Should you stop eating meat?

Animal husbandry methods can be cruel and there’s more that South Africans can do to ensure that the meat they eat comes from more ethical sources, says Angelique Ruzicka.

It’s not often that we think about how the meat we eat reaches our plates when we tuck into a tasty steak or Sunday roast. We like to think that cows, sheep, goats and other farm animals are treated humanely before they reach the slaughterhouse. Some of us even believe that animals are slaughtered humanely once they reach the abattoir but the reality is that this is not always the case.

When asked about animal husbandry practices Toni Brockhoven, national chairperson for Beauty Without Cruelty, lays it bare: “Animal husbandry is a cruel business; it is not just the killing, although of course ‘humane slaughter’ is an oxymoron. It is standard farm practice that animals are neutered, tail docked, tooth, toe or beak clipped all without benefit of anaesthesia. Mothers and their young are forcibly separated. Animals are raped (the industry uses what they themselves term a rape rack) bulls are forced to ejaculate using electrocution, 97% of SA egg-laying chickens spend their lives in a space less than an A4 sheet of paper, pigs are trapped in a tiny cage for most of their life, unable to turn around or live anything resembling a ‘normal’ life.

“It is not feasible that these practices can be rectified, due to space, money concerns and apathy. There is no such thing as humane slaughter; animals see, smell and hear their friends and family being killed, and know they are next.”

Standard practice
Typical animal husbandry practices are not going to change overnight, but the good news is that it looks like South Africa’s food retailers are making some progress in ensuring that their suppliers treat animals more humanely. When Moneybags approached Woolworths for comment about how its meat suppliers slaughter animals before selling the meat onto the retailer, it responded with:

“Woolworths cares deeply about the welfare of animals. We have pioneered many animal welfare practices in the retail sector such as badger friendly honey and free-range eggs. While we have made progress we believe there is a lot more that we can do to continue to protect the welfare of farm animals. Apart from our animal welfare policy, Woolworths has strict standards for the production of meat.”

If you search for Woolworths’ animal welfare, policy you come across this on its website. In it, Woolworths says it believes that animals should have lives worth living “from birth to death” and should enjoy five freedoms: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from fear and distress.

It highlights that it does not believe that animals should be kept in close confinement and that it sells free-range chicken, beef and lamb. However, it’s clear that more needs to be done – Woolworths doesn’t commit to this pledge in its entirety because it does say: it ‘supports the use of free range food systems wherever possible’.

Meanwhile, Pick n Pay has also made commitments to improve animal welfare. Back in September 2014 it pledged that from December 2015 all fresh pork sold in Pick n Pay stores must come from farms which use group housing for pregnant sows during the gestation period, allowing freedom of movement and social interaction of the animals. It adds that from 31 December 2016, this commitment will be extended to cover all process pork products manufactured by Pick n Pay. (Moneybags has confirmed that Pick n Pay is currently on track with these proposed changes to be implemented this year and in 2016).

At the time, Pick n Pay’s group strategy and corporate affairs director, David North added: “There is no legislation on phasing out sow stalls in this country, and a voluntary industry deadline does not take effect until 2020. We think this timetable is too slow. We have therefore been working with our suppliers and with animal welfare organisations on how we can move on a much faster and more ambitious timescale. We thank all these groups for engaging so constructively with us.”

Is it enough?
While some retailers are helping to improve animal husbandry practices, some argue that this isn’t enough. “So called ‘free range’ makes people feel better about their choices and does little to benefit the animals, when the above practices are standard. As soon as dairy cows and egg laying hens are no longer financially viable, they are doomed to land on someone’s plate,” says Brockhoven.

Meanwhile, Brett Thompson points out that choosing ethically sourced eggs, for example, won’t stop all bad animal husbandry practices: “Choosing ethically sourced eggs in South Africa is no easy task, shoppers are still supporting practices which result in the mass slaughter of male chicks and the premature end to the lives of millions of hens each year.”

Healthy or not?
According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) meat is healthy for you as it’s a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals. However, the UK’s Department of Health has advised that people who eat a lot of red and processed meat a day (more than 90g cooked weight) reduce this to 70g. The NHS also warns that some meats are high in saturated fat, which can raise blood cholesterol levels. Cutting down on red and processed meat is essential as they believe there is very likely a link between this type food and bowel cancer.

Meanwhile, supporters of the meat-free diet argue that there are health benefits to cutting it out entirely too. “Research done by Danish Dairy Research Foundation [shows that] meat consumption increases the risk of dying from heart disease and certain cancers. You can acquire gallbladder disease, hypertension and adult onset diabetes.

“Reports by the World Cancer Research Fund and the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy in the UK conclude that a diet rich in plant foods and the maintenance of a healthy body weight could annually prevent four million cases of cancer worldwide. Furthermore, research has shown that most meat eaters have worms and/or a high incidence of parasites in their intestines. There are 76 million cases of meat-borne illnesses a year, worldwide,” points out Brockhoven.

Unfortunately, for most, cutting out meat is not sustainable. Last year Shape magazine in the United States highlighted that most people who adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet (88%) end up back at the meat counter again. The reason why people give up a vegetarian diet is often for the same reason why they started the diet in the first place: their health.

Lisa Moskovitz, CEO and founder of NY Nutrition Group, told Shape: “The main reasons vegetarians agree to start incorporating more animal products in their diet are declining energy levels, change in skin or hair, and even weight gain. Strict vegans and vegetarians are at risk for developing certain nutritional deficiencies, particularly iron, zinc, b-vitamins, calcium, vitamin D, and protein. Plant-based sources of these nutrients do exist, however, not as abundantly as in animal products.”

Planning a vegan and vegetarian meal also takes much effort. “Following a nutritionally adequate vegetarian, and especially vegan lifestyle, requires a lot of on-going education, meal planning, time, and consistency,” Moskovitz says.

While some may think that giving up meat would mean losing weight Moskovitz told Shape that the opposite was true: “When you eliminate a huge food group such as animal products, carbs and fat-dense foods usually take its place, and they tend to have more of a fat-accumulating effect on the body than high-protein foods.”

So what can you do?
Besides lobbying the retailers, government and farmers to introduce rules and regulations that improve the lives of farm reared animals destined for the slaughterhouse, there are other things you can do, some are more drastic than others. These include:

1. Cutting out meat and dairy entirely: “If one can have pizza, burgers, cake, ice-cream, enjoy a braai or fine dining experience, or become a world class athlete, without causing immense suffering and the deaths of others, why wouldn’t one? The only reason is habit, taste and peer pressure,” feels Brockhoven. Brockhoven adds that it’s possible to create tasty dishes that have a ‘meaty quality’ to them and points to her meat free potjie recipe, which landed her a third place spot in a competition. Thompson adds that there are alternatives to animal products such as Fry’s Family Foods which allow people to eat a meal without meat, eggs or dairy.

2. Find a middle ground: You don’t have to give up meat entirely – just on some days. Meat Free Mondays is a movement encouraging people to give up meat just one day a week. “There is room for optimism though as more South Africans choose to eat more plant-based foods which are free from meat, egg and dairy. This change in diet is being spurred on by ethical, environmental and health reasons,” says Thompson.

3. Buy free range: For those of us that simply can’t give up meat, buying free range goes some way to ensuring that meat is sourced from ‘happier’ animals that are able to graze on fields and aren’t cooped up in cages. Major retailers such as Woolworths, Pick n Pay and Shoprite sell free range or ‘pasture raised’ meat and eggs.

Animal husbandry practices are also highlighted in Moneybags’ article ‘How ethical are your eggs?’