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It’s complicated: Australia’s relationship with eating meat

Australians are becoming more aware of where their meat comes from, but it’s still and ethical minefield. Vicki/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

It’s complicated: Australia’s relationship with eating meat

Australia has a long-standing history as a country that loves its meat. Meat production and processing in Australia occupies over half of the land mass, makes an important contribution to the Australian economy and employs over 53,000 people.

Meat also has deep cultural and social significance, as seen through Meat and Livestock Australia’s most recent campaigns.

Debates around eating meat are not new. But a new SBS documentary starting tonight, For the Love of Meat, examining where Australia’s beef, chicken and pork comes from, will spark more questions about if and how we should eat meat.

For the Love of Meat host Matthew Evans takes viewers on a tour of his pig farm.

Ethical, or just a label?

In most cultures, including Australia, omnivory (eating a combination of meat and other foods) is the norm. Although it’s clear our preferences for different types of meat have changed over time, we are still one of the biggest meat-consuming countries in the world. But some recent statistics suggest Australians are choosing to eat less meat, particularly red meat.

One factor linked to this decline is increased concern about farm animal welfare. Our research group is interested in how consumers and producers think about farm animal welfare and how it relates to broader ideas of ethical food production.

Research tells us that people care about farm animal welfare, and a number of consumers are willing to pay more for meat that is produced in a “more humane” way. But much of this research assumes that there is a clear and shared understanding of what “good” animal welfare is.

We know a lot about how animal production scientists think about animal welfare: health, pain relief and how production animals are affected by interactions with people and their environment.

We know less about how livestock producers think about animal welfare: they generally care about the welfare of their animals because welfare is closely linked to productivity and their livelihoods, in addition to wanting to treat their animals well.

However for most consumers, price and taste are key drivers for purchases. Our ongoing research suggests consumers think about animal welfare in a much broader way than scientists and producers.

For the general public, high animal welfare standards are closely linked to ideas of food quality – taste, nutritional value and food safety. Recent research by others showed that the “humane” label alone was enough for people to rate one sample of meat as “tastier” than another, when in fact the two had been produced in exactly the same way.

For those who wish to purchase and consume meat and other animal products produced in ways that align with their values, current labelling and regulations present a minefield. “Humane” and “ethical” are very broad terms that can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, and are not explicitly regulated; various private certification regimes exist but rely on diverse measures.

Standards were recently adopted for “free-range” eggs, but several groups argue that this does not go far enough and thus does not reflect what the community expects free-range to be.

Other terms in widespread use which potentially confuse consumers include sow stall free (which refers to the housing for pregnant sows before they have piglets, not the housing system for piglets and sows together), grass-fed, grain-fed, green, and sustainable, to name just a few.

Many types of ‘ethical’ meat choices

Sustainability and the impact of meat production on the environment have also become key reasons to reduce meat consumption. We have met people who call themselves “kangatarians”; eating kangaroo meat because they feel that its consumption has less negative impact on the environment. Others only consume wild-caught meat, mainly from feral species such as deer and goat.

We have also had other participants in our research who view hunting for their own meat as “ethical” consumption in order to have direct connection with the source of their meat and to know that it has been killed “humanely”.

Even when an animal has a good life, meat-eaters obviously must accept the idea of animal death in order for them to eat meat. For some, the dissonance this creates leads them to reduce or cease eating meat. Omnivores use a number of strategies to reduce this discomfort. For some, the idea of only consuming meat from an animal that, in their view, had a good life and a good death may also be a way of reducing their own discomfort.

We need more open discussion

We encourage more open conversations about meat production and consumption, and hope that the new documentary can contribute to this.

But it is also important to recognise that most conventional producers argue that they already produce safe, nutritious and affordable meat and other animal products in humane and sustainable ways.

We need more reflection and discussion about our shared values surrounding animal consumption and production practices, and to resist simple, and potentially elitist, solutions that ignore the complexities of this debate.

For the Love of Meat begins Thursday October 20 on SBS.

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