Meat. Four letters creating a simple word that has taken on the most extraordinarily complex ramifications.
Cast your mind around the subject and you can quickly see that meat has become a subject of controversy, contradiction and confusion.
For many, meat is still primarily about pleasure – and a necessary one at that. The sizzle of a steak on a grill, the charred fat adding glorious sweetness, the whole thing becoming a chorus of joy when joined by Dijon mustard, or Bearnaise sauce, soft mash or crunchy chips... Aah!
For others, your carnal pleasure is simply selfish grist to the mill of desensitised industrial slaughter. The ease with which you can buy meat at a supermarket is merely the pleasant presentation of a disturbing industry.
Professor Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens, described how ‘animals are often mass-produced in factory-like facilities, their bodies shaped in accordance with industrial needs’.
And so meat-eaters find themselves being shredded between the views of a vegan Extinction Rebellion protester, who claims their desire to eat meat is a cause of catastrophic climate change, and their simple desire to have a mutton chop for supper. Many people, and the increasing number of those choosing plant-based diets, now cite the health of the planet rather than themselves as the reason they are cutting down on meat.
Then, if you have steeled yourself to eat the meat in the face of climate campaigners, there are conflicting pieces of health advice to contend with. No sooner have you got your chops around a decent, if everyday, hot dog than the World Health Organisation issues a report that lumps sausages – among a few other meats – in the same category as asbestos, arsenic and tobacco. So you persuade yourself of the virtue of an apparently lean turkey sarnie only to hear reports that cutting down on sausages, mince, steak and all processed meats is actually a waste of time. Researchers from a Canadian university study published in Annals of Internal Medicine suggested, for example, that if 1,000 people cut out red or processed meat every day for a lifetime, there would be just seven few deaths from cancer.
So is there a clear pathway? A vegan would say give up meat and choose a plant-based life. But what happens to all the animals who must then roam our un-wild land getting old and diseased and then, as they reproduce freely, struggle to compete for food?
What about provenance? If you want to eat meat, but reject factory farming, then ask the retailer. If they don’t know, it might be time to change supermarket or find a butcher, someone who is proud to answer your questions.
And if you choose meat, fortunately, there is significant competition, and there is one abiding principle. If the price you pay is cheap, you can be sure that its welfare has also been cheap.
Take poultry, for example. This is a meat that, until the middle of the last century, was generally served up once hens had stopped laying eggs. In the past, only a fool killed and ate a young plump chicken. So the roast bird was a rare treat, and it needed to be cooked slower and longer because the meat was tougher... all those years of clucking freely around the yard.
But then the American, indoor-bred broiler turned up. It had plump breasts and today can reach slaughter weight in as few as four weeks. If you don’t like the idea, then ponder upon it when you are at the meat section of a supermarket next time and study the labels on the packaging to find out just how organic and free range the bird is. Or speak to the poultry supplier at your farmers’ market.
Of course, a major issue with animals reared for meat is their feed. Cynics roll their eyes when they discover that, for example, in the UK, some organic meat industries import much of their organic feed, because the UK doesn’t produce enough, which rather destroys claims of being environmentally friendly.
As for beef, there is the dilemma that was posed by American writer Frances Moore Lappe in her revolutionary book Diet for a Small Planet, when she explained the inefficiency of using 16 pounds of grain to make a single pound of meat, which itself had less than 5 per cent of the calories and less than 15 per cent of the protein of the grain. Oh, and that pound of meat requires 2,500 gallons of water. As the British writer, Joanna Blythman, has put it: “These foodstuffs would generate much more in the way of human nutrition if they were fed directly to people.”
Fortunately, cattle can also graze on grass, something that not even vegans manage to eat, so while you might struggle to tell the difference between grain and grass-fed beef in a taste test, if you choose grass-fed, the beast will probably have had a better life. To my mind, if it feels better, it tastes better.
And when it’s local, it also feels better. There is a new butcher near my home in London who sources virtually all its meat locally – as well as matching popular supermarket brands on price. Its butcher gave me a tour of his fridge and explained the myths surrounding lamb seasonality. He argues that there is no reason to buy new season lamb, come the spring, from New Zealand – which is so chilled for the journey, it is basically frozen – as local farmers produce lamb in February, August and November.
‘British lamb tastes the best because Britain has the best grass in the world,’ says famous butcher David Lidgate.
The familiar image of sheep roaming fields does seem more natural, but many chefs these days want us to go further and eat game. ‘If you don’t eat meat for ethical reasons, then I reckon you should consider eating game,’ says the chef and restaurateur, Mike Robinson. He would far rather serve fallow deer chops, culled from the bullet of his rifle, than intensively farmed cattle. And like many, he argues passionately of the merits of pheasant or partridge over a farmed chicken.
To eat meat well, you should eat it less often, and when you do, you should spend more on it. While the jury is out on whether organic food or lower intensively farmed meat is better for you, we all know that intensively farmed chicken has no actual taste.
Add some fish and veggie days into your week. Spend more on an awesome cut, think of the old-fashioned romance of nipping to the butcher and ordering a special one. Meat should be a treat.
Previous generations considered it in that vein by necessity. So when it comes to meat for better animal welfare and your better health, you really would do well to eat like your granny.
The Daily Telegraph