Meet your meat

AUSTRALIA - Why do we think it's all right to do it to pigs, writes Veronica Ridge in a report on cruelty-free meat production.
calendar icon 23 October 2007
clock icon 6 minute read

Hail has been sweeping down on central Victoria's patchwork pastures yet Sunset, the pig, doesn't seem to have a care in this frozen-toes world. She is happily ensconced in the stall of an old stable; her first litter about to arrive. The straw nest she has built so meticulously from the leftovers of last year's barley crop is piled in a musty corner.

"It's high rise," laughs farmer Fiona Chambers, reaching down to pat her massive black-and-white-striped charge.

Sunset reacts to all the attention with a permanent upside-down-grin, but Chambers can sense the heavily pregnant sow is restless.

"Little girl", as Chambers calls her, rolls over another 45 degrees in response to the warmth of a familiar human hand on her ample belly.

This great hulk of a beast is the rare Wessex saddleback, raised by Chambers and her husband Nicholas at Fernleigh Farm in Bullarto, 10 minutes' drive south-east of Daylesford. Sunset doesn't know it but, by early in the new year, many of the piglets she is about to deliver will be on a dinner plate, most likely in Melbourne or nearby.

They will spend five months on the farm before being trucked to the abattoir, butchered into pork and sold in handy vacuum-packed portions.

Fernleigh Farm is one of Victoria's few small-scale organic commercial piggeries, distinct from the factory farms that give consumers what they want - cheap meat, poultry, eggs and milk.

It's been several decades since Peter Singer's landmark book Animal Liberation and Tom Regan's The Case for Animal Rights highlighted how animals feel pain and argued eloquently that mistreating them diminishes human morality.

And now, a growing band of opinion makers and consumers argue that 21st-century industrial agriculture causes untold suffering to millions of animals in the farm production chain.

Fuel for a food fight has built in recent years with the release of consciousness-raising books such as Jim Mason and Singer's The Ethics of What We Eat and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Both books conclude that the food production methods used since the 1950s - driven by the demand for ever-cheaper food - are not only damaging our health and the environment: they have led to "inhumane" intensive farming of animals.

The fact is that while some intensive farm practices have been outlawed in many parts of the world, not much has changed in Australia. A result of this lack of government and industry animal-rights action is that consumers have started asking where their food comes from. Many are voting with their trolleys and carry bags by considering animal cruelty when choosing their supermarket pork chop.

The free-range pork industry is new in Australia but demand is increasing - production grew by an estimated 30 per cent in the past 12 months. Organic meat is also free range, with strict controls for the humane treatment of animals. Demand for organic food is rising at up to 40 per cent a year.

New label
In December, the Humane Society of Australia will launch a Humane Choice label - covering meat and dairy products - in response to increased public inquiries about which meat to buy.

According to Mirko Bagaric, professor of law at Deakin University, more consumers want cruelty-free food.

"More people are aware of animal suffering and are aware of what their responsibilities are," he says. "If people stop eating meat from cruel practices there'll be more focus on the topic. And that is happening slowly."

Professor Bagaric predicts this consumer trend will result in a significant shift away from intensive farming within 10 or 20 years.

While animal groups are more sophisticated in getting their message to the masses, he believes ignorance of the cruelty of factory farming is due partly to the meat industry's economic clout. "People who try to make arguments contrary to that find it difficult to get a public airing," he says.

Another stumbling block is those who still don't connect with what they're eating. His solution? "If many people saw, for example, the way pigs or battery hens were housed, that would spark behavioural change."

Fiona Chambers is in no doubt about what motivates customers drawn to the organic stall she sets up at farmers' markets around the state.

"Most of the people who buy our meat do so on the basis that it's free-range - that's the greatest driver. A lot of people have gone off conventional pork because of the way it's grown."

Even though her pork is three times the price of the regular product, she can't keep up with demand.

"It's much bigger than we can supply. We're constantly turning back butchers and restaurants because we can't fill the orders. I get interstate inquiries, too, and the other day I had to laugh at an export inquiry from Canada for a container per month of organic pork. (Canada exports pork widely to Australia.) I thought that was quite hysterical. I get export inquiries weekly - I just say I can't even supply my local Victorian market."

The end product of her hard work and passion - the pork, ham and bacon - has been widely hailed as delicious. She clearly adores her animals and every one has a name that it takes from its mother or father. There are lots of Beatrices and Lucys and Sunsets.

"People say to me, 'How can you eat something that you've grown and that you know?' I say, 'How can you eat something that you don't know how it's been grown?' I know it's had a good life. I've always felt that if I'm going to eat meat I have to understand what that animal's gone through."

According to Compassion in World Farming, 5.6 million pigs a year are slaughtered for food in Australia; 95 per cent of these are intensively farmed. More than 60 per cent of breeding sows are confined in stalls, 35 per cent for their entire pregnancy.


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