Monday, 5 November 2012

Milking the cow – another food tale of modern Britain

Kill before it can suckle?

Just over a week ago, having already bought a piece of lamb for the weekend, my peregrination along Broadway Market brought me to Richard’s Wild Dartmoor Beef stall.

The intention was to pick up some of the ‘Bury-style’ black pudding that he usually has available, but something else caught the eye: veal.

And since he doesn’t have it every week, and since it had a very good ‘shelf’ life, I picked up a piece for this weekend just gone.

The veal crate protests of the mid-1990s – raised to particular prominence by the death of protestor Jill Phipps beneath the wheels of a lorry carrying veal calves – helped to put paid to an undoubtedly cruel practice.

Yet veal still has a bad name in the UK.

Once we remove crating from the equation, it would seem that anyone who consumes dairy produce should actually eat – or at least support – the consumption of veal today.

Perhaps we have, in general, become so divorced from the origins of our food that we forget the connection between a cow (or any other animal) providing milk, and the pregnancy, birth and baby animal that allows that.

If we don’t eat veal, then those new-born calves may well be killed straight away.

Yet we Brits do seem to get squeamish over all sorts of food matters – and not all logically.

Take the production of foie gras.

Let’s be entirely clear: we’re talking about ducks and geese that, in the final weeks of their lives, are force fed grain (the method is known as gavage) in order to massively fatten the liver, which then becomes a delicacy.

Now this provokes something close to hysteria among some. As mentioned in a previous post, I have seen it, online, actually compared to people eating children. And to Nazism. Yes. That really is how stupid the debate gets.

But what is most peculiar about this is that there never seems to be anything like the same stink raised about factory-farmed chickens, for instance. Or any other factory-farmed animal, for that matter.

There is a vast trade in cheap chickens – reared in appalling circumstances; pumped full of antibiotics and hormones; never allowed to move around properly; spending vast amounts of their dismal lives sitting in their own shit.

Similarly, we know that swine flu developed in the sheer awfulness of industrial pig factories in Mexico. And such establishments are not remotely confined to the ‘developing world’. Indeed, some big agricorps are pushing to open large establishments in the UK.

Yet for all the very serious animal welfare and human health issues raised by both of these, the hysteria is reserved for foie, the production of which isn’t even close in scale.

Why is this?

I’m going to posit a suggestion: that in the UK at least, much of this is because of interlinked ideas of class and pleasure.

Like champagne, foie is hardly a staple: rather, it is a luxurious treat and certainly associated (on this side of the Channel, at any rate) with wealth.

Pleasure in general is seen as something that only the very wealthy and the ruling elite can afford, in terms both of money and time.

Now we Brits still have an odd relationship with food in terms of pleasure.

A few weeks ago, the Saturday edition of the Guardian published, in its review section, an essay on (in essence) how boring ‘foodies’ have become. It had some valid points about a certain kind of showing off, but it went further in doing a baby-out-with-the-bathwater routine on the issue of being interested and investing time in food in general.

Then along came Stephen Poole’s book, You Aren’t What You Eat, on pretty much the same subject. Followed by Jonathan Meades’s Observer review, as plumdaciously full of his splenetic brilliance as a foie goose is of grain.

‘Stop talking about bloody fuel!’ seems to be the general tenet.

It reminded me of my mother’s aphorism: “We eat to live – we don’t live to eat”. Even now, if my father hears me discussing food with my mother – over dinner – he describes me as “obsessed”.

Poole, Meades and co have a point about the minority of people who see food as a pose – but they are a minority. For millions in the UK, a dose of masticatory pleasure might be a welcome change and actually have positive health ramifications.

Perhaps this mood is a reaction to these austere times: an understanding that we are most certainly not ‘all in this together’?

Yet not only is there a sense that pleasure is the exclusive preserve of those with money to burn, there is also the sense that pleasure itself is sin.

Never forget the self-flagellatory streak in the puritanical British, who still nurse a conviction that all pleasure is something to feel guilty about.

While I have no desire to try to render pleasure ‘respectable’ by making it seem to be a synonym for ‘health’, one has to ask whether, given our general eating habits today, injecting a large dose of pleasure could not be beneficial for health.

And to go back to chicken, eating birds that are actually farmed in a way that would have welfare enthusiasts in ecstasy would be better both for welfare – and the pleasure of eating and, surely, for health too.

After all, who is genuinely convinced that eating flesh (or vegetable matter, for that matter) that still holds within it hormones and antibiotics etc is not best for optimum health?

I’d argue that well-produced foie is no more inherently cruel than well-produced anything, while the worst-produced foie is no different to the factory-produced chicken or the factory-produced pig.

To pretend that they are different is fallacious.

And the same can be said of rose veal.

But while an organic, free-range chicken might seem intimidatingly costly if you’re used to buying a £2.99 one, once a week, from Tesco, then one thing that is cheaper is to buy the best eggs you can.

More than once I’ve mentioned here how much I enjoy eggs these days – and make them the centrepiece of a meal because of that – now that I am regularly getting my supply direct from a farmer.

But it’s more than just taste. A report from a friend just recently says that their partner, who had been unable (“unable”, note, not unwilling) to eat eggs for years, is now able to – courtesy of a scheme to bring battery hens in proper surroundings and sell the eggs thus produced.

It begs the question of just what ends up in a battery-produced egg.

And so to the torturous question of class.

Now surely, if disgust with the idea of luxury foods is based, in part, on a dislike of an ‘elite’ or simply those with money, then it could also be argued that a lack of concern over food that the poorer members of society eat (such as those dismal chickens) is contemptuous of them.

Wouldn’t one be better to argue that everyone should be able to access good and healthy food that is pleasurable? Why deny ordinary people pleasure? Again – what is wrong, in itself, with pleasure?

And if you want to play the class game, then surely ‘nothing is too good for the workers’ is better than ‘let everybody eat cake’?

Anyway, while you mull over these things, I want to mention Lucky Hens Rescue, on the outskirts of Wigan, which does stonkingly good work – and which produces superb eggs. I have it on very good authority!


  1. Yes Lucky Hens resuce do a fantastic job and the eggs are very good. a volunteer at the rescue.

    I also agree with you about the way food id produced. Animals should have a happy healthy life and be mass produced.

    I do not however understand the force feeding of geece

  2. Hi – and absolutely.

    I don't know whether anyone really knows the origins of foie production, but what I've read suggests that it goes back to Roman times, and came about partly through observation of how geese binged before winter.

    I readily accept that it is not the 'nicest' practice in farming – and not everyone will find it remotely acceptable, which is absolutely their right – I simply find the hypocrisy of some (and it is "some") when choosing to comment on foie production, yet ignoring the far more widespread issue of factory farming, to be hypocritical.

    In a way, all farming for meat has an end point that is not 'pleasant'. Or perhaps such thoughts are simply a comment on how far we have become removed from food production as a whole? And, indeed, on how much of a food animal we actually waste?

    I'm no expert – those are just thoughts.

    Anyway – thank you for stopping by and commenting. If we all try to buy just meat from good farmers, we make a big contribution to animal welfare. And, indeed, to our own health – and taste pleasure. So pleasure becomes 'moral'. :-)