Meat has been so cheap for so long that it became easy to forget exactly how it is produced. However, various food scandals, including the horse-meat controversy and, most recently, the marketing by Tesco of a range of meats, labelled with fictional farms to convince us it was somehow from a more wholesome source, has made many people think twice about what they are eating.
The reality is pretty grim. At one end of the spectrum, factory farms keep tightly packed animals indoors, feeding them grains to fatten them up quickly, before slaughtering them on huge production lines. This method of production accounts for a staggering 70 per cent of the 75 billion animals farmed worldwide each year, according to Compassion In World Farming.
"Farming has gone through a massive industrialisation over the last two generations" says Richard Smith, farm manager at Daylesford, one of the most sustainable farms in the UK.
"The difference between other businesses and livestock farming is as food has become cheaper, farmers have been forced into levels of efficiency that have never been seen before – and that includes producing animals that grow at phenomenal rates."
At the other end of the industry, organic farms ensure animals have enough space to roam free, eat a grass-fed diet, and are taken to small local abattoirs for slaughter.
"Ethical" and "sustainable" farming is gaining momentum and the organic food and drink industry is now worth £49 billion globally, according to a new report from the UK’s largest organic certification body, the Soil Association.
The UK market is in its third consecutive year of growth, with industry sales rising 4.9 per cent to almost £2 billion, while sales in the non-organic market declined as increasingly savvy shoppers seek assurances about where their meat comes from.
The rise of the ‘flexitarian’
I’m one such shopper. I’m a failed vegetarian, or flexitarian, as the growing numbers of people who eat only "ethical" meat occasionally are known.
I’ve always felt an element of guilt about eating animals, and two years ago I had a month of abstinence during ‘Meat-Free May’, after which I decided I would only eat meat from ethical producers.
This information was hard to find and I found supermarket labelling confusing, so after many hours of research I decided to share my findings by starting an ethical food website, bicbim.co.uk, as a reference tool for like-minded people.
I still eat meat in restaurants that are open about where they source their meat from. Chains such as Hawksmoor, for example, get their steaks from The Ginger Pig; or Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK), which gets its buffalo burgers from Laverstoke Park Farm and the rest of their meat from small independent farms across the South West counties.
“For a while, the term organic gained the reputation of a Gucci-style luxury product, but I think people are realising now that’s just natural food and that’s the way we should be eating,” says Jody Scheckter, who owns Laverstoke.
Experts will tell you that the better standard of farming, the better the taste of the meat produced.
As Mark Schatzker, author of "Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef" explains: “When it comes to steak, we often say fat is flavour, but the truth is, the flavours that make a steak so delicious are dissolved in the fat. So if you feed cattle a bland, high-grain diet (think endless amounts of porridge) you can get ultra-marbled beef which is so revered. The problem is, it tastes like a glass of tap water.”
Can slaughter be humane?
How you slaughter animal is as important as how you rear them. Slower-growing animals have time to develop a deeper flavour, while meat from stressed animals has a more metallic, bitter taste due to the adrenalin that has pumped through them.
Daylesford’s commitment to animal welfare goes beyond the requirements set by organic standards and, determined to own their whole farming story, they recently invested £1 million updating their on-site abattoir.
Of course, only an abattoir with impeccably high standards would, eventually, open its doors to allow me to watch the process first-hand. I’ve seen how bad large slaughterhouse operations on Panorama-style TV investigations, and I wanted to see if slaughter could ever be considered humane.
Even so, I knew there was a strong possibility I would be leaving the abattoir as a newly converted vegan. I was fairly apprehensive as I listened to the sharpening of knives while waiting for the cow to enter the metal pen. So was she, apparently, as she took some time to arrive.
She relaxed after some calming words from familiar faces and a stroke on the nose before a bolt between the eyes knocked her out instantly and, after she fell to the ground, her throat was cut almost as quickly.
It is brutal. Watching the animal bleeding out, the loss of life hit me. However, I felt a sense of relief as well as sadness. It was done quickly and respectfully, and the cow seemed none the wiser. I left satisfied that there is a humane slaughtering process that the industry can follow, if it chooses to.
Going against the grain: the ethical meat eater
In a destructive cycle, our meat addiction fuels factory farming, which in turn encourages high levels of meat consumption because it makes it so cheap to buy.
It’s a system that doesn’t benefit anyone, including the farmers who are forced to sell meat so cheaply that sales barely cover their costs. Not us, as our overconsumption of meat is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Not the environment, as animal agriculture is the leading cause of human-caused climate change – more damaging than even transport – and not the animals.
To eat meat more ethically, the advice is two-fold: eat less (about 50 per cent less, if you can) and choose better quality meat.
As Scheckter says: "When you're producing the best-tasting, healthiest food, animal welfare comes free."
Richard Smith is chairman for the steering committee of agricology.co.uk, a site dedicated to help farmers become more sustainable
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