The real problem is a wilful ignorance and greed on behalf of the vast majority of consumers, the devaluing of meat within our culture and the endless, shameless and frankly irresponsible marketing of cheap meat by our larger retailers
I have to write this piece, even as the battered soapbox of indignation is dragged out of the metaphorical dusty corner to centre stage I know I cant stop myself - I'm going to have to let this out.
Every now and again I loose my grip a little on my inner calm and there are a few common factors that stoke the embers of rage. I read with interest and great sadness the Ecologist article by Andrew Wasley and Josh Robbins a week or two ago and of course I am not in the least surprised or in fact shocked by the horrendous, seemingly systemic and callous breaches of animal welfare codes in our abattoirs.
The article states that some 4,000 severe breaches of animal welfare regulations have occurred over the past two years. And that number seems staggering when you assume that these don't only happen during times of inspection - in fact they are possibly even more frequent when the watchful eye of authority is absent? I'll refrain from making a leap of extrapolation here, it's not necessary and rarely helpful.
But hold tight to the horses of indignation, rewind that tune selecta, let's get this in context. Brace yourselves, I'm feeling a little brutal.
Now, 4000 breaches of welfare code over 2 years amounts to 2000 per year. Here's some numbers for you courtesy of the Human Slaughter Association. Last year, the UK slaughtered for human consumption (remember these numbers exclude imported meat from as far away as South East Asia and New Zealand) approximately 2.6 million cattle, 10 million pigs, 14.5 million sheep and lambs and 950 million birds.
That's around a billion animals. Excluding Fish. That's a big number. A very big number.
Now this is not a defence, this is the beginning of the criticism. That we should be shocked by 4000 breaches of welfare by abattoirs is the problem. Really, we should be shocked by the vast number of overall kills. Now add to the mix the issue of an ever decreasing number of slaughter houses in the UK. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (now DEFRA), there were 13,000 slaughterhouses in Great Britain in 1938. This figure had fallen to 1,000 by 1986 and to 416 by 1999.
Today there are just 336 abattoirs registered in the UK. And with so many animals to be slaughtered, they often have to travel enormous distances to be killed. This in itself will be more stressful for the animals than if we had more, smaller slaughterhouses.
Slaughterhouses then are under immense pressure because of the volume of animals brought each day for slaughter. Many of them are giant, industrial buildings, specialising in a certain type of animal, notably pigs or chicken. We are treating animals like commodities rather than living creatures, so is it any wonder that breaches occur in the welfare codes?
I would venture it is inevitable, though still shameful, that these issues occur. The problem is far bigger than faceless men and women acting disgracefully in the slaughterhouse or whilst in the employ of a haulier firm. The real problem is a wilful ignorance and greed on behalf of the vast majority of consumers, the devaluing of meat within our culture and the endless, shameless and frankly irresponsible marketing of cheap meat by our larger retailers.
I am not a vegetarian, though I eat a lot of meat-free dishes, and certainly won't eat meat that is of dubious origin. I don't like to complain, or be the difficult one when out to dinner with friends and so, it's simpler by far to order the vegetarian dishes on the menu than to question the serving staff as to the whereabouts and welfare credentials of the kitchen's meat supplier. But I also consciously consume more vegetable-based dishes than meat dishes at home and for very good reason.
I keep pigs. I also shoot animals for food. When I kill something myself I clean and butcher it myself, for my family and friends to eat. When I have my pigs killed, I get up at 5am, feed them on a trailer that they have been fed on for 3 days so it's not different, or stressful for them, gently close the door and drive the 5.6 miles to the small, local slaughterhouse just down the road. They are dead by 7am and it's not unusual to be making the black-pudding in time for lunch. I occasionally buy beef from a local farmer, and the odd chicken form a local grower who has their own small-scale slaughter facility on site for their properly free-range birds.
The meat in my house is very highly valued. I have worked hard to produce or acquire it. I have spent money and, importantly, lots of time to get it. I have laboured over it and cared for it while it was alive, I may well have killed it myself and so I have a connection to it, I owe it something, it has a story and sometimes it even had a name. But I hesitate to describe even this meat as expensive.
The highest of welfare meat, grown locally, and slowly with minimal antibiotics and a good feed regimen, slaughtered locally and purchased as directly as possible by you will cost you more than the 'cheap' meat in the supermarket. But it is not expensive. It is the right price and if you can't afford it simply eat less of it. It will be better for you, the environment and in the end for the whole world.
You may be vegetarian and feeling pretty good about it right now, and I salute you. But I like meat, and have no problem whatsoever with killing animals for meat from the wild provided there are no conservation concerns about the species, nor do I have an issue with good quality slow-grown, properly looked after high welfare animals being raised for meat. What I do have an issue with is the wilful ignorance of the masses who pretend to care all of a sudden and feel "betrayed" by the international retailer they have learned to depend on when they inadvertently poison them with Campylobacta, or sell them horse meat. How can you pay £4.50 or less for a chicken and genuinely believe that somewhere along the line it has not suffered more than necessary? What right do you have to be the supposedly unwitting architect of the abject misery that animal may have endured?
I am saddened that there are failings in our meat production systems, and there is never an excuse for unnecessary abuse of livestock but the issue is much, much bigger and in the end it lies within the power of every shopper out there, every diner in every restaurant and every parent in every home.
Eat less meat or even none at all if you prefer, spend more on your food even if it means economising elsewhere, try to care, make the effort and above all don't blame it on anyone else or appear too shocked when you read about the terrible abuses in abattoirs or the vast failings of antibiotic as a medicine due to over use in agribusiness. It's down to you and your choices, which can, in the end, make the changes to these systems that will improve them. Better for you, better for the environment and better most importantly for the animals involved.
From the point of view of commerce or economics it's always the same old argument. We need to do it like this, it's good for the economy. No, it's not. It's bad for farmers and with any more public health scares it's going to start getting pretty bad for the economy too.
So, what if we all ate half as much meat as we do now, but paid twice as much for it? So, say a chicken costs you a tenner. Doesn't seem much really for over a kilo of animal flesh. It could have a marginally better and slightly longer life spent at least partly outdoors. The farmer could make a little more perhaps leading them to invest in an on-site kill room or just better, less cramped transport. Maybe the killsman at the abattoir could get a few more quid a year in his wage packet? I'm sure that's not too bleak a picture for the economy is it? It looks more sustainable to me, the kind of process that would work forever without peaks and troughs in productivity and supply. But, I'm just a cook, so what do I know? Well, I know one thing for sure it would certainly taste better!
I think the best way to make a difference on an everyday basis is to simply make meat a treat, make it a celebration, treat it with great care as you would any other very precious resource. Cook it well, use up any leftovers, make a stock from the bones, use meat as a sprinkle, or a seasoning where once it was the requisite main element of your cookery and you will still get the meaty hit you want, without the cost to welfare, the environment or your health.
Celebrate good meat, enjoy it, worship it if you like - just so long as you condemn the bad stuff to the past and encourage others to do the same.
Read our original news report about breaches of animal welfare en route to and at slaughterhouses here: http://bit.ly/2cbWaT6
Tim Maddams is a passionate and creative foodie, unafraid to face the difficult arguments that surround food. Having grown up in rural Wiltshire Tim spent time cooking for various notable chefs in London before a return to the West Country to take the helm at the River Cottage canteen in Axminster, Devon, later taking on a key role within the Fish Fight campaign. Tim now works as a private chef, food writer and presenter, based in beautiful East Devon