New Internationalist

You Are What You Eat

Issue 160

new internationalist
issue 160 - June 1986


You are what you eat
Pigs squeal, chickens scream, heifers bellow - all part of the
pandemonium of the abattoir. For factory farming and killing helps
sustain our meat-eating diet. Alan Long delves into the entrails of the
butchery business to find out what lies behind the Sunday roast.

EVERY year, 400 million chickens, 14 million pigs, 24 million turkeys, three million cattle, one million rabbits and 14 million sheep are killed in the UK. They die in slaughter-houses where, in the words of an official Government enquiry, 'animal welfare has a low priority'. A report in the Veterinary Record suggests that one in three - over half a million - broilers are missing the attempt at stunning (by electric shock) before a machine makes a cut in their necks. Some go sentient into scalding tanks.

At the moment all pigs, most sheep and some calves are stunned by the use of electric tongs, which are applied to each side of the head and send a shock to the brain. The resulting loss of consciousness only lasts about 20 seconds, whereas the average time between stunning and sticking (bleeding to loss of consciousness) of sheep is more than 30 seconds - in some cases more than one minute. In other words, thousands of animals are bled to death whilst fully conscious.

Humanity is the world's fiercest predator. In the savagery we inflict on cattle for steaks and milk, for instance, we betray the cow's maternal instincts. We snatch her calf away almost as soon as it has learnt to suck, appropriate her udder to satisfy our greed and beef her up on a bizarre diet tricked out with drugs. Finally the cow is 'burgered' to stock the relentless mausoleums in our High Streets.

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FOOD

  • Vegetarians may feel that they will allow more food to be grown for Third World people since less land will be needed for animals. Meat-eaters can, however, defend their diet by claiming that if the land were not used by its wealthy owners for meat production it would be used for another crop destined for Western markets - or not at all.

  • Refusing meat can, even so, be a protest against the injustices of the world's food markets.

  • Not eating meat, or eating less, can also be a protest against cruelty to animals. If animals were humanely raised and killed this reservation would not apply.

  • Western religion - which gave Adam and Eve the right to use the animal kingdom for their own ends - is sometimes seen as the source of this abuse of power. But many believe such cruelty is rooted in the corporate need to earn profits.

We can indulge a capacity for mawkish sentiment. We love animals that fawn on us and are sometimes little more than living toys. We respond to the plight of endangered species, mainly out of concern for the richness of 'our' world. Yet the bird-watcher paying court to some rare specimen may be whiling away the time munch - we rarely think deeply about the violence we inflict upon them. The parable tells how the shepherd fends off other predators - so that he can deliver the lambs, still sucklings, to the butcher. What a treacherous ministry the allegory disguises! Today's shepherds emasculate the young lambs by methods inviting prosecution if a vet used them on a puppy or kitten. Merino sheep in Australia have their tails and a good part of their backsides cut off in an operation called mulesing, just in order to prevent fly-strike. The skin is cut away by five blows from shears on about 80 per cent of Merino ewes. The operation - which is performed without anaesthetic - causes a setback in the ewes' bodyweight gains for ten days.

For five years, live sheep have been exported from Australia, and one million have died in transit. Because of the outcry at cruelty involved in this a ban was placed on live exports. Yet when the Saudi Livestock and Transport Company threatened to move its A$103 million (US$70 m.) livestock business to New Zealand, the ban was quickly lifted. New Zealand has followed Australia's example and - despite international protests - sent a shipment of 18,000 live ewes to Mexico for slaughter.

Honest Anglo-Saxon words - gutmen, fleshers, fellmongers and knackers - describe the assault and battery essential to this archaic cut-throat industry of slaughter. A butcher's shop is a commercialized mortuary. No euphemism should beguile us into complacency over its violence, which is comparable to the violence of rape, murder and warfare. If we are complacent about the violence inflicted on animals, we will lack sensitivity to human suffering. We can rid our society of the horrors of factory farming by demanding less and less meat. Kindness dictates that we live and let live.

Alan Long is Honorary Research Advisor to the Vegetarian Society, UK.

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