Sunday, 7 August 2016

Let's Keep the Awww in Our Meat

Awww. Lambs are cute. Cows have beautiful doleful eyes and seem so gentle when they gaze at you happily chewing; and pigs: such cheerful friendly chaps.

We do an odd mental thing when we think about food don't we? We love fluffy and cuddly
creatures: we give our children softly stuffed versions of them. Yet we we cannot seem to square this with the fact that we eat them.

Each Spring and Autumn there is a national debate in the UK. We have TV programmes - Springwatch and Autumnwatch in which the beauty and magnificence of nature is set out in detail before us with great skill and ingenuity by the programme makers. We love the drama of a nestbox-cam; and we ooh and ahh at the high drama of the Autumn Red Deer rut. 

The odd thing is that though we are sad when a downy chick is predated, or thrown from the nest by its mother we are not unduly fazed by it. After all it's nature isn't it? Yet when it comes to meat we become squeamish.

This is a problem.

Maybe it's something to do with us being up close and personal with death. In the same way, we don't want to hear too much detail of what our armed forces get up to in order to protect us; we are just happy that they do unpleasant things and we trust them to do it in an honourable and decent way. 

Yet now and again there are revelations about both overly brutal battlefield antics, and horror stories about harsh abattoir activity. 

Yet, do you know what constitutes a well-run abattoir, or do you know who sells what meat from which abattoir or what their performance standards are on animal welfare?

For most of us the answer is no. 

We turn our faces away from animal slaughter; the work of slaughtermen (and women) is seen as unpleasant and brutish when that is precisely what it should not be, and in the best run abattoirs it is not.

Good meat requires that animals are not overly stressed at slaughter. If you scoff at the idea that animals might not be stressed immediately before being stunned and bled to death, think again.

In well run abattoirs things that unduly stress animals are designed out. Animal behaviourists working with people like the Humane Slaughter Association eliminate animal handling systems that cause fear and panic. Well run abattoirs are relatively quiet efficient places staffed by people who are accustomed to working with animals.

There is a financial imperative in doing this well: animals whose bodies are pumped full of adrenaline do not produce good quality meat, though you can buy cheap, poor quality meat that comes from places that are less scrupulous about how animals experience the end of their lives.

We have allowed our meat industry to develop out of sight into what it is now: often secretive, behind closed doors.

When a slaughterman spends time with their family and friends it is not considered good form to discuss in detail their day's work, so it is no wonder that some of them come to the conclusion that nobody cares how they do their work. The responsibility for taking the life of an animal is a heavy one, and we should respect that. 

We need to change the way we think about meat, to rid ourselves of our national squeamishness. 

Here's my remedy: 

- BBC Meatwatch, a spin-off of  the popular BBC programme Countryfile that doesn't miss out the bit of food production between farm gate and chef's kitchen

- Farm to Fork: like the supermarket version, aimed at children yet without the bit where an animal is killed missed out. 

- Taste the difference: not the supposedly higher quality supermarket brand but the public rediscovering its sense of taste and understanding what well-reared and well killed meat should taste like

For retailers the challenge is to talk more to their customers about where their meat was raised and who killed it. I'm proud to say that in a couple of weeks I'll be eating from a cow that my butcher Craig knew by name, a very beautiful Highland Cow. 

As consumers we need to ask more of our retailers: if your butcher can't answer your questions about where meat was raised and how and by whom it was killed, vote with your feet. 

There are good butchers and good meat producers waiting for you to ask, and there are others peddling intensively reared meat that had sad lives and equally sad deaths. 

It's time to be able to acknowledge the debt we owe to our beautiful, cute friendly farm animals; to smile in gratitude thinking about it's life before it reached our plate. When we say aww at the thought of a cuddly, furry beast it is a sign of our humanity, let's have the courage to carry that humanity into our meat production too.