On the consumption of meat

945 million chickens were killed in the UK last year. Raised for the most part on large-scale industrial farms, with each bird given less floor space than the size of an A4 sheet of paper… forced to stand in their own wet litter soaked with enough ammonia to blister and scald their feet, they are bred to grow as fast as possible and exist only until they have reached slaughter weight – around six weeks, though they might otherwise live for up to eight years. They are then packed into trucks and taken to the abattoir.

Modern poultry processing is a production line business. Birds are hung upside down on a moving conveyor belt of shackles at the beginning of the abattoir, and in a sort of food Fordism, carried seamlessly through every stage from slaughter to washing, chilling, cutting and packing at high speeds. Large abattoirs typically run lines at a rate of 185 to 195 birds a minute, or nearly 12,000 an hour.

[The Guardian, 2014]

But whether or not you think that the transformation of animals into standardised industrial products, packaged and sold in supermarkets in nameless and generic containers of ‘meat’, now writhing and smoking deliciously in your frying pan, is morally objectionable… it is at least revealing of the strange ways in which we relate to food, and to the individual animals from which it comes.

Factory-farmed chickens

Humans and their animals

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

[Genesis, 1:26, KJV]

Without question, chicken tikka masala is a brilliant curry that makes people very happy.

[Jamie Oliver, Comfort Food, 2014]

Flagrant disregard for the lived experience of animals is nothing new. It was set out in Christian theology and in Aristotle’s Politics that the purpose of nature was to serve man. René Descartes justified his gruesome vivisection experiments – even on a live dog – by asserting that animals are essentially highly complex machines that do not have souls and therefore cannot experience pain. Animals have been used by man for centuries in transport, war, and agriculture; for clothing, companionship, and food.

What is new is that we all like animals and none of us really like to think of ourselves as perpetrators of animal cruelty. Instead we claim to believe in evolution – that there is an essentially seamless continuum connecting us with every other species on the planet, though most of the intermediates are now extinct:

It is, of course, true that there is a continuum between us and every other species, and it’s literally a gradual, seamless continuum, except, of course, that most of the intermediates are extinct. If they were not extinct, then we would immediately see the absurdity of the speciesist double standard, whereby we treat humans as special—even human embryos as special—as opposed to chimpanzees or gorillas. We would immediately see the absurdity of that because we would be linked to those species by an unbroken chain of intermediates with whom we could interbreed. So if you really understand the implications of evolution, it becomes extremely hard to uphold the speciesist morality and ethic that we more or less universally live by. 

[Richard Dawkins, 2004]

And more than simply recognising our profound kinship with animals, we seem to genuinely like them… We own pets which we feed and take for walks and dress up and take pictures of. We develop interest in charismatic animals given their own names and stories in documentaries narrated by David Attenborough. We give our children soft fluffy animal toys to play with and Disney films to watch on DVD. We love animals!… But beneath the pretty, well-manicured appearance of our engagement with them, the appallingly short and artificial lives of the billions of animals raised on factory farms worldwide are rarely mentioned.

There’s a schizoid quality to our relationship with animals today in which sentiment and brutality exist side by side. Half the dogs in America will receive Christmas presents this year, yet few of us ever pause to consider the life of the pig – an animal easily as intelligent as a dog – that becomes the Christmas ham.

[The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2011]

We are for instance, appalled at the thought that our burgers may contain horse meat; the horse is an animal which we carefully romanticise in books and films, a beautiful animal, a noble animal. This is a very old sentiment, and it was used by Anna Sewell to great effect in Black Beautyperhaps the most famous novel to be told from an animal’s perspective, in order to garner sympathy for the blinkered and hard-pressed horses used by London taxicab drivers.

“… it is dreadful… your neck aching till you did not know how to bear it… [the bit] hurt my tongue and my jaw and the blood from my tongue covered the froth that kept flying from my lips”

[Black Beauty, 1877]

But is a horse so different from a cow? Clearly, we do not think about cows in the same way.

“… it is dreadful… being raised in good faith, fed and fed until you are big and fat, then walked into a crate, stunned, and bled to death for a human’s dinner plate.”

This is the most humane video of slaughter I could find; click here for the nauseatingly abhorrent ‘video the meat industry doesn’t want you to see’ (US version).

The nutritional importance of meat consumption?

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with killing animals in order to eat their flesh. In fact, the consumption of meat was a vital component of human evolution, facilitating the development of larger brains, smaller guts, bipedalism and even language:

Larger brains benefited from consuming high-quality proteins in meat-containing diets, and, in turn, hunting and killing of large animals, butchering of carcasses and sharing of meat have inevitably contributed to the evolution of human intelligence in general and to the development of language and of capacities for planning, cooperation and socializing in particular… there is no doubt that the human digestive tract has clearly evolved for omnivory, not for purely plant-based diets. And the role of scavenging, and later hunting, in the evolution of bipedalism and the mastery of endurance running cannot be underestimated

[Should Humans Eat Meat?, 2013]

Vegans often make the claim that eating meat is unnecessary and even unnatural; that a vegan diet ‘is not only better for the planet, it’s better for you!’. But if veganism – complete abstention from the use of animal products – does not make great sense in evolutionary terms, it is not a scientifically unreasonable philosophy either. In fact, numerous studies have linked the consumption of meat with higher risk of mortality both in the USA and in Europe.

Within the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) including more than 500,000 participants from ten European countries and, thus, reflecting a very heterogeneous diet, we examined the association between meat consumption and the risk for overall and cause-specific mortality…. The results of our analyses suggest that men and women with a high consumption of processed meat are at increased risk of early death, in particular due to cardiovascular diseases but also to cancer. In this population, reduction of processed meat consumption to less than 20 g/day would prevent more than 3% of all deaths. As processed meat consumption is a modifiable risk factor, health promotion activities should include specific advice on lowering processed meat consumption.

[BMC Medicine, 2013]

But the important point here is that it is processed meat which is particularly harmful. This most recent large-scale study in fact found no statistically significant association between red meat intake and mortality, and no association at all with the consumption of poultry. By contrast, processed meat consumption  was associated with increased risk of death from cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

Processed meats such as sausages, salami and bacon have a higher content of saturated fatty acids and cholesterol than fresh red meat; the latter is often consumed after removing the visible fat tissue, whereas the proportion of fat in sausages often reaches 50% of the weight or even more. Both high saturated fat and cholesterol intake have been found to be related to the risk of coronary heart disease. Also, processed meat is treated by salting, curing, or smoking in order to improve the durability of the food and/or to improve color and taste. These processes, however, lead to an increased intake of carcinogens or their precursors (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heterocyclic aromatic amines, nitrosamines) or to a high intake of specific compounds possibly enhancing the development of carcinogenic processes (for example, nitrite).

[BMC Medicine, 2013]

Consequently, while the consumption of processed meat may be – and probably is – highly unhealthy, this in no way means that we should never eat meat, or that eating meat is ‘unhealthy’ full stop.

Although some observational studies have described the health benefits of vegetarian diets, these tend to be plagued by various kinds of healthy-user bias in which one apparently health-conscious behaviour – vegetarianism – is associated with others such as non-smoking or exercising, and vice versa. By contrast, recent studies which have controlled for this bias by examining health-conscious vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike, have found statistically significant differences only when comparing the two groups with the general population.

In fact, so far as good nutrition is concerned, several studies have shown that both vegetarians and vegans are prone to deficiencies in B12, calcium, iron, zinc, the long-chain fatty acids EPA & DHA, and fat-soluble vitamins like A & D. While various vegan foodstuffs and plant-foods may contain the individual nutrients required – as vegans are keen to point out – such arguments do not take into account the bioavailability of these nutrients, or the presence of various inhibiting factors and anti-nutrients within vegan diets.

The EPIC results do not show the lowest relative risks (RRs) for subjects in the lowest meat intake category, but a slight J-shaped association with the lowest risk among subjects with low-to-moderate meat consumption. This was observed for red meat and poultry. Also, taking into account the results from the studies that evaluated vegetarian and low-meat diets, it appears that a low – but not a zero – consumption of meat might be beneficial for health. This is understandable as meat is an important source of nutrients, such as protein, iron, zinc, several B-vitamins as well as vitamin A and essential fatty acids (linoleic acid and to a minor extent eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids also). A sub-optimal supply of some of these nutrients due to an unbalanced type of vegetarian diet seems possible and might be associated with an increased risk for morbidity and mortality. 

[BMC Medicine, 2013]

Meat, fresh and in moderation, is an important component of the human diet. You can get by without it, and may even experience improved health outcomes if your preceding diet was poor, especially if you are eating larger quantities of fruit and vegetables. But from an evolutionary perspective, it is difficult to justify a diet low in several nutrients critical to human function.

While it may be possible to address these shortcomings through targeted supplementation (an issue that is still debated), it makes far more sense to meet nutritional needs from food. This is especially important for children, who are still developing and are even more sensitive to suboptimal intake of the nutrients discussed in this article.

[Chris Kresser]

So unless you are prepared to compromise as a vegetarian consuming liberal quantities of high-welfare eggs and full-fat dairy, or else unless you can afford to consult with nutritionists and purchase a wide array of plant foods and supplements, be wary of evangelical vegans claiming that meat is ‘unnatural’. Then again, depending on the strength of your convictions, you may see the sacrifice as worthwhile.

The ethics of meat consumption

How vile a crime that flesh should swallow flesh,
Body should fatten greedy body; life
Should live upon the death of other lives!
With all the bounteous riches that the earth,
Earth best of mothers, yields, can nothing please
But savage relish munching piteous wounds,
A Cyclops’ banquet? Can you not placate
Without another’s doom – a life destroyed –
The urgent craving of your bellies’ greed?

[Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. A. D. Melville]

Where vegans of course tend to have the upper hand is in the ethical arguments relating to the unceremonious slaughter of animals raised expressly for their meat. Humans may have been killing and eating animals for tens of thousands of years – though many such as Ovid, Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci, Gandhi, found this contemptible – but only since the 1960s have we been doing it in such grotesque and depersonalised ways.

The ethics of meat consumption has never been a straightforward issue, but at least humans used to work hard to justify it. Even the barbeque may originally have developed only as an offering of smoke to the gods. People rarely ate meat, but when they did they appreciated the sacrifice that had been made by the animal to afford such rich sustenance. The ancient Greek word for ‘priest’ is also the word for ‘butcher’ and ‘cook’: mageiros. People participated in the hunting and slaughter of the animal – not just the eating – and were fully aware of the individual death entailed.

But we no longer hunt for our dinner. We no longer stare the animal in the eyes and chant prayers of thanks and offering as we cook it in a blaze of fire and smoke. Instead we buy it, pre-prepared in plastic boxes. We rarely pause to consider the journey of that flesh from the farm to our fork. Inside the supermarket, even in the butcher’s shop, it is no longer part of an individual animal, but a saleable product with standard price and packaging, a commodity, a noun, a thing. A cow has been transformed into ‘beef’, a pig into ‘pork’. And in this transformation we lose our moral obligation as consumers of meat to the individual animals from which it comes. We may even forget entirely that it has come from an animal, so detached are we from interaction with the processes of birth, growth and slaughter involved, so beguiled by descriptions of how ‘moist’ and ‘succulent’ is this ‘tender’ and ‘delicious’ piece of neatly-packaged meat.

Of course, our ignorance regarding the conditions and practices of intensive livestock farming is not totally our own fault. Browsing the aisles of your local supermarket, it is easy to conclude that animals exist to serve us. Neatly arrayed on display, in familiar boxes for us to pick up and put down however we please, to peruse like CDs and cereal cartons without a moment’s thought for the individual lives involved, we are encouraged to feel comfortable with the idea that these animals were glad to service our needs and attach sustenance to our forks.

The language which supermarkets use to describe these ‘British’ animals raised on ‘farms we know and trust’, further instils in us the unconscious feeling that buying this meat is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, even a kind thing, which demands of us the same virtues of trust, loyalty and patriotism. And what of the animal from which the meat comes? We are usually given only a cartoonish picture of a single animal, perhaps just a silhouette, in complimentary colours.

IMG_0315 (1024x768)
Natural daylight, straw bales and perches, oh my!

Animals are sentient beings, capable of compassion and feeling pain; even the chicken should be regarded as an intelligent and cognitively sophisticated animal. Do we owe it to them to punch holes in the absurd rhetoric and advertising strategies of supermarkets? To fight for truth and justice and their dignity; to plaster stickers of headless bloody animals hanging in dim grey abattoirs over the images of heartlessly misleading advertisements; to stop people in the street, in the supermarket aisles, at restaurants and at their desks, and tell them TO STOP, think – look at this page – please? Are we obliged to do this, or is it enough simply to go vegetarian?

The greatest abomination

Illness and the enviroment

In considering our answers, it is important to recognise that the state of modern agriculture and intensive livestock farming is not a question of ethics alone. In fact the lack of our engagement with these issues and our lack of concern for the animals which provide us with food, in poorly regulated systems intent on minimising running costs, produces a great number of highly serious yet under-appreciated problems.

The Guardian has in fact just recently published a report on ‘the dirty secret of the UK’s poultry industry’; that is, that two thirds of fresh retail chicken in the UK are contaminated with campylobacter, a potentially deadly bacteria linked to poor hygiene standards:

The concern centres on the bacteria campylobacter, which at the last count was present in two-thirds of British fresh chicken sold in the UK. Although the bug is killed by thorough cooking, around 280,000 people in the UK are currently made ill each year by it and 100 people are thought to die. Contamination rates are known to have increased in the past decade.

[The Guardian, 2014]

The Guardian investigated the weak links in the chicken chain, gathering material from undercover film, photographic evidence and whistleblowers, to determine why campylobacter is so prevalent in UK chicken meat.

Just last month – on a not untypical day, according to sources – at a vast chicken abattoir in Anglesey owned by the UK’s largest poultry company, 2 Sisters Food Group, something of the nature of the problem is revealed…

The pump system has broken down again, and the channel that is supposed to drain away the innards from the tens of thousands of chickens killed and processed each day for supermarket orders has been blocked for a prolonged period. Guts and offal extracted during a process called evisceration are piling up to form a gory heap of high-risk material. The floor around is wet with blood. Campylobacter is carried in the guts and faeces of chickens and evisceration is one of the key points in the processing chain at which contamination occurs.

[The Guardian, 2014]

Here is a picture of the broken pump system at the 2 Sisters abattoir in Anglesey, which supplies chicken for ready meals sold by Tesco, M&S and Asda – imagine these guts on the floor of the supermarket next time you visit the meat aisle.

Poultry offal piles up during a pump system failure at the 2 Sisters factory in Anglesey.

And then aside from the issues of bacterial infection, antibiotic resistance ‘sending us back to the Dark Ages‘, parasites, cancer, bird flu… there is also the question of the environmental degradation associated with animal agriculture.

Agriculture is in fact the main driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss worldwide. And it is animal agriculture which is particularly devastating.

“There are basic laws of biophysics that we cannot evade… The average efficiency of livestock converting plant feed to meat is less than 3%, and as we eat more meat, more arable cultivation is turned over to producing feedstock for animals that provide meat for humans.”

[Bojana Bajzelj, Cambridge University]

In all, livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the planetThe amount of vegetable protein fed to the US beef herd alone would feed almost the entire populations of India and China – two billion people.

These statistics are important, because, as populations rise and global tastes shift towards meat-heavy Western diets, increasing agricultural yields will not  be able to meet food demands of what is expected to be 9.6 billion people by 2050 – making it necessary to bring more land into cultivation.

Recent studies show that current trends in yield improvement will not be sufficient to meet projected global food demand in 2050, and suggest that a further expansion of agricultural area will be required. However, agriculture is the main driver of losses of biodiversity and a major contributor to climate change and pollution, and so further expansion is undesirable.

[Nature Climate Change, 2014]

Indeed deforestation is not problematic simply because of its effect on global biodiversity – and currently we are experiencing the highest rate of extinction since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago – but because deforestation is directly linked to climate change and pollution.

The great rainforests represent the detoxifying lungs of the planet, and their clearance to make way for agricultural land makes very little environmental sense. Especially so since increasing populations of cattle – prolific producers of methane – alongside the industrial processes involved in manufacturing fertiliser for farmland, are likely to cause greenhouse gas emissions from food production to increase by almost 80% by 2050. This will put emissions from food production alone roughly equal to the target greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 for the entire global economy.

If we maintain ‘business as usual’… then by 2050 cropland will have expanded by 42% and fertiliser use increased sharply by 45% over 2009 levels. A further tenth of the world’s pristine tropical forests would disappear over the next 35 years.

[Cambridge University]

The authors of this most recent study published in Nature Climate Change say we should all think carefully about the food we choose and its environmental impact.

“It is imperative to find ways to achieve global food security without expanding crop or pastureland. Food production is a main driver of biodiversity loss and a large contributor to climate change and pollution, so our food choices matter.” 

[Bojana Bajzelj, Cambridge University]

“This is not a radical vegetarian argument; it is an argument about eating meat in sensible amounts as part of healthy, balanced diets… Managing the demand better, for example by focusing on health education, would bring double benefits – maintaining healthy populations, and greatly reducing critical pressures on the environment.” 

[Keith Richards, Cambridge University]

This is not a straightforward issue by any means, and migratory cattle herds may be used to fertilise desert regions in the future, though this suggestion has been criticised.

Many of these arguments – as well as the difficulty of making any headway against the hugely influential and powerful meat industry – have been highlighted by the upcoming documentary, Cowspiracy:

Think deep

Each year, meat eaters in Britain consume their own weight in animal flesh. Over the period of a lifetime it amounts to: 5 Cattle / 20 Pigs / 29 Sheep / 780 Chickens / 46 Turkeys / 18 Ducks / 7 Rabbits / 1½ Geese. [Viva!]

How much is your life worth? How much is theirs? Do not be fooled by the easy appearance of meat in supermarket aisles and on restaurant menus – it comes at a price. And for all the arguments of scientists and activists, for all their most shocking facts and figures and disgusting pictures, you are the one who decides the value of that price… Animals must die, and we must die with them, but for all the existential meaninglessness of our existence on this tiny blue dot in the midst of space… we can decide in what kind of a world we want to live, we can decide what kind of people we wish to be.

So whenever next you see some laddish bunch of men, wolfing down sausages and burgers at the local all-you-can-eat grill, remember it is not greed or cruelty which they offer with the blood staining their fingers and trickling down from their lips… it is disconnection, it is alienation, it is the absurdity of existence. What is right? What is wrong? Whether you are vegan or vegetarian or simply a very grateful consumer of meat, thinking more deeply about our food and where it comes from, can only be a very good thing – for us all here on Earth.


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