& Grass is :greener

Abstention from meat eating has long been treated as a moral issue. Jo Roe examines the practices which have led to meat being viewed as a serious health threat too.

It is impossible to open a newspaper these days without finding another food safety problem to add to a growing list of health concerns. Alarm bells sounding off all over Europe receive reactions as mixed as a box of Licorice Allsorts. What seems to be emerging however is a subtle change in opinion which may begin to reverse a historical trend in attitudes towards meat.

It is arguable that since stone age man first hunted living creatures, society has been slowly, but steadily sterilising the notion of meat as animal flesh. In medieval times, the choicest way to present a Sunday roast was whole and intact, preferably caught in animated expression. During the intervening years the carcase has been relegated to the sideboard and covered with sauces, ushered into the kitchen, presented in neat cuts, disguised into various dishes until the advent of the modern hamburger, which has severed all recongisable links with its original form. In one of its journals a few years back, the Meat And Livestock Commission, much to their present embarrassment, summed up this unwillingness to think about the origin of meat, suggesting that butchers ought to concentrate on making people look forwards to the meal, rather than backwards to the animal.

Evidence now seems to suggest that what seemed a process of sanitisation has in fact proved to be a bit ofa bacterial field day. Along with the production of meat as a fast-food commodity, farming practices have become more intensive to keep prices down and cope with demand. Just as food products have been mutated out of all recognition, farming has moved further away from natural, traditional methods.

Of course the problem is not simple. Farmers are led by a consumer society and at the mercy of big businesses which often have an interest in every link in the chain, from feed production to transportation. Some would argue

that it is the economic and political system which has put pressure on farmers to adopt certain methods. Nevertheless the advent of new marketing techniques, such as Tesco’s free range chicken adverts, mark a subtle change in direction. People are looking back to the animal again.

So what has been the legacy of40 years of post-war intensive farming? The most recent and most serious concern has been over Mad Cow Disease (BSE). The nature ofthe disease and its ramifications remain something of a mystery, it is an infective agent only partially understood even by scientists, but what is in no doubt is the fact that most cattle farmers stand to lose money whether their herds are BSE infected or not. Store-cattle, animals sold to be fattened at around eighteen months, have dropped in price from £600—£700 to £350.

It is generally recognised that BSE has been transmitted to cattle through feed containing animal by-products. The practice of feeding offal, blood and bone meal to cattle and sheep was banned in 1988, though it is still allowed, in restricted forms, in pig and poultry feed. Some believe that the problem was not so

much the use of animal by-products as the fact that the animal waste had not been properly treated. Sarah Antrum, who works at Wye Agricultural College and a dairy farm, describing herself as a farmer’s wife, feels that the problem goes back to the production of animal feed. ‘Its the manufacturer’s bloomin’ fault. The whole reason the blood and bone meal was contaminated was because the people who were processing the stuff and making it into powder meal were not cooking it for long enough and at high enough temperatures. It would still be perfectly safe to feed bone and blood meal to any animal as long as it was completely sterilised. It’s only these wretched feed pe0ple cutting costs and being greedy.’ Not only that, but farmers rarely know exactly what they are feeding their livestock, as the ingredients are not marked. ‘You get the rep coming round saying this is good stuff, I’ll give you a good price, it’s high in protein, but you don’t know the ingredients. Obviously farmers don’t want their cows to get ill,’ complains Sarah Antrum.

Causes aside we still have to deal with a disease which can take years to show itself. No-one yet knows if

the infective agent is transmissible to the human species, though there seem to be strong links between BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease, a rare human condition which leads to progressive dementia and death. The worry with 8513 is that it represents Scrapie which would mean the disease has mutated through a species. Because of the nature of these diseases which can have an incubation period of up to twenty years, no one can be sure of the long term effects. The spectrum of possibilities ranges from there being no problem at all, as the farming industry maintains, to there being an epidemic of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in ten years time. The Meat And Livestock Commission claims there is no problem at all. ‘We regard the British government controls as totally satisfactory,’ maintains Patrick Barrow, press officer for the commission, ‘and we regard the latest EC moves to impose further restriction as unnecessary.’

But there are some grey areas of concern. As it stands only cattle known to have the disease must be slaughtered. Apart from the fact that the disease is a slow in revealing itself and we do not yet know if it is

“The List 29 June- 12 July 1990