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Eating meat: does everybody hurt?

Earlier this month, the Guardian announced that eating meat shortens one’s life and the Daily Mail reported that giving it up was bad for one’s health

March 29, 2012 | By:

With lamb on the table less likely this Easter, due to the disease crisis, Elaine Lemm considers the meat-eating debate. Plus: recipe for slow-cooked lamb

Seasonal food_lamb-in-spring-620 BigstockLooking out of my window, the bucolic scene before me is heart-warming: rare-breed sheep chomping on the sweet spring grass of a nearby hill. How glad I am that there are no frolicking lambs, though, because as I write, there is a garlic-infused leg of lamb roasting in my oven. I can usually separate meat from its origins, but a reminder in my eyeline is just a little hard to face.

What’s more, I am fortunate to have a lamb in the oven at all, given that British lamb is going through a major crisis right now. Schmallenberg disease is rampant across the country, with one in ten lambs being either stillborn or so severely deformed that they are unable to survive.

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Unlike Foot and Mouth, there is no need to slaughter healthy animals and no exclusion zones. (The disease is believed to be spread by midges.) Nor, as with CJD and beef, is there any risk to human health, since this meat will not make it to market. But farmers are suffering great financial losses, the price of lamb is sky-high, and it is less likely to grace the Easter dinner table, where traditionally it would take pride of place.

Meat eating is a contentious issue and has been for years. Since reading Diet for a New America by John Robbins in the late Eighties, I have suffered a crisis of confidence over the origins of my meat and of conscience over animal welfare. In this seminal book, Robbins exposed the inhumane techniques of factory farming and the price paid by animals for our desire to eat them. He also raised a crucial (and wholly arguable) question: do we even need eat meat for our health, or have we simply been programmed into thinking this?

Are we confused? You bet we are. Earlier this month, the Guardian announced that eating meat shortens one’s life and the Daily Mail reported that giving it up was bad for one’s health. Both cited evidence from new scientific studies. Sigh.

As for me, I comfortably bat for both sides. I can live with or without meat, and quietly refuse any dish where its origin and welfare of the meat is unknown. But I do feel lucky in having that freedom of choice, knowing many do not. (Another debate!)

Still, scream the ‘experts’, I could replace red meat with poultry and fish. Really?

The massive demand for chicken after the war led to the rise of battery farming on a colossal scale. That system was eventually outlawed and, since 1 January this year, the import of intense-battery farmed eggs and meat has also been illegal. But thanks to the law of unintended consequences, we now have a mega-crisis, with a 60 per cent increase in the price of eggs. If you consider just how much of our food contains egg, the scale of this problem becomes apparent. As one who campaigned to free the hens, I sit with my head in my hands.

On a happier note, this week is National Butchers’ Week, one I wholeheartedly endorse. These folk are fast becoming a breed as rare as the sheep on my hillside. But make friends with one, and he or she could be an invaluable guide through the minefield of arguments that is meat-eating in the 21st century.

Though having a vested interest, a good butcher – and I’m not talking about the supermarket pastiche here – will know the origins of your meat, the welfare standards, the right cuts for a dish and the best way to cook it. A visit to a butcher’s shop is also the opportunity for social interaction, a bit of community spirit and snippets of local gossip, surely a good thing all round.

The thought of Sunday without the roast, or a ‘full English’ without bacon or sausages, or a pasty simply full of swede and potatoes, just doesn’t cut it for me. I think meat has its place in our diet and believe we are all savvy enough to know when we have the balance right.

Now for that leg of lamb in the oven…

See Elaine’s recipe for Lamb Cooked in a Blanket