Opinion – thinking about animals as food, and food as animals

Look at this little lamb – isn’t he just gorgeous? All floppy ears, crinkly coat and frantic tail.

Growing lamb

Now think about eating him – a wonderful slow-roasted shoulder, perhaps, sweet and tender, running with glorious juice and served with a dollop of lovely mint sauce, or a couple of little chops, grilled to your liking with boiled potatoes & greens.

How does that juxtaposition make you feel?  Be honest now…

Hungry? If so, congratulations. You’ve passed!  But perhaps, if you’re honest, it makes you a bit uncomfortable? Unsettled? Maybe even faintly disgusted?  If you’re a vegetarian, you get to leave now, if you like, but if you’re a meat eater then you really should stay and read on.

So many of us today are so divorced from our food, and how it’s produced.  Its appearance on the supermarket shelf, all sanitised and shrink wrapped, so we’re not even used to the touch or smell of it, has allowed this huge chasm – this disconnect – to open up in our minds between our food and where it comes from.  We wince when we’re reminded, very often – how would you feel if you saw a whole roast suckling pig, a chicken dressed for cooking with head and feet still attached (probably on TV in some ‘less civillised’ country), or if you watched a whole side of beef being carried into a traditional butcher’s shop?

Back to our lamb – I’d like to argue that there’s nothing wrong with thinking about him as food – that’s his *purpose*, plain and simple.  If he wasn’t going to be eaten, he wouldn’t have been born.  In a few months, he WILL be on someone’s dinner plate.  Mine, I hope, since he looks to be growing rather nicely and will have enjoyed a cracking life out on that lovely pasture with his ewe and all his little lamby friends!  It’s imperative that we can think of livestock as meat, and step over that chasm, because we also need to make a habit of thinking of the meat on those supermarket chiller shelves as animals.

When you’re grabbing that matching pair of rather sterile-looking chicken breast fillets, sealed airtight in their protective atmosphere, from the chiller shelf, do you have a picture in your mind of the chicken who died to provide them?  It seems to me that to be ethical consumers of meat, we *must* carry just such images with us.  Allowing that disconnect to exist in our thought processes allows us all, thoughtlessly, to make bad choices.  We might say the right things about preferring free range, organic, or higher welfare meat and eggs,  but when push comes to shove, how often and how easily do we pick up that chicken salad sandwich, pork pie, or pack of BBQ burgers without the origin of the meat even crossing our minds?

Unless we’re prepared to think about our food – *really* think about it  – taking time in particular to think about the animals that have provided our meat, how they lived, and how they died, then we cannot possibly claim to be ethical meat eaters.  And if you can’t, or won’t, if ignorance is bliss, if you’d rather close your mind to the idea, and think prettier, less uncomfortable thoughts, if you prefer to pick up the packet of anonymous animal protein, and ignore its source and its story, do you really think you deserve to enjoy the fruits of these animals’ sacrifice?

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

9 thoughts on “Opinion – thinking about animals as food, and food as animals

  1. Even eating our own meat from the back yard I still feel a twinge of sadness. I made an appointment for our steer (honestly a steer I dont even like or trust) and blinked back a few tears. But those steaks will be tasty.

    • There aren’t many livestock farmers who aren’t a bit affected when their animals go to slaughter, that I know! I’ve avoided raising beasts for meat myself so far because I know I’ll get attached to them and make things harder on myself, so I think you’re really brave!

  2. I’m a little torn. On the one hand, I object to people refusing to see the connection between meat and animals, because its hypocritical to care about cute animals and not food animals, especially when they overlap. But on the other hand, it’s possible to be squeemish about something and still be a reasonable person — eg. it’s probably a good thing to have seen a surgery take place, but I dont think people who are squicked by it, but still would be operated on if necessary are hypocrites. Maybe if people only care about cute animals, it’s a problem, but if they have reasonable opinions about welfare, but don’t want to watch slaughtering, it’s understandable. (For instance, asking what a vet thinks is probably a reasonable shortcut to asking what’s a sensible point of view about animal welfare :))

    (FTR I am vegetarian, but not especially fluffy. And I haven’t given up milk yet, alas :()

    • This is a really interesting side to the argument, actually – I avoided shouting ‘hypocrite’ in the post, not only because it’s rather inflammatory, but also because I don’t think that’s it, or at least, not exactly. Squickiness is, as you say, quite natural and present in all of us to a greater or lesser extent. In most cases, skipping over detailed consideration of some issue or other because it makes you uncomfortable (closing your eyes during that nasty eye-scene in Minority Report, for instance) causes no particular harm. Unfortunately the tendency to go ‘awww, cute fluffy lamb’ and then recoil at the superimposed idea of nommy-lamb-with-mint-sauce allows quite a giant blind spot to open up, in which many of the real horrors of industrial-scale factory farming can sit quite comfortably, mostly unexamined and uncommented-on. I don’t think that’s necessarily hypocritical, but it is extraordinarily negligent, and those who allow themselves to carelessly fall into that way of thinking ought to be called on it.

  3. Great post. I’m very much on the fence and would rather lean one way or the other but so far haven’t made my mind up. I hardly eat meat (mainly because I distrust where it is from) and am very against industrial farming but couldn’t discount eating meat altogether (despite us not needing it to survive) as it is human nature to smell a delicious roast and get hungry!

    • Thanks for your comment Camilla! This is exactly the sort of thoughtfulness I wish there was more of, to be honest! I think we’d all eat less meat, probably pay more for it, but the animals lives would be better, which seems a fair deal really. Half the battle is helping people realise that cheap cuts don’t mean rubbish meals or hard work in the kitchen to make them just about edible – I’d much rather eat the ‘bargain’ cuts from an animal that’s been carefully reared than cheap & plentiful cheap easy tender protein from the factory-farm industry!

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