Talking point: A funny thing happened on the way to the abattoir

Written by on 28 August 2013

As somebody who wants to at least try to lessen their impact on the environment, eating meat poses something of a quandary.

Perhaps I should admit a certain digging-in of heels, refusing to acknowledge that being a carnivore may not be all that great for the planet.

Methane and nitrous oxide emissions from cattle farming, according to Mike Berners-Lee’s How Bad Are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything, sees beef weighing in at 18kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilo – a fairly hefty sum.

While I don’t plan to become a vegetarian, the last 12 months have seen food and sustainability issues rise to the top of the agenda.

Interviewing Lord Deben in December, he still stands by his decision to quell fears over BSE in British beef by feeding a burger to his four-year-old daughter in 1990.

But in January, just how little we know about the food that flies off supermarket shelves was brought sharply into focus, as it emerged traces of horse and pig DNA were found in meat sold as beef.

Although it was stressed repeatedly that this was a food standards, not a safety issue, it raised fundamental questions about the provenance and true cost of cut-price meat. Instead of carcasses being hauled halfway across Europe before ending up on our plates, we need to have shorter supply chains and more transparency so we know exactly what we’re getting.

The horsemeat scandal exposed how food production has become so heavily industrialised that it was possible for fraud on such a scale to occur.

Things did die down – the French meat processor at the centre of the Europe-wide scandal reportedly reopened under a new name – but hopefully, there has been some lasting impact. In Ireland, where the scandal was first unearthed, more than 50 per cent of people surveyed said they were more conscious now of the ingredients in what they eat.

In Scotland, an expert advisory group, chaired by Professor Jim Scudamore, judged the episode as well handled, but still said a “wide spectrum of lessons” could be learned. Although products labelled ‘Scotch’ had short supply chains and secure traceability systems, the origins of other products are sometimes less clear as they are part of national and international supply chains.

If our meat production needs to change then Google co-founder Sergey Brin in August may have a solution, staging a grand premiere of the first lab-grown burger.

But apart from the stupendous cost (about £215,000) is there much difference between a burger grown in a lab and the ‘fake’ ones found in the freezer section and last to be eaten at barbecues.

Industrial farming processes may need to be reformed and more sustainable techniques employed – but knowing that my steak originated from a Petri dish doesn’t make me feel any more relieved than wondering whether somebody has switched it for horse.

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