The consumption of meat has joined the same hallowed halls of conversation topics as Religion, Politics, Soccer and the Social Justice Movement. In short, everyone has an opinion and nobody can agree on a damn thing.
The problem, it would seem, boils down to perspective.
I have written before how our approach to food doesn’t have us asking fundamental questions of ourselves. It is not a revelation to say there is a massive disconnect between what we eat and our understanding of it. The greatest of these gulfs is undoubtedly with our approach to meat.
Look at its packaging. The thing in the saran wrap is not identifiably an animal. It does not bear the hallmarks of our primary school understanding of what an animal looks like. A steak looks no more like the cow it was cut from than leather its hide. It’s easier to sell a pack of chicken breasts than it is a feathered bird. The disconnect from animal to packaging speaks to our inability to process the origin of meat. If we did find the bodies of animals appealing, they would be sold to us as such. The closest thing we have to being able to buy a complete animal from a supermarket is a whole chicken. Even so, it lacks the head, feet and feathers which would make your child raise a small finger and exclaim “Look! A chicken!” There is no animal in a supermarket whose corpse you can look in the eye.
It is even reflected in our language. Our words for a living animal and its cooked version are altogether different. Cows are roasted to become beef. Sheep are braised into lamb and mutton. Pigs suffer the indignity of being called pork after death. A really young chick is nothing more than an egg. The problem has to be called systemic when even our own language differentiates animal from food, only acknowledging its origin with a sideways glance.
That is not to say eating meat is bad, it is our understanding of meat which is unhealthy.
Out of every food product which we consume, meat is the one most deserving of our respect. Meat has an identifiable neurology which we share with it. Animals all have brains and instinctive responses that are recognizably our own. There is no getting around the fact that the sources of meat, all meat, have more commonality with us than plants or fungi ever will. This is compounded by the fact that a lot of the meat we consume comes from mammals; creatures with limbic systems similar to our own. We have to accept that the creatures we eat have understandings of fear, empathy, love and loneliness. Even those who believe fish don’t feel pain need to understand that they school to avoid injury and death.
It is considerably easier not to acknowledge these facts when staring at a pack of sterilized chicken breasts. We choose not to see the animal, only to see its meat.
A lot of meat eaters suffer the same endemic flaw – they become squeamish in the face of their food’s death. How many will happily tuck into a bowl of fiery wings having lobbed the head off a hen? Have you shot game and carved its corpse? Who has heard the squealing of a pig without discomfort? These are cold hard facts tied to the existence of meat; your meat. Your responsibility comes in recognizing that these things you consider bloody and vicious have to happen before you can eat your steak or fry your bacon. They are a necessary step for you to eat meat.
To understand your responsibility as a meat eater, the easiest question to ask is this:
What is my responsibility to this animal’s death?
Using this simple line of inquiry, an entire new relationship develops between yourself and the animals you consume. Admittedly, it is a question that is open to interpretation. Honestly, if it changes your attitude to meat consumption for something that is healthier for you, your buying habits and the animal (even by a little), then it is worth thinking about.
It should be known that I do not condemn any kind of diet. I have as much love for vegans as I do out and out carnivores. Meat is delicious. I adore my summer terrines and liver pate. Many nights will find me turning a steak over the fire or browning mince in the pan. The message is not to throw down your forks. It is to use them responsibly. We have to understand what we are doing. The process of eating meat carries with it the greatest risk of moral compromise if you continue to do so without thinking. Meat should be celebrated, but this can only happen when we respect the animal from which it came. To think of it as being nothing more than portions in saran wrap stops you from asking whether the animal was looked after, given space to roam or killed humanely. Thinking of meat as a once living being makes it easier for you to care where it came from and what eating does for its future.