The way that meat, eggs and milk are produced is surrounded by one of our great silences, in which most people collaborate. We don’t want to know, because knowing would force anyone with a capacity for empathy to change their diet.
You break this silence at your peril. After I published an article on chicken farming last week, I had to re-read it to check that I hadn’t actually proposed the slaughter of the firstborn by terrorist devil worshippers – so outraged and vicious were some of the responses. And that was just the consumers.
The producers didn’t like it much either, though their trade associations responded in more measured tones. In letters to the Guardian on Saturday, the National Farmers’ Union and the British Poultry Council angrily defended the industry. The NFU wrote:
“In the UK 90% of all chicken is produced to Red Tractor standards and this demonstrates that the chicken has met production standards developed by experts on animal welfare, safety, hygiene and the environment. Farmers take the welfare of their birds extremely seriously, and therefore to accuse the sector of cruelty is absolutely unfounded.”
The BPC maintained that chicken “provides a wholesome, nutritious, sustainable and affordable source of protein, produced by an industry unsubsidised by government.”
Let’s spend a moment examining these claims, before raising the issue of how they get away with it.
In my view, the Red Tractor standard is a classic example of an almost meaningless label, whose purpose is to reassure customers in a vague and fuzzy way while holding producers to standards that scarcely rise above the legal minimum. That’s a long-winded way of saying bullshit.
Take the key welfare issue, stocking density. Here’s what the government recommendations say:
“The maximum stocking density for chickens kept to produce meat for the table should be 34 kg/m2, which should not be exceeded at any time during the growing period.”
But the standard for broiler chickens set by the Red Tractor scheme is actually worse than this:
“Planned stocking densities must not exceed 38kg/m2 for broilers”
Incidentally, this stocking density – 38kg/m2 – gives each bird an area the size of a piece of A4 paper.
This meets the legal requirement only because the UK uses a cruel derogation from European law, permitting a maximum stocking density of 39kg/m2. So much for the NFU’s statement about taking the welfare of chickens extremely seriously.
On almost every welfare indicator, and across all the main farm animals, including chickens,Red Tractor scored worse than any other certification scheme evaluated by Compassion in World Farming. Amazingly, the Red Tractor label imposes no restrictions on the growth rates of chickens: it allows the most overbred varieties to be stuffed with high-protein feed, with the result that the birds often suffer from painful and crippling health problems, as their hearts, lungs and legs are overloaded.
As for the British Poultry Council’s claims, if chickens fed on soya – as the great majority in this country are – are sustainable, what does unsustainable look like? Soya production is one of the major agents of the destruction of rainforests, cerrado and other threatened habitats in South America. The environmental impacts of chickenfeed are, well, anything but chickenfeed. The mass production of chickens has major consequences at the other end of the bird too: the mountains of excrement cause both water and air pollution.
Nor is the claim that this industry is unsubsidised correct. Many chicken growers barely break even on the sale of birds, and survive only as a result of the government’s renewable heat incentive. This is a remarkably generous scheme whose ostensible purpose is to reduce carbon emissions, but which really functions as another subsidy for businesses, especially farms. Most new chicken units use biomass boilers subsidised by the RHI, and it is immensely profitable.
So now to the real question: how do they get away with it? How is it that we, who regard ourselves as a nation of animal lovers, accept such terrible standards of meat production? If dogs and cats were treated as pigs and chickens are, there would be a deafening outcry: in fact there are plenty of people in Britain who campaign against the raising of dogs and cats for food in Asia. But what’s the difference? Why is it acceptable to treat some animals – even creatures as intelligent and capable of suffering as pigs – so brutally, but not others?
In part, this reflects the deep disavowal in which we tend to engage when we eat meat. But I also believe that a major part of the problem is the fairytale view of farming implanted in our minds from the very onset of consciousness.
Many of the books produced for very young children are about farms; and most tell broadly the same story. The animals – generally just one or two of each species – live in perfect harmony with the rosy-cheeked farmer, roaming around freely and talking to each other, almost as if they were members of the farmer’s family. Understandably enough, none of the uncomfortable issues – slaughter, butchery, castration, tusking, separation, battery production, farrowing crates – ever feature.
So deeply embedded is this image that I believe many people go through life unable to dismiss it from their minds. It is not easy to unlearn what we are taught when we’re very young, and even the grim realities of industrial farming cannot displace the storybook images from our minds. At a deep, subconscious level, the farm remains a place of harmony and kindness – and this suits us very well if we want to keep eating meat.
Perhaps the starkest example of this myth-making I’ve come across is a children’s book distributed with Saturday’s Guardian called The Tale of City Sue. It tells the story of a herd of cows on an Irish farm.
“This friendly, Friesian family
were free to roam and browse
and eat the freshest, greenest grass
which made them happy cows.
“They belonged to farmer Finn
Who called them by their names
And when it was their birthday
He brought party hats and games.
“He played his violin for them
inside the milking shed,
and sung them soothing lullabies
when it was time for bed.”
Only after I had unthinkingly read it to my three-year-old then turned the back cover, did I discover that it wasn’t a book at all, but an extended advertisement for Kerrygold butter.
It wasn’t billed as such. The Guardian’s website marketed this publication as “A tale from the meadow of imagination: children’s author Jeanne Willis’s latest book captures the idyllic atmosphere of rural Ireland.” Following my questions to the Guardian, this has now been changed to make its provenance clearer.
I find disguised marketing of any kind objectionable, and disguised marketing to children (aimed in this case at reaching their parents) even worse. I feel that this book misleads children about the nature of farming and milk production and sanitises the relationship between farmers and their animals, on behalf of a large corporation (Kerrygold’s parent company, Adams Foods). It exploits children’s credulity and natural sympathy with animals for corporate profits.
When I challenged the Guardian about this, its spokesperson told me:
“All branded content should be clearly labelled for the benefit of our readers in line with our guidelines. On this occasion the insert was not correctly labelled and we apologise for this error.”
I also wrote to the author, Jeanne Willis, who replied as follows: “I was commissioned by Kerrygold so it’s best they answer your questions. Xxxx Xxxx from Brazen PR will be in touch soon.”
Brazen PR. Hmmm.
I wrote back, asking her, “Do children’s authors not have a responsibility towards those they write for? Is there not an issue of conscience here for you? After all, if a children’s author is misleading children on behalf of a corporation, that’s a serious matter, surely? It has been done in your name, and promoted as your “latest book”, so simply shrugging off responsibility like this feels wrong to me. You must have a view about whether or not accepting this commission was the right thing to do, and whether you were justified in discharging it as you did.”
She responded as follows:
“… to the best of my knowledge, Kerrygold seem to be particularly strong on animal welfare so there wasn’t a question that what I created was going to be misleading. The brief was very simple: Kerrygold cows spend a lot of time outside feeding on grassy meadows so let’s tell some fun stories about our cows. I don’t feel it’s exploiting kids because the only take out is that it’s better to feed cows on grass and ensure they spend as much time outside as possible.”
“I’m very careful which brands I work with to avoid this exact situation – I wouldn’t have done this if I thought it was morally wrong. It’s a storybook for families to enjoy. There is no overt message to buy butter. It’s just about the cows. That said, it clearly says Kerrygold on the inside cover and on the back.”
It seems to me that subliminal persuasion of this kind (“the cows are happy”) can be more insidious than overt marketing (“buy our butter”). To my mind, Kerrygold is seeking to persuade people of the inherent goodness of its products at a deeper level than merely flashing up the products.
As for the issue of animal welfare, Kerrygold’s website states “We work with small co-operative farms where small herds are free to graze on lush Irish meadows.” But it does not say “We work only with small co-operative farms …”.
The parent website run by Adams puts it slightly differently: “Kerrygold is … is owned by Irish dairy farmers, many of their farms are small and family run”. Which could also mean that many of them are not. So I asked the company, “What is your milk buying policy? In other words, what specifications – on scale, feed, the treatment of animals, process etc – do you put in place that your suppliers have to adhere to?” I have not had a response.
From what I can glean, Kerrygold’s marketing seems to rely on the public perception that Irish dairy farms are small and mostly grass-fed. But they are changing fast.
Last summer, 3,000 dairy farmers visited the biggest dairy operation in the country (which has 820 milking animals) to discover how to increase the scale of their operations. This farm has made a major investment in indoor facilities, and supplements the grass they are fed with maize, barley and soya.
According to the former chair of the Irish Farmers’ Association, “scale must go up. … The dairy farm of the future is going to have to be bigger.”
Could the current Kerrygold marketing blitz be an attempt to embed in our minds a bucolic, superannuated image of an industry that is now changing beyond recognition? If so, it might be an effective way of pre-empting criticism about the changing nature of its suppliers.
Dairy cows, like chickens and pigs, get a rough deal, while the effluent from dairy farms creates major environmental problems. Imagine the response if children were exposed to such blatant sanitisation of a harsh and polluting industry in any other sector. But so prevalent is this mythologised view of farming, and so wilfully unaware do we remain of the realities of industrial agriculture, that it passes almost without challenge. My guess is that the Guardian made this error – a serious one in my view – partly because the themes Jeanne Willis and Kerrygold exploited are so familiar that they are almost background noise.
Isn’t it time that children’s authors showed a little more imagination and stopped repeatedly churning out the same basic story, even when they are not doing it on behalf of a large corporation?
Is it not time that adults weaned themselves off the fairytale version of farming and began to judge it by the same standards as we would judge other industries?
And is it not time for all of us to become a little more curious about where meat, milk and eggs come from, and how they are produced?