Why I visited an abattoir

I think some of you noticed on my social media outpourings recently that I visited an abattoir in Tamworth. I want to explain why. And how. And what I came away with. For it was a deeply emotional and BIG LIFE thing to do on a sodden Friday afternoon. I hope I can fairly reflect it all here.

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I’m a spokesperson for the beef and lamb industry’s Target100 program, charged with sharing information about sustainable beef and lamb consumption. And before we kick off:

This is a paid role. But my opinions in this blog are my own. And I should highlight that I approached the organisation myself – for information – in the first instance.

For those wondering, this is how I work when it comes to being paid for things.

This topic – meat eating and sustainability – matters massively to me. And I’ve been on a mission to get my head around the issues and the challenges that we all face – whether we eat meat or not.

So why go see an abattoir?

Because I want to make sure I really get what’s going on. If I’m going to rant on the topic, I have to see the full picture. This is where the world is at: we want transparency (because a troll or two will trip us up if we deliver anything but).

The Target100 crew asked if I’d like to see how the whole meat production picture works here in Australia. I said, “Right up I do”. And so we headed to Tamworth. To visit breeders (the Sprys farm), feedlots (where a lot of our supermarket meat comes from), the paddock-to-plate restaurant Graze (this place is worth a stop-off if you’re in the area…they grow, butcher and age their own meat and really know how to grill a rib eye steak), and the Teys Australia abattoir – or processing plant as they prefer to be called.
I can tell you, I’ve never seen anything like it.

Eat meat? Then you must explore.

If you eat meat, it’s unconscionable not to explore where it comes from.
Equally if you don’t eat meat. For a vegan diet also relies on meat. Where do you think the fertilizer comes from to feed your soy and grains?

As a relevant aside, my food philosophy is squarely about sustainability.

We can care about organic v local v grain-fed v pasture-fed v farmer’s market-selected v supermarket-bought. But really, the discussion we need to have is about sustainability – both of the planet and its food systems, and ourselves. Because the reality is there simply ain’t enough food – meat or otherwise – to feed us all. I’ve spoken to pasture-feeding farmers and grain-lot managers over the past few months and they all concede this is the big issue we need to get our forks around.

Which brings me to the crucial point: the sustainability buck starts and stops with us.

I’ll come back to this over and over. But, please, let’s continue…

As another relevant aside: I applaud vegans…

…for putting the big issues on the table so passionately and reminding many of us to think about the impact of our meat consumption.

But I invite vegans, too, to explore this topic and to get on top of the ethical, environmental and nutritional facts. Guardian columnist George Monbiot is one of my favourite writers. He’s a vegan and was forced to revise his position on the sustainability of meat eating after exploring the topic himself. He makes this damn fine point:

“By keeping out of the debate over how livestock should be kept, those of us who have advocated veganism have allowed the champions of cruel, destructive, famine-inducing meat farming to prevail. It’s time we got stuck in.”

So what’s my take-home from the abattoir visit?

I braced myself. As I donned the boots and overalls and mouth mask and ear muffs and hair net and helmet, I felt the terrified adrenalin rush to the gut and head you get when you’re about to do anything you know is going to push you to your humanly limits.

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The Teys Australia processing plant is the second biggest in Australia and processes, exclusively, meat for Woolworths supermarket. As an FYI: All Woolworths meat adheres to the Meat Standards Australia, a beef and sheep meat eating quality program that “provides an endorsement of quality for graded cuts of red meat indicating product has met quality standards for tenderness, juiciness and flavour”.

Nothing I saw during my visit horrified me or struck me as improper or unhygienic or inhumane. The animals, as they were led in, were calm. I can’t vouch for their happiness levels. But they’re not prodded or poked or rushed. It’s partly a commercial imperative, of course – stressed animals produce tough meat. They also arrive at night. Again, so they’re not standing around in heat, stressed.

But I was upset by what I saw.  What I saw was BIG. I won’t go into gruesome detail…I respect some people reading this might not be ready for it (although I do think we should all expose ourselves as much as we can to the reality of our meat consumption). For now, I’ll say this:

I saw the fullness of life on display. The tenacity of life. It quivered and bucked on the production line as the nerves held on longer than consciousness.

Confronted with death, life becomes bigger, don’t you reckon? It’s like how at a funeral overwhelming gratitude and awe and love of fellow humankind can take over. To say a funeral is “sad” simplifies what we’re capable of. To say killing animals is wrong dumbs down our engagement with reality.

I accept we are designed to eat meat. And that killing animals is part of our reality. I am at peace with the cycle of life. I like Michael Pollan’s thoughts on how we fit into the food chain:

“We automatically think of domestication as something we do to other species, but it makes just as much sense to think of it as something certain plants and animals have done to us, a clever evolutionary strategy for advancing their own interests.”

Chickens evolve to be cared for by us. They produce lovely eggs and succulent meat as incentives for farmers to spend a lot of human time, effort and money to care for them, day in day out. They put themselves up as prey. This is the symbiotic way life works…. goes Pollan’s argument.

I have also learned that a meat-inclusive, or omnivore’s, diet is the most ethical, environmentally sound and nutritionally efficient diet going around, when the right farming practices are used and, again, when we buy, cook and eat it responsibly.

Because the sustainability buck starts and stops with us.

You can catch up on just some of the arguments for this here. I’m continuing to explore these arguments and studies, however.

I don’t like killing, though. Which brings me to the Big Point from this visit. None of us like killing animals. So if we eat meat, the WORST thing we can do is not respect the life that’s lost, and the people who do the killing on our behalf.

To the latter: my heart went out to the abattoir workers who do 8 hour shifts in the cold, unable to talk or move from their stations, so that we can have loins in our laps. They worked efficiently, cutting and hacking and wrestling with the twitching beasts. Nothing is wasted. Every organ, bone, off-cut is divvied up and sent out to supermarkets, overseas (the offal) and to be made into fertilizer (the bones and offcuts).

And this is what got me most upset during the visit (seriously):

What, I thought, would these people think if they were to observe how much of their efforts are wasted by consumers at the end of the chain?

For the simple matter is this: 30-50 per cent of food purchased in Australia is thrown out by us.

The biggest contributors to food wastage? Us.

The sustainability buck starts and stops with us.

We over-order at restaurants and let waiters toss out the excess. We don’t reuse leftover meat in rissoles or ragus.

We eat sirloins and cutlets and other cuts that are juicy and fast to cook… without thinking about, and taking responsibility for, the rest of the animal. Where do we truly think it winds up? For every lamb fillet there is a mutton’s neck that should be eaten.

We unthinkingly buy up meat when it’s heavily discounted by the big supermarket chains as a way to lure us into their stores. Meat should never be treated so cheaply.

And we all need to know this.

During my visit to the various meat production places, I quizzed the farmers and plant managers on sustainability issues. I was super impressed with how alive they were to best practices. It’s what they learn in ag school, plus they have a vested interest in sustainability – it’s their future. Impediments to best practice, they told me, are generally dictated by – wait for it – us. By consumer demands.

We expect to eat the same consistency of meat all year round. We don’t accept that at certain times it’s going to be leaner due to drought, for instance. Which means meat must be grain-fed to make up the fat.

Nor do we accept that at certain times of year, some meat just isn’t available. Again, due to drought.

And we don’t accept that at certain times of year, some meat will be more expensive than at others. These extra costs have to be absorbed or made up for by the farmers in – sometimes – less than sustainable ways.

And so, in conclusion:

There is no right answer on this issue. I visited an abattoir to get real about sustainable meat consumption. And came away realizing I have the power to make the difference that needs to be made. I don’t have to wait for it to come from further up the food chain.

We all need to learn to cook meat differently. Lamb neck is great…when slow cooked. Learn to slow cook, people!

We need to order less – share a meat dish at a restaurant. The serves are always too big.

We must actively seek out better ways to make our meat go further, ways to use leftover meat. The information is out there… find it!

We need to say no to discounted meat. Don’t get sucked in by a supermarket chains offering $10 discounts off a leg of lamb!

If we’re flush with cash, we should be voting with our dollar and supporting the kind of meat production that sits well with us ethically. We should be buying at farmer’s markets and butchers where we can inquire about where the meat came from, how it was farmed.

Those who don’t have this option – those not so flush, or who live in areas where a chain supermarket is their only food outlet – need to apply the other practices above.

I know I’ve suddenly got bossy and fired up. But that’s why I visited an abattoir – so that I had license to!

Please fire up below…and reply to other’s points and ideas…the debate needs to rage!


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