Our food industry practices don’t add up

So-called “humane” industry slaughter practices need to be investigated more carefully. AAP

One of the more welcome results from the furore around Australia’s involvement in live animal exports is that some Australians appear to have started rethinking their food choices.

Last month, The Age reported that meat sales have fallen by 10-15% since the report on ABC’s Four Corners aired the now infamous undercover footage.

No wonder US agribusiness has been busy trying to turn exposés of factory farming business-as-usual into criminal acts.

This is significant: the mystification around our food supply - and particularly the industrial processes of meat production - is truly immense.

In Europe, the public focus on bean sprouts as the cause of the recent E. coli deaths - rather than the animal sewage sludge used to fertilise vegetables and fruit - is a case in point.

If we can’t trust our vegetables, we certainly can’t trust our meat. In the US, for example, 80 million people become ill with meat-borne disease annually, causing 9000 deaths.

This lack of knowledge serves a purpose: without it, few could continue supporting the heartless termination of the lives of billions of sentient, social and gregarious beings every year.

How “humane” really?

Setting aside the recent upsetting images from Indonesian slaughter houses, it’s worth exploring the so-called “humane” slaughtering process.

The code of practice for animals at Australian slaughtering houses states that: “animals approaching slaughter should be prevented from viewing dead animals ahead of them for as long as possible. The sight of the actual slaughter should be prevented, if at all possible.”

Even before understanding dawns on the animal, it may have travelled without food or water for 24 hours or more under the livestock welfare code of practices.

Margin of error

Furthermore, though slaughterhouses might strive for 100% stunning effectiveness, there is a margin of error where animals can enter the killing process fully conscious.

The American Meat Institute scoring system puts the acceptable margin of error at five cows per 100. In the mechanised killing of chickens, it is possible for a chicken to avoid electrical stunning as well as death by throat cut and then die by boiling hot jets of water which are used to remove feathers.

How can one judge whether the chicken is insensible? Australia’s code of practice advises that the effectiveness of electrical stunning should be judged by the electroplectic fit, characterised by “arched head and neck directed vertically, opened eyes, rigidly extended legs and body with constant rapid muscle tremors, wings close to body - short bursts of or restricted wing flapping, and lasting a few seconds before flaccid unconsciousness intervenes.”

Not so different to the electric chair, a method of execution found by the majority of executing states to be cruel and unusual punishment.

Hidden suffering

To focus on the slaughter, though, is to focus on the last seconds of an animal’s life. Most food animals and increasingly, those animals which provide our dairy products, suffer lifetimes of intensive confinement within industrial factory farms.

To enable such lives, animals are deliberately and painfully injured as various parts, such as beaks, testicles, tails and teeth, are cut off or out without anaesthetic.

Male chicks are discarded, to die of suffocation.

Exposés of sadistic treatment of animals invariably cause public distress. But the reality of the everyday lives of food animals is mostly hidden.

Recently Animals Australia ran bus ads showing the lives of chickens, pigs and cows in factory farming, but the ads were rejected as “too distressing” for commuters in both Brisbane and Perth.

Reasons to forego meat

Even if one doesn’t care about animals and the horrors they endure before arriving on our plates, there are no good reasons to eat meat, and many excellent reasons for not eating it, of which I will outline two.

First, we are herbivores who eat meat. We have the teeth, saliva, stomachs and intestines of herbivores. Meat eating is completely social, not in any sense “natural,” for humans.

Animal protein in the Western diet has been linked to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, obesity, and obviously, E. coli deaths.

Climate change and meat eating

Second, climate change and environmental degradation would dramatically decline if the world stopped eating meat. The estimated share of meat eating in global emissions ranges from 18 to 52%.

Fully 70% of earth’s agricultural land is used for meat eating, mostly producing soy and corn for the consumption of animals. Half of the potable water of the United States is used in the factory farming of animals.

The loss of rainforest, erosion, water and air pollution by greenhouse gases, fertiliser and pesticides, and ocean dead-zones are all major costs of meat eating.

For example, 40% of the loss of Amazon rainforest over the last 40 years is due to the extension of animal feed crops. And it is all so incredibly inefficient in terms of the provision of food.

One calorie in the form of soybeans requires one calorie of fossil fuel, whereas one calorie in the form of beef requires 78 calories of fossil fuel.

Growing consumption

The average European eats 1800 animals in a lifetime. If all the world’s population were to consume this level of meat, we would need another three planets to grow the animal feed and to dump the waste.

And as the middle classes of the developing countries grow, they aspire to the Western diet. Global meat consumption is expected to double by 2050.

That is the most frightening statistic I know, because it portends the inhumane lives and deaths of countless billions of animals.

And, for those to whom animal wellbeing is immaterial, to paraphrase Albert Einstein, nothing will benefit human and planetary health as much as the change to a vegetarian diet.

This change can only occur if consumers are fully informed, and encouraged to confront their cognitive dissonance around humane and inhumane eating practices.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.