Utilities: Classrooms in front line of meat 'propaganda' war

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THE PICTURE of a cow and a calf nestling side by side is appealing to children. But when they turn the page, the image is replaced by some harsh facts about what the Vegetarian Society calls the 'meat machine'.

The society's hard-line leaflet, detailing how animals are slaughtered, has provoked a new row over 'playground propaganda'. The controversy also highlights the growing commercialism of the classroom as companies and pressure groups target tomorrow's consumers.

The Advertising Standards Authority asked the society to tone down the leaflet after a headmaster complained it could 'exploit children at an impressionable age'. The society refused, saying it has been circulated for five years to teenagers.

Its campaigns director, Juliet Gellatley, says pupils have a right to be told the less palatable facts. 'How are they going to find out otherwise - by stumbling into a slaughterhouse? It is up to charities to let them know the truth.'

The society has been invited into a thousand secondary schools, about one in seven, to deliver its tough message since starting the School Campaign for Reaction Against Meat (Scream) campaign.

But the Meat and Livestock Commission is defending its patch aggressively. The MLC sends information packs to primary schools and publishes two magazines for teenagers.

David Lewis of the MLC says the programme has been running for many years and denies it is being stepped up. 'The industry is concerned that the facts about meat and meat-eating must be got through to everybody in society, whether current or would-be consumers.

'We don't perceive it as a battleground - we are merely telling kids that meat is safe and nutritious . . . It is done through the teacher, as part of the curriculum.'

While the moral arguments rage, many manufacturers see schools as a sales opportunity. Sponsored learning aids are common. The Food Magazine put out by a pressure group, the Food Commission, says two- thirds of food educational material distributed to home economics teachers is produced by companies or organisations with a vested interest.

The National Union of Teachers argues that some companies make a worthwhile contribution, citing a recent building society-funded kit for primary school children, about saving to buy a house.

The NUT accepts that, while cash is tight in schools, growing business involvement is a fact of life. 'It is inevitable that those who wish to create a market for themselves will try and get at tomorrow's consumers.'

Teachers would be willing to look at, though not necessarily use, material produced by commercial organisations.

David Conning, director- general of the British Nutrition Foundation, which is funded by the Government and the food industry, and produces independent dietary information for children, says: 'Teachers are normally competent to take out what is blatantly propaganda, but some are not sufficiently knowledgeable. However, children have a lot more common sense than they are often given credit for.'

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