Want to know where your meat really comes from?

| 12th July 2011
Want to know how and where your favourite meat is produced? Ruth Styles asked four industry experts to give their verdict on the realities of animal welfare in the UK today

Despite the best efforts of environmentalist Jonathan Safran Foer and Compassion in World Farming’s Joyce D’Silva, the meat question isn’t about to go away. Vegetarianism and veganism might be on the increase, but the fact remains that 93 per cent of British people eat meat on a regular basis. That means the associated issue of welfare is more important than ever, as are the ways that we as consumers make our choices about what to eat. Unfortunately, too many of us still don’t think about what we eat and where it comes from, although that is changing thanks to the efforts of a motley coalition of celebrities, TV chefs and activists. Nonetheless, the fact remains that 70 per cent of chicken sold in this country comes from the other side of the world and was raised in conditions that were dubious to say the least. So what’s the state of the meat industry in this country? Are things improving or getting worse? And what should we be doing to make sure that the meat we eat doesn’t come with a seasoning of suffering? Four industry insiders spoke to us, to give you the truth about meat.

The inspector: Callie Rydings of the RSPCA
‘More than 900 million farm animals are reared every year in the UK. Unfortunately the law alone is not always strong or detailed enough to ensure that they all have a good quality of life, and are transported and slaughtered humanely. Animals have the ability to experience pain and suffering and this includes all animals farmed for meat, eggs and dairy. Although the UK has, in some key areas, some of the highest farm animal welfare standards in the world there are still many millions of animals kept in barren and restricted spaces, that are not able to practice natural behaviours such as pecking, rooting or grazing. Responsibility for farm animal welfare does not just lie with the farmers and stock-keepers that look after them. Governments, food retailers and the consumer, all have a lot of power to help raise welfare standards and ensure all farm animals can lead lives worth living.

Recent YouGov research commissioned by the RSPCA shows animal welfare is an increasing priority for food shoppers, and retailers are providing more high welfare produce all the time. While most farmers are concerned with the welfare of their animals, and want to raise them to the highest standards; as with any business, money is a key driver and raising to higher welfare standards (with more space per animal, better environmental enrichment etc) costs more. If shoppers show their support for higher welfare, by buying high welfare products in supermarkets and when eating out, [raising high welfare animals] will become more and more financially viable for farmers. Therefore, the more people who choose to buy higher welfare labelled products, the more supermarkets will stock them and the more producers will raise their standards.

The vast majority of people in the UK do eat meat so in this case, eating more welfare friendly products such as free-range or Freedom Food [the RSPCA’s farm assurance and food labelling scheme] is one way of making sure that the food that is consumed has lived a better cared for, more fulfilled life. Unfortunately there is a lot of misleading labelling. Quality packaging and labelling such as farm-fresh or farmers’ market does not mean higher welfare. ‘High quality’ or high cost don’t necessarily mean higher welfare either. Although terms like ‘artisan’, ‘farm-fresh’, ‘natural’, ‘preservative-free’ and ‘healthy’ are tempting to consumers, there is no guarantee that the meat is sourced from a higher welfare farm.’

The farmer: Robert Tuckwell
‘Intensive farming is the only way that this world is going to survive, unfortunately, but I don’t think that an intensive unit has to affect animal welfare. It might not be what we classify as the natural way for a cow, chicken or pig to survive but it doesn’t mean that the animal has to suffer just because it’s intensively reared. If someone had a pet dog and they didn’t treat it well, the animal wouldn’t look well. The same is true with our animals: if we don’t look after them, they don’t grow, fatten, or milk and then we’ve got a product we can’t sell. You’ve got to look after your animals, even in an intensive system; they’ve got to feed well and have enough room to walk around. On most intensive beef units, the tighter you have them, the warmer they keep so the less weight they lose through being cold and the better and quicker they fatten. As long as they have got fresh air, and all our buildings are designed so they have fresh air, we aren’t going back to the old sweat pens - we've moved on a mile since then.

We have visits from the Red Tractor inspectors - which we pay for - to get ourselves the logo certification, which you have to have now [in order] to sell anything because very few people will buy from you unless you’re Red Tractor certified. That’s for corn and animals, so they check your welfare and do spot checks as well as an annual visit. Then you’ve got DEFRA, who do regular inspections to see what’s going on. We have our TB testing at 12 monthly intervals, then you have Trading Standards who look after all the movements of the animals as well as checking to make sure we are behaving ourselves.

People who are for animal welfare have made a real difference to them [the animals] but it has driven up our overheads, as will the new government proposals, which mean we will have to pay for all animal welfare related costs. For example, if we get foot and mouth again, the government aren’t going to look after it: we’re going to have to be self-funding. The problem with that is that on one side they’re saying we have to fund it and on the other that we aren’t allowed to have a say about control of imports and where meat comes from. There’s nothing British farmers can do other than lobby to alter legislation about imports.’

The animal rights activist: Kelly Slade of Animal Aid
‘Caring about animal welfare is inconsistent with consuming the body parts and by-products of animals. Animal Aid’s view is that the only way to ensure an animal hasn’t suffered for your plate is to eat a vegan plant-based diet. 

Animal Aid has conducted extensive undercover investigations in every kind of animal farm as well as numerous slaughterhouses across Britain over several years. Our evidence clearly demonstrates that all animal farming, whether the process is described as intensive, free-range or organic, involves treating sentient beings as mere commodities to be mass-produced and killed for food. Killing another being for food can never be regarded as humane.

Animal Aid has secretly filmed inside eight randomly chosen British slaughterhouses and revealed: pigs being repeatedly kicked in the head; sheep being picked up by ears and fleeces and thrown across the room; a ewe being stunned and killed while her lamb was suckling her; and incompetent and even sadistic use of electric stunning tongs. We recorded animals being improperly stunned and going to the knife while still conscious. ‘High welfare’ slaughterhouses, such as those accredited by the Soil Association, were no better than the non-organic ones. Our filming showed terrified animals dashing about and trying to climb walls in their desperate attempts to escape death.

Most of us wouldn’t dream of treating a dog or a cat in this way so why is it acceptable to use some species for food while others are treated as companions? Animals bred to be eaten experience pain, fear and distress in the same way as the dogs or cats who share our homes. But the meat industry markets their flesh in a way designed to break the link with a living, feeling being. Animal products are not essential for a healthy diet and going vegan is a lot easier than you might think.

The butcher: Jason Quittenton
‘I’ve sold organic meat for nine years now and it’s clear it is of a higher quality. The animals are slower growing which means more flavour, and the organic certification means stringent standards that people can trust when they are buying my product. I myself have 200 sheep at the moment, so I sell my own mutton and lamb.

The thing is I’m not working for a big company; I’m working for myself. I can’t just clock out at four and forget about my products. It’s my name on the product and my livelihood that’s on line when I’m selling the meat. Customers appreciate that they know you when thy come to your shop, they can trust you and what you’re selling. I think we’ve lost a lot of this personal element when it comes to supermarket meat. I work on my own, I’ve produced livestock for 10 years, and people can ask me a question about my product and I can answer them quite directly.

Butchers in the supermarkets just cut the meat up, they don’t have the same connection to the meat that I do. Almost all my customers want to know what breed the animal was, what it was fed, where it comes from. There’s no way they can tell you these things at the supermarket but I can give you all that information. I do think there is a struggle price wise, because obviously organic costs more. However, that also means your customers have to want to buy it off you, and I really get to know my customers and give them that personal experience.’

Add to StumbleUpon
In season now: what to eat during July
Raspberries, mackerel and broad beans are all on the menu this month
New series Ask the Ecologist: Which is best - local or organic?
Green Living Editor Ruth Styles answers your eco-lifestyle dilemmas. This week it’s the question of local versus organic produce under the spotlight
Spices: the true cost of a kitchen staple
From habitat loss to human rights abuses; as Jeff Holman discovered, your pepper, saffron and turmeric aren’t quite as innocent as they seem
Top 10…UK farmers’ markets
From local specialities to homemade treats, shopping at Britain’s farmers’ markets is a great way to get stuck into premium produce and support local farmers. Jeff Holman rounds up some of the best
Greener grocers: six great ethical supermarkets
Not every supermarket is a heartless corporate giant: here are six that are showing Tesco and co how it's done

More from this author