Monday, 16 January 2012

Enlightened self interest and pleasure

It didn’t take long for the first bit of bad food news of the year to appear.

On Friday – just as you were looking forward to a weekend brekkie with the full works – the media revealed that processed meats cause cancer. That bacon butty can kill you! And let's not mention the sausages!

Well, actually, behind that tabloidesque comment – and the headlines that were on display – was research that suggested that the risk of pancreatic cancer can be increased by around 19% by eating approximately one sausage a day.

But pancreatic cancer is, itself, rare. And there appear to be other factors – known and unknown – that could have an impact.

Yet the World Cancer Research Fund has advised people to completely avoid processed meat – which seems to be the most crass and counter-productive piece of advice ever.

Actually, what’s counter-productive are these sort of stories in general.

Some years ago, I had been commissioned to write an article about Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I contacted one of the charities involved. One thing that emerged from conversations was how they hate it when stories about cancer get into the general media.

It’s not that they think that the results of surveys should be hidden, but rather that a steady diet of ‘this gives you cancer’ and ‘that gives you cancer’ might not actually give you cancer, but it will quite probably make you feel so fatalistic that you’ll stop any reasonable efforts you’re making to avoid obvious risks.

They noted that, whenever such a story emerges – this was around the time of ‘you’ll get cancer if you work night shifts’ – they actually found that fewer people called them for advice, precisely because of the fatalism that such stories create.

If so many things in life can give you cancer, then what’s the point of trying to be healthy? You’re going to get it anyway.

What's more, many of the research that is reported is being taken out of its scientific context and, therefore, usually manages to sound much more frightening than it actually is.

Should it be reported in the mainstream media, then? Well there's a question – and particularly at a time when media ethics is being examined in great detail by the Leveson inquiry that has followed revelations about phone hacking by parts of our news media.

Perhaps the question that should be asked before publication is does the sum of these stories – see above – outweigh any possible advantages. I wonder if there's a single story like this that has resulted in a saved life.

But back to this one specifically.

I doubt that any sensible person wants to increase their chances of getting cancer – I certainly don't. I might have started getting waves of the sense of my own mortality at the cliché-ridden age of 40, and I might have known – and know – a horrifyingly large number of people who have had to deal with or are dealing with cancer, but I have no desire to see whether I would be as heroic, under such circumstances, as they have been.

So what about the question of meat consumption?

It’s probably fair to suggest that, although we are omnivores – and therefore evolved to eat meat – we are omnivores. In other words, we can eat more than meat. Indeed, our ancient ancestors probably didn’t get a big kill and eat meat every day.

Unlike Boudi, Otto and Loki, we don't actually need meat (or fish) at every meal.

Perhaps the real problem is that meat has become so cheap that many people consider it a staple for every day – indeed, even for every meal.

Isn't that cheapness a good thing?

Well, perhaps not. Look at what it can mean. The £2 chicken has probably spent its brief life sitting in its own shit, unable to move and pumped full of antibiotics and hormones and other drugs.

Setting aside any question of animal welfare, why would anyone want to eat that?

We know that swine flu evolved via intensive factory production of pork products. Why would anyone want to eat pork reared in such an environment?

But if we look a bit further, we can also see that cheapness is a bit of a con.

Take bacon. It's not difficult to find a pack of six rashers for around £1.99. But since those rashers shrink massively during cooking, spewing white gunk into the pan – water that the meat has been pumped full of in the first place – and never gets crisp properly, then wouldn't it be better to buy six rashers of quality bacon for double the price, and ensure almost zero shrinkage, none of the gunk and rind that will crisp?

In fact, if you look at it like that, the prices must be close to equal.

But what I didn't mention there is another factor – taste.

There is a good argument for animal welfare on the basis of taste alone. Call it enlightened self interest, if you will. Because meat from animals and birds that have been raised decently will taste a lot, lot better. That £2 chicken might not actually taste of shit, but then it won't taste of anything at all, so you'll need to swamp it in a sauce to make it edible.

But better meat is more expensive. In which case, why don't we simply buy less and, therefore, make it easier to afford the better product?

Meat-free days are really not the purgatory some might imagine – even to a committed meat eater like me. There's always fish – and even vegetables are nice!

Yet by opting for the best flavour possible, instead of the cheapest product, and by then cutting the amount of meat we eat in order to find the best possible stuff, we possibly even manage to do ourselves some good from a health perspective.

Pleasure can be good for you.

Telling people that they shouldn't eat a popular and enormously enjoyable foodstuff, at all, ever – and even of the best quality – is just plain stupid, and doomed to fail.

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