No, you don’t have to go veggie

Picture of a dark-coloured sheep in a grassy field next to a stream in a valleyNo more excuses. The only defensible option is to go vegetarian | John Harris | Comment is free | The Guardian

The recent meat adulteration scandal (in which horsemeat was found to be present in a number of processed, frozen food products in British supermarkets) has not, unlike the BSE scandal fifteen years earlier (which failed to produce the hundreds of thousands of cases of the disease in people that was predicted), led many people to question their eating of meat, or even processed food, at all; the reaction has been solely focussed on the food companies and the villains have been quickly identified. The above article sheds some light on the murky world of the processed food industry; Will Hutton, in yesterday’s Observer, points the finger at free-market fundamentalists in the government who have been stripping away regulations since they came to power, and who now call for the same institutions they seek to abolish to take the lead on investigating food fraud. John Harris claims that the case for vegetarianism is a pressing environmental one; I would say that adulteration and the environmental cost of meat are separate issues.

Also in today’s paper, there was an article on the way food companies deceive buyers that their products are more nutritious or less fattening than they really are, often by quoting on the basis of portions which are smaller than someone might eat. Also, this morning the newspapers reported that “Britain’s 220,000 doctors” (in the form of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges) were demanding a 20% tax on the cost of fizzy drinks to combat a so-called “epidemic of obesity”. Frankly, I do not appreciate being punished by being charged more for pleasurable food and drink just because some people refuse to eat or drink much else. I eat the occasional fried chicken dinner and drink, in general, a can (at most two) of soft drink every day. Other than that, I eat fairly healthily. The cost of fizzy drinks has gone up steadily over the years, with some shops charging 65p or 70p a can, or even more (although some charge less, and savings can be made on multipacks), and the same is true, contrary to popular opinion, of fast food. Surely, adults can tell that eating obviously fatty foods will make them fat, and that eating large amounts of sugar without exercising will do the same? Granted, companies should have to honestly declare the calorie content of their products, but surely people should be expected to take responsibility, as adults, for the decisions they make about what they eat, as with other aspects of their lives? There is responsibility on both sides.

John Harris opines that “that very British sensitivity whereby cows and pigs can be killed and hacked to pieces, but no one must touch horses – or dogs – remains as curious as ever”. It’s not curious; different cultures have taboos about different types of meat, and often this is because of a religious prescription but not always. Westerners will generally eat beef, chicken, lamb or mutton and pork but not dog; in some parts of the Far East, dog is commonly eaten. Some cultures will eat some fish but not others, and if you feed someone a meat they would not choose to eat, you will cause them huge offence, all the more so if it is because of religion. It’s a huge offence, so however irrational somebody finds the fact that a nation will eat beef but not horse or pig but not dog, it has to be respected and if you want to sell horse for people as food, you have to do it openly, not disguise it as beef. You are better off taking it to somewhere they do eat horse.

I eat meat. Mostly fish, as it happens — mostly sardines, mackerel and salmon, and sometimes trout. When I’m out, I’ll eat other meat. It’s almost always obvious meat: it’s cuts of meat, and I can tell what they are unless it’s possible to disguise whole bits of one type of animal as bits of another. Apart from the occasional kofta, I don’t eat processed meat. So, I know what I’m eating. I also eat halal. As with the other processed foods which turned out to be adulterated, the “halal” prison food which turned out to be adulterated with pork was not plainly identifiable chicken or lamb, but processed food. The vast majority of the meat I eat is HMC certified. HMC is best known for its insistence that animals not be given an electric shock before being slaughtered, but it also ensures that the animal is actually slaughtered, that it is from the animal it is claimed to be from, and that it is not mixed with other meat until it reachest the consumer.

HMC has been the focus of a lot of hostile media coverage because of animal rights objections to unstunned animals being slaughtered (and recently, a local authority banned HMC meat in school dinners, claiming that their replacement, from stunned animals, had been good enough to be served in the canteens at the Olympics); their reasoning is that shocking may kill the animal, and in any case, the animal would be unconscious and, in effect, injured at the time of slaughter. Many scholars do, in fact, accept that animals be stunned as long as it is only an electric shock, not a captive bolt to the head. This is not even my main reason for preferring HMC, and I had previously been suspicious of it, because the group it is associated with have a history of Islamic legal opinions which cast aspersions on the piety of Muslims outside their group. While there are other significant issues in food quality, and HMC does not monitor farming practices and the Soil Association will not certify meat as organic if it is pre-stunned (there are some organic halal suppliers which do stun and which adhere to the other halal standards), any meat eater could do a lot worse than them if they want to make sure their meat is what it’s meant to be. Cutting down on meat consumption, and especially things like burgers, would be good for the environment, but there is no need to just stop eating meat altogether.

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