'Still life with a Swan', 1640s. Snyders, Frans (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Meat and morals

Ethical carnivores need to start thinking like vegans

Artillery Row

Another labelling scandal has gripped the British meat industry, causing me to wonder if it might be time to take meat off the shopping list for a whilst. This scandal might not have rocked the nation with the giddy nausea of the horse meat scam, but Farmers’ Weekly’s Abi Kay has uncovered industrial scale food fraud that should cause us all to question the provenance of the food that ends up in our stomachs.

This question not only strikes at our self-centred desire to eat tasty, healthy food, or even the rational urge to avoid anything that might make us feel queasy, either morally (as per horse meat) or physically (as per e. coli). Certainty over what goes into the food we eat is also vital in putting our environmental and animal welfare values into practice. Many of us are horrified by the degradations of factory farming, but if we don’t know where our meat comes from, how can we possibly avoid it? 

Aside from two hundred thousand game shots and fewer than 20,000 smallholders, no one in the UK is looking their meat animals in the eye. Over 80 per cent of us rely on supermarkets to source almost all our food, and we expect them to tell us where they got it. The rest of what we eat turns up in convenience stores, restaurants, work and school, and if we’re unlucky, hospital. If we want to eat “better” meat, someone needs to help us work out what that is. 

If a good old Union Jack cannot be trusted, what can be?

Research has shown time and again that the only mark of quality the majority of UK shoppers look for is the Union Jack. It’s British, so the thinking goes, and we love our animals, so these animals must have been treated well. Hence the episodic fury over some clever supermarket manipulation of the Australian or New Zealand flag on a cut of lamb or venison.

Far worse than flag chicanery however, are the dangerous practices uncovered by Kay, who caught a processor sticking a British label on a staggering tonnage of foreign pork every week. Rotten meat was mixed with fresh; food safety paperwork was falsified. I expect you are wondering if you ate any of it. Abi reports that “meat processed by the company ended up in products such as ready meals, quiches, sandwiches” supplied to Tesco, Asda, Co-op, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Ikea and Subway. None of these outlets knew what was happening; none are culpable for the deception. 

Most damning of all, a source is quoted alleging most of the rotten meat ended up in schools, hospitals, care homes and prisons. Head to Farmers’ Weekly to read the whole stomach churning story.

If the most trusted badge of quality, a good old Union Jack, cannot in fact be trusted, what can be? This fraud was perpetrated over two decades, two decades in which auditors and government authorities were given the runaround. You might look at that list of outlets and think price is some sort of protection against low quality, but this is not necessarily so. I recently wrote for a countryside magazine on the challenges of getting high quality British meat into restaurants. So many are relying on chicken imported from Thailand as their staple meat. If some professional kitchens haven’t even committed to British sourcing, they aren’t interested in anything extra high-welfare (and therefore, expensive) — and these are not cheap restaurants. The take home is this: no matter what you are paying, if the menu doesn’t specify a place of origin, the meat probably fails every definition of “better”.

So what to do? What if you only want to support high welfare farming, but the labelling and the pricing is at best unhelpful? I have a controversial solution.

Plant-based might be the safest way through this morass of poor labelling

Reading the comments on Abi’s piece (always a move that risks one’s faith in humanity), I came across one suggesting it would be so much worse if anyone looked into plant based processing. Given the revolting details in the article, I can forgive the meat-eating community, and especially the meat-producing community, a little defensiveness. Honestly, I find it hard to believe that it stacks up, however. Yes, there are challenges, we still need good judgement to avoid accidentally supporting deforestation in the tropics, but the most lurid vegetable scandal would struggle to bring green to the cheeks in quite the same manner as horse meat or washed-off rotten hams. 

The comment got me wondering whether plant-based might in fact be the safest way through this morass of poor labelling. I’m not a vegan, not philosophically. I believe animals need to be killed for a variety of reasons. I believe pigeons need to be kept off crops, deer need controlling, and for now at least (and maybe for always) in the UK we need domesticated animals to take the place of large wild herbivores in conservation. If they’re going to be killed, I believe someone should eat them.

Yet, goodness me, that leaves little room for manoeuvre in the supermarket. Particularly when you start to think like a vegan, and you realise there are unlabelled animal products in everything. It’s in your cosmetics, your gummy sweets, your baked goods, and you bet it’s in your ready made sandwich. What sort of life did those animals have? Did their time on earth meet whatever environmental and welfare standard you have decided is acceptable for your meat and dairy? Do you always buy British, or free range, or organic, then pick up a pack of brownies full of powdered egg and milk from who knows where?

“Less, but better” makes no sense to me in the food landscape we have created. Even if we cut down on our meat (and hope the meat we do choose isn’t featured in a Farmers’ Weekly expose in a few months time), unlabelled animal products will still proliferate our shopping baskets, our restaurants, schools and hospitals. I wonder if it might be better, if you care about animals and the environment, to start thinking like a vegan, even if you aren’t one — to eliminate all animal products from your life, then think hard about which ones you are going to let back in. I suggest if you opt to let any in at all, you base your judgement on something other than solely the label.

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