No omelettes without broken eggs

Animal suffering is unavoidable if we are to eat any kind of farm produ ce
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The Independent Online
I believe in good husbandry, by which term I understand that everything to do with the breeding, rearing and slaughtering of farm animals should be done in such a way as to promote the quality of the product and of the environment in which it is p roduced. But, of course, there are arguments about what constitutes good husbandry. I was listening to one on the radio the other day, in which John Humphrys, on the Today programme, began to lose his temper with an admittedly irritating continental veal farmer.

This man believed that the veal crates constituted good husbandry, since if they did not do so the calf would not put on weight.

Mr Humphrys's position was that a calf kept in such conditions could not be said to be happy. Challenged as to how he could tell whether a calf was happy, Mr Humphrys (who confessed to having been something of a farmer once) said it was obvious that whenyou put a calf out in a field it romped around and was happy.

I thought Mr Humphrys had allowed himself to stroll on to the wrong side of the argument. If the happiness of the animal is to be the criterion, then no farm animal could be slaughtered until it had visibly lost the will to live.

If the response of the animal on being turned out into the field were to settle the matter, then the calves would be out in many fields now and this, where I live, would constitute bad husbandry, not least because the grass would be soon churned up and turned to mud. The physical well-being of the calf, judged by measurable criteria and the absence of disease or symptoms of stress - such would be the evidence of good husbandry to me.

I know that in his definition the producer of white veal would place equal emphasis on the whiteness of the meat, which is achieved by "induced partial anaemia", which produces "rapid growth of a slightly anaemic calf whose stomach processes will not have been allowed to develop, as fibrous material is essential for this". In other words, the rapid growth is a sign of sickness rather than health.

The quotes above come from The Real Meat Cookbook by Frances Bissell (Chatto), an admirable book but one which gives no great comfort to proponents of the "Dutch loose housed" or "New British Standard" system, in which the calves get slightly more space than in the crates and, she, says, "latterly, the barriers are taken away so that the calves can at least mingle. Some fibrous roughage must be provided according to the rules, but there is no indication as to how much and no checking procedure. Most concerned welfarists think that this system has more to do with marketing than with welfare."

Mrs Bissell gives an honourable mention to the higher welfare Quantock system, before coming to free-range veal (of which supplies are rare). This veal is described as the equivalent of lamb - the calf has been kept with its mother until the time when itwould normally be weaned. Then it is slaughtered.

The bit about being kept with mother sounds nice. The bit about being slaughtered sounds rather less nice. But it is part of Mrs Bissell's message that one should not shut out of one's consciousness the origins of the meat one eats.

"We begin to shy away from butchers' shops, whose carcases hanging on hooks above a sawdust floor remind us that the Sunday joint was once a two-year-old steer and that our favourite stew was once a lamb born on the Welsh hillside, and whose displays of game-birds in full, vivid plumage show that these creatures once inhabited our moorlands and wild places. If we are going to eat them, we need to be reminded of this, not just from time to time, but every time we cook and eat meat. Not to mak e us feel guilty, but to make us conscious of what we are eating, to make us eat responsibly."

The spirit that wishes always to ignore where meat comes from, that turns hysterically from the realities of farming and butchery, wanting only to come into contact with some transformed product unrecognisable as animal, the spirit which consequently never wants to ask questions - this spirit is begging to be fobbed off. It wants to be told that nothing untoward ever happens in the world.

Such a spirit is always being shocked by the wrong things. A feather, the stump of a quill on a turkey's rump, is shocking because it is evidence that a turkey is a turkey. But the history of a cheap chicken is not shocking, as long as the object is wrapped in film, on a neat tray, with one of those unpleasant little pads underneath to soak up any pale pink juices.

Some people go through life without ever worrying what happens to the calves produced in dairy herds. Others one day get told the story of how these calves are taken away and in due course killed. And this comes as such a shock to them that they go crazy.

Instead of understanding that the world is a mixture of good and bad events, they become fixated exclusively on a single bad event.

Suddenly they must stop the slaughter. They rush down to the ports and block the roads and start shouting and screaming. And while it is going on, this is the most important issue in the world. So they demonstrate and the effect of these demonstrations is that calves and sheep get held up on their journey and they get screamed at.

A policeman was saying the other morning: of course we had to get the sheep through - they had to be bedded down, fed and watered.

And sometimes the demonstrators have been infiltrated by others whose paranoia is such that, in the name of the sanctity of life, they can start issuing death threats. So the razor blades start arriving in the mail, and then we begin to move on to the territory of the vegetarian terrorists - those people who, in order to prevent the slaughter of animals, will seize their own opportunity for slaughter.

Some people get by on a diet of milk and eggs and no questions asked. Others throw in fish, as being not too deserving denizens of the deep. A refined elaboration of this is refusal of red meat, popular among people who tell themselves that chickens do not have blood, so that's all right.

I will eat any meat, but please spare me from dog. And I would rather not eat monitor lizard that has been slaughtered in the favoured way, whose purpose is to cause it pain. And I am glad the Koreans have abandoned their traditional method of slaughtering a goat, which was to put a noose round its neck and then whirl it round and round above their heads.

Spare me and spare the animals from any of the above. But also spare the notion of good husbandry.

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