look at the restaurant’s website in advance, in case they provide details about where they source their meat from, or ask them when you’re there. If they don’t know, don’t give them the benefit of the doubt. Choose a delicious meat-free meal instead. Make meat a once-a-week, once-a-fortnight, or once-a-month treat, and buy free-range organic. Look out for the right food labels on the packaging. The organic Soil Association label has high welfare standards for animals. The RSPCA label is for animal welfare, though not organic. The Red Tractor label is probably best avoided – an investigation by The Times in 2018 found shocking failings, with only 1 in 1,000 of its farm audits being unannounced (therefore giving the other 999 advance warning to hide any misdeeds) and cases of abuse such as workers smashing piglets’ heads against walls to kill them. Red Tractor has since committed to doing the job it should already have been doing.

When you choose what to eat, you are farming, and you are voting.

Econocracy.

Here in the developed world, we can do without meat, or at the very least, factory-farmed meat reaped from suffering. It isn’t good for our bodies, for our land, for the climate. The next pandemic will come from a factory farm.

We have had the luck to be born in a time where we don’t need to fear dying of starvation or malnutrition. Of the next harvest failing. But this carefree life comes with responsibility. We must be adult enough to accept that the transient pleasure of a mouthful of factory-farmed meat will never justify what we are doing to the animals that meat comes from.

Remember: ‘When we change what we eat, the world changes’ Jonathan Safran Foer, 2009.

One thought on “The Me in Meat

  1. Finally got round to reading this. Yay, welcome to the club! Well said. I wish we could get more people to internalise the fact they are eating tortured animals. There is a dairy farm in Scotland where they prioritise animal welfare and don’t take calves away from their mothers etc that sell cheese online so that might be an option for you for cruelty free dairy. Also, regarding dog food, Nature’s Menu sell raw meat food made from wild deer and boar (sorry!), I plan on feeding my dog that when I get one. There’s also a couple of brands who make dog food out of insects which is very cool!

    Like

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