By Charlotte Hawkins
During the last couple of decades, people have become increasingly aware of how most meat is produced. Despite the image that conventional meat producers like to portray, most people now know that the bucolic image of animals grazing in fields, living a free and healthy life before a quick and humane slaughter, is very far from the current reality.
The life of conventionally reared animals, particularly beef, pigs and poultry, is short and brutal. Chickens are kept in huge sheds without access to natural light, barely enough room to move and no access to outdoors; pigs (especially from outside the UK) are kept in over-crowded crates without sufficient room to turn around, and American-style "feedlot" cattle farms, which are distinctly more like factories than farms, are becoming increasingly common in the UK as small-scale producers are pushed out of the market in the ever-growing demand for more and cheaper meat.
As the rearing of animals for food has become increasingly industrialised, the nutritional quality of the meat has deteriorated. Ruminant animals fed their natural diet of grass have a fatty acid profile in their meat which is far higher in omega 3 and lower in omega 6 than animals fed omega 6-rich grains. In the Western world, our intake of omega 6 is now far too high largely due to our intake of seed and vegetable oils, and consuming animals that have such omega 6-rich meat only compounds the problem. Furthermore, animals kept in crowded conditions, eating a diet which is unnatural to them, tend to become sick and need antibiotics. Since it was discovered during the 1980s that animals fed antibiotics also grow faster, low levels of antibiotics are routinely added to animal feed to both increase growth and ward off infection – a huge contributor to the worrying problem of antibiotic resistance, but one that the industry (understandably) shows little inclination to change. The cost to the environment of conventional meat production is also high: vast areas of land are used to grow animal fodder, and the enormous meat production facilities place great strain on the local ecosystem.
It is no wonder that many meat-eaters want something different and recognise that the increasing large-scale industrialisation of our meat production process is detrimental in many ways. Consumers, when aware of how their food is produced, would like to consume meat and meat products in which the rearing of animals has been better for their welfare, our health and the environment. More people want their meat to come from animals which are reared in the way that they used to be: eating a diet that is more natural for them, with the freedom to roam outdoors and express their natural behaviours, leading to a healthier and less stressful life. Many are also concerned about the nutritional quality of conventionally produced meat, and want meat whose production is beneficial or at least neutral for the environment, rather than detrimental. Organically produced meat is produced in a way that fits these principles.
We have to be realistic, however, as to why all meat is not produced this way when it is clearly what many consumers would prefer. Part of the issue is awareness: although most people know that meat production is increasingly industrialised, it is still a relatively small number of people that understand or appreciate the implications of this for the animal, us and the environment. But beyond that, a major stumbling block is cost. On the surface, organically produced meat is considerably more expensive than industrially produced meat. Why is this?
- Organically reared animals are not routinely given antibiotics and eat a natural diet, so they grow at a normal, healthy rate and are alive for longer before slaughter, which costs more to produce.
- They are also given more living space, which requires more land, and they are kept at lower stocking densities, which means they cannot benefit from the economies of scale of the larger, conventional producers, who fit a vast number of animals onto a relatively small space of land.
- Non-organic meat and meat products are usually injected with large amounts of water in the production plant, which increases the weight of the product when it is sold raw (thus making it seem cheaper per kilo).
- In organic farming, consideration also has to be given to the considerable expense of organic certification, which inevitably is passed on to the consumer.
Of course, the cost of meat production is not just about financial cost. The cost to the welfare of animals, our health and the environment of meat production is something that also has to be taken into account, and the cost of conventionally reared meat is high on all three counts counts. But the fact remains that organically reared meat costs more in cash terms at the point of sale than conventionally reared meat. For consumers who would prefer to buy organically reared meat but don't think they can afford it, there are ways around the problem:
- Practise nose-to-tail eating: less expensive cuts of organic meat work well in slow-cooked dishes, and organic offal (think liver, black pudding) is a very inexpensive way to get high-quality nutrition. It is also far better for the environment to use the whole animal!
- As organic meat is so much richer in flavour, less is needed, so meat-based meals can be "bulked out" with less costly ingredients such as pulses and vegetables.
- Eat better quality meat, but eat it less often. Meat used to be regarded as a luxury item, rather than something that would be eaten daily (or several times a day). Perhaps a change of mindset is all that is needed, and a meal repertoire that includes more vegetarian or vegan foods.
True Food only sells meat and animal products that meet organic criteria. True Food shoppers can rest assured that what they buy has been in produced in a way that is better for the animal, themselves and the environment. It is sold frozen, which is often a way to get a far "fresher" product than the apparently fresh cuts of meat that have been travelling around the supermarket supply chain for days, sometimes weeks. There are three producers from whom True Food sources its meat. They are all British producers: Eversfield organic in Tavistock, Devon, where the animals graze on rich, West-country grass; the 12,500 acre Rhug Estate in Denbighshire, Wales; and the smaller, biodynamic 220-acre Waltham Place on our doorstep in White Waltham, Berkshire. All farms produce meat of the highest quality, with care given to both the animal and the environment.
So when you're next in the shop, if you haven't yet tried True Food's meat, make sure you take a look in the freezer section and you'll find plenty to choose from, from raw meat to products such as sausages and black pudding. You will be doing the best thing for your health, the environment, and the welfare of the animals that you eat.