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Health, environment and animal welfare - a recipe for peak meat

Australians have started worrying about how happy their meat cows are - but are they worrying enough to stop eating them? Jon Bragg

I sponsor two pigs. Emma and Eliza were runaway pigs. They escaped from a farm in Tasmania and live now happily in a farm sanctuary north of Melbourne. Needless to say that I don’t eat pigs, or any other animals. But am I part of a trend? Are people turning away from meat? There are certainly good reasons: the current level of production and consumption of meat is harmful to the environment and human health, and creates much suffering for the animals that end up on our dinner plates.

Over the last 12 months, meat has had bad publicity: cruelty to animals, health and safety issues at factory farms and research highlighting the health problems associated with eating meat. Add to that the impact of producing meat on climate change and environmental degradation.

The environment

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations highlighted in 2006 the many harmful contributions of the livestock sector. Apart from greenhouse gas emissions (reported to be 18% of all emissions), the livestock industry is also a major source of land and water degradation, contributor to acid rain and the degeneration of coral reefs, and a driver of deforestation. For instance, in Latin America some 70% of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing. The 18% figure has since been revised by two World Bank scientists and estimated to be a minimum of 51%.

The contribution of livestock farming, in particular factory farming, to greenhouse gas emissions is massive. The FAO warned that the environmental costs per unit of livestock production must be cut by one half, just to avoid the level of damage worsening. This has not occurred and globally the demand for meat is growing.

Human health

Links between ill health and meat consumption have been reported for some time. Recent research has added to the increasing evidence. Factory farmed chicken meat can be a source of urinary tract infections. Red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of diabetes and death from cancer and cardiovascular disease, while a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of metabolic syndrome. A vegetarian diet has even been found to improve mood and attractiveness.

The Amazon forest is being cut down to make way for grazing meat animals. Leonardo F. Freitas

Dr Dean Ornish from the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and Department of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco summarised the emerging consensus among most nutrition experts with these words: “What is personally sustainable is globally sustainable. What is good for you is good for our planet”. He referred to a healthy way of eating that includes no meat or very little red meat, a diet high in “good carbs” (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and soy products in their natural forms), low in “bad carbs” (simple and refined carbohydrates, such as sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and white flour), high in “good fats” (Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, flax oil, and plankton-based oils), low in “bad fats” (trans-fats, saturated fats, and hydrogenated fats), as well as food of better quality and less quantity.

The recently revised Australian Guide to Healthy Eating encourages people to eat a wide variety of foods, including meat. One serving daily of lean meat, fish, poultry, nut or legumes is recommended. More for pregnant and breastfeeding women, less for children up to the age of seven. But is meat a necessary part of a healthy diet?

The Nutrition Guide for Physicians advises that vegetarian diets are all different, which makes it hard to provide dietary recommendations. While vegetarians overall have health benefits such as reduced risk of coronary heart disease and obesity, very restrictive or unbalanced vegetarian diets can result in nutrient deficiencies, particularly iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamins B12 and D. The authors conclude that carefully planned vegetarian and vegan diets can provide adequate nutrition for all stages of life.

Likewise, the Medical Journal of Australia has just published a series of eight articles exploring different aspects of vegetarian diets. The overall message is that a balanced plant-based diet confers health benefits and is good for the planet.

Animal welfare

After the cruel treatment of Australian cattle in Indonesian slaughterhouses aired on Four Corners, the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry received hundreds of thousands of emails in one week. One organic meat shop in the Brisbane region recorded a 10% rise in sales. Other butchers have been questioned about the source of their meat and how the cattle were treated before slaughter. While retail sales of organic food overall have reportedly grown 50% in two years, it is not clear whether this figure also applies to organic meat.

Not only overseas, mistreatment of animals came to light in Australia, too. Belting of live pigs over the head with a metal bar and skinning of sheep apparently still alive were reported in an abattoir near Sydney.

‘Humane’ meat

Many people are concerned about the welfare of the animals they eat, but find it difficult to stop eating meat or they believe that animal protein is required for humans to thrive. An acceptable alternative for some people is “humane” meat from animals that have access to outdoor areas and can move around freely. Organically grown meat is also considered to be humane meat. So far, humane meat is more expensive than conventional meat and thus only available to those who can afford it.

Australian meat consumption is up, but figures aren’t in yet for the last year. ulteriorepicure/Flickr

Doug Gurian-Sherman, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, argued that moving from large confined animal feeding operations to barn- and pasture-based animal farming is economically viable and healthier for the animals. It is also more sustainable, because associated problems such as water and air pollution from manure are less severe.

Animals that end up as humane meat have a better quality of life for most of their lives. Compared to our pets and animals in the wild, their lives are much shorter and their last days very unpleasant. Being transported to the abattoir is stressful and even in Australia a cow can’t rely on being stunned before she is killed.

Changes in meat consumption

During a year, Australians eat on average 11.2 kg of mutton and lamb per person and 33 kg of beef and veal. Add to this 25.5 kg pig and 41.7 kg poultry meat. This adds up to an average of 111.8 kg of meat eaten per person during a year, or 2.15 kg per week. Between 2000 and 2010, the consumption of beef, veal, lamb and mutton has decreased, while pig and poultry meat has become more popular. Overall, Australians eat more meat now than ten years ago (108.7 kg vs 111.8 kg pa).

By contrast, the average American is expected to eat 12.2% less meat this year compared to five years ago. This reflects concerns about health and cost. The recent public outcry over pink slime and food poisoning rates have not helped the American meat industry. Conversely, here in Australia the industry expects beef production to grow. Part of the anticipated growth relates to exports to developing countries, where a growing middle class is abandoning traditional diets and demanding more meat, dairy products and processed foods.

Has the media exposure of animal cruelty in the farming of animals destined for food made a difference to consumers’ attitudes toward their dinner? There are a few signs that attitudes to meat may be shifting.

Australia’s major supermarket chains are responding to changing customer demand around animal products. For example, Coles has cut the price of free-range eggs and collaborates with the RCPCA on sourcing free-range pork. Acknowledging increasing consumer interest in animal welfare, Woolworths lists on its website changes the company made to satisfy this demand.

We don’t know yet whether the instances of animal mistreatment that came to the attention of the public during the past year have had an impact on meat consumption in Australia. Meat consumption data for the past 12 months are not yet available.

Many Americans have become uncomfortable about the way meat is processed. Beef Products Inc

Changes in consumption from red to white meat over the last decade point to an increased awareness of the effects of eating meat on human health, because diets high in red and processed meats are particularly unhealthy. This change has not been driven by animal welfare concerns. Arguably, cattle and sheep in Australia have much better lives than pigs and chickens who live in cramped, confined and filthy conditions.

Conversely, consumer pressure on supermarket chains to consider animal welfare points to an increasing concern for the animals in factory farms. This is also reflected in the Tasmanian Government’s recent move to ban battery cages for hens and abolish sow stalls for pregnant sows next year.

Where does that leave concern for the environment? How many people do know that the meat industry contributes so much to greenhouse gas emissions?

It appears the indications for changing attitudes to eating meat are mixed. Why are we still eating so much meat? Are detrimental health effects, the destruction of our planet and the misery inflicted on animals worth the fleeting pleasure of eating meat? What will it take for Australians to wake up to reality; dare I say, wake up to our responsibilities as global citizens, and change our eating habits?

I hope it will not have to take food poisoning disasters like those occurring in the US on a regular basis. Rather, I hope the outspoken neurosurgeon Charlie Teo is right. Recently, he commented on the blog of a medical journal: “More Australians than ever before are considering where their food comes from and the truth is compelling them to make ethical choices in the supermarket. Food producers are responding to this consumer demand with more humane practices and animals do have hope for a better life.”

Emma and Eliza are lucky pigs. They have found a home in a farm sanctuary where they will live out their lives in peace. The more than five million pigs kept in Australia’s intensive pig farms are still waiting for a better life.

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