‘Meat analogues’, honest meat, and the death of a cloned ibex

Lucy Siegle’s Observer column this week is about meat analogues, the vegetable and myco protein textured and shaped into fake meat which is fast becoming the preserve of big business. She points out that big business scanned the horizon and noticed (kitsch revolutionaries please note – some time ago and before the average meat-eater, because big business can be advanced and progressive like that) that animal is not something that we, as a global population, can farm and eat at current British levels for much longer. She also raises the need for the kind of transparency you see on beef, so that we can buy soy from sustainable sources, such as those which make it lucrative for farmers to leave rainforest alone.

Interesting that she assumed that vegans shun meat analogues for philosophical reasons. She pronounces (perhaps a bit tongue in cheek) on what is “proper”:

“The fact that I am still looking for “meat analogues”, as the food industry would have it, probably confirms that my vegetarianism is more pragmatic than philosophical. A proper vegetarian surely sees no need for fake meat because he or she finds meat so repellent.”

But if meat-eaters find dead animal so appetising, why do they have it processed into patties, slices, sausages, and mince? I don’t think that most meat eaters would eat an animal which actually looked like an animal unless they were in difficult dietary circumstances – in which case so would I. No, the sight of carcass offends the sensibilities of most meat-eaters. In fact, I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here trades on precisely this revulsion factor.

I’m not squeamish about deadness (only violence and killing) – I watched – as you can, for the next little while, on BBC iPlayerVictorian Farm earlier this week and saw a pig head (just like Gordon Ramsay, the pig’s carer wept when he sent him to slaughter – I don’t like to think about this – what the hell can it mean?) turned into braun. Ruth Goodman boiled it until the flesh was coming off the skull, and then hooked it out and cleaved it in half. The poor skull looked even more human from the inside as she peeled off the pale flesh revealing the eyeballs. She picked off the pieces, pulled and scooped out the eyeballs, placed the flesh pieces into a terrine, tucked in the lobes of the brain, poured over the grey, gelatinous cooking water as a preservative and finally arranged the eyes as a garnish. It was unsensationally revolting, as she acknowledged when she pointed out that the cold and hard work of a victorian cottage made you find flesh – even the cuts we turn our noses up these days – particularly appealing. This is the point isn’t it – most of us are keyboard operators, or operate machinery, or move stuff around in centrally heated environments. This is 21st century Britain – what would we need with all that killed stuff? It’s backwards, that’s what it is. How about this: it’s like wife burning, genital mutilation and polygamy – a thing of the past. What do you reckon to that? Yeah, I know, a bad analogy – nobody ever had to do that to their wife just to survive.

Anyway, there’s a difference between fake meat products and fake flesh.

And as for that braun, you wouldn’t have touched it with a bargepole unless you were desperate. You’d rather have eaten Redwood ham-style sandwich slices along with me. Apparently they are very realistic. I will write to them about the rainforests – and the conditions of their workers.

This doesn’t solve Jay Rayner’s important point about protein for people on low income. Other than thinking that there shouldn’t be any poor (which is a pointless thing to merely think) I suppose, given the growing population, I would like to see this country nationalise a basic protein provision with the range of amino acids required for healthy child and adult existence. It’s surprisingly little – we eat way more than we need. Perhaps it would look like fake spam! Fake spam, now there’s a thing.

I’m not really selling this very well, am I.

A new-born pyrenean ibex died of breathing difficulties. The important thing about this is that it was cloned from a few cells of the last known pyrenean ibex. For a brief moment yesterday, the species wasn’t extinct. And then it was again. They’ll get it right next time, or the time after that. And then something will begin to happen to the way we think about what it means to exist. Some of us will think that existence has become more disposable. Maybe we’ll feel a bit better about taking over and abusing the planet – as long as we have a few polar bear cells, or a few panda cells, we can get them back again. Maybe, with regards to ourselves, by comparing ourselves with our cloned selves we’ll come to discover physical properties of character, ethics, emotion. And then you can bet the fun will start. And I stop there, because it’s been ages since I laid eyes on the New Scientist or Nature.

UPDATE – talking about this with Matt this evening over dinner, I mentioned the weeping pig farmers and told him that a main point made in Eternal Treblinka was that people who could do that to animals, or have that done to animals, are closer to reasoning themselves into doing it to other human beings. Charles Patterson makes this point carefully and graphically (although the fact that industrialisation of animal slaughter and processing originated in Chicago, but the Holocaust was a European phenomenon limits the conclusions we can draw and is a fatal flaw in the argument). This kind of life-negating authority most people in the industrialised world needlessly enforce over animals is more than supremacist, it is objectifying. Nobody who understands what animals feels accepts their objectification. Empathy prevents it.

Anyway, Matt nodded when I told him I found the weeping pig farmer sinister and said that in any other situation – say he’d lovingly raised a litter of kittens and then decided to have them killed, even for fur (which is no less necessary than meat to today’s farmer) – he would be considered pathological and – depending on how closely the RSPCA were cooperating with Social Services – his children might be taken away. Then Matt remarked that we are a very strange race (he meant species).

Yes we are a strange bunch – particularly bright, inventive and adaptable, with language and art, and an enormous sense of entitlement to this and that. Even though Armand Leroi (What Darwin Didn’t Know) shows us how a fish embryo and a human embryo are startlingly similar and that the eye evolved only once, and even though the fossil record is now continuous from way back before we were human to here and now when we are – despite all that, humans are an anomaly among animals and there’s nothing wrong with that.

UPDATE 2 – Here’s a crisp clear example of what happens when poverty runs up against animal welfare. bBarbara Ellen had a bit in The Observer yesterday panning Asda (Walmart) for opportunism:

“Chief executive of Asda supermarkets, Andy Bond, has written in Grocer magazine, criticising TV chefs for “patronising” poor people who can’t afford better quality, more ethical, food. Bond says such chefs are out of touch and risk slipping into obscurity. “Which will hurt them even more than the thought of too many chickens crammed into a shed.”

What a sneering article, and why? Because Jamie Oliver is encouraging people to buy pork from Britain, instead of territories where animal welfare is non-existent? Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is sticking up for chickens? Or what about Heston Blumenthal, last seen politely suggesting to Little Chef that their food should taste better than say deep-fried lorry tyres? Snooty bastards!

Methinks Asda are trying to get a jab in when the climate is right, and no one dares criticise anything cheap. However, while it is amusing that such campaigning programmes were clearly commissioned pre-credit crunch, surely these chefs should be commended, not condemned, for sticking to their original brief.

First, if it weren’t for people like Jamie Oliver there would be barely any nutrition awareness in large pockets of this country. Second, and admitting this sticks in my vegetarian craw, considering all the meat they guzzle, in these straitened times, these TV chefs may perversely turn out to be lone voices holding out for better conditions for animals.

Yes and it sticks in my vegan craw too. But we should defend them against attacks like that from Andy Bond (although I haven’t been able to find that piece in the Grocer and in fact stumbled upon a different piece in which he commended celebrity chefs for getting ordinary people interested in good quality food).

Furthermore, isn’t it Asda who is doing the patronising? Is it saying that the very concept of good food should be kept from the hard-up masses, like some best-kept secret of the wealthy: the food equivalent of the Sandy Bay hotel?”

Hmm not sure – I think they have a different definition of ‘good’ i.e. not ‘cruelty-free’.

In Bond’s world they’d be sending helicopters to circle plates of decent grub, like they used to hover over kidney-shaped swimming pools in Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Keep going Jamie, et al. The credit crunch doesn’t necessarily have to result in a morality coma. As for the “slipping into obscurity”, that’s Asda gripes (pat, pat).”

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4 thoughts on “‘Meat analogues’, honest meat, and the death of a cloned ibex

  1. who is bBarbara? I wasn’t killing the kittens for fur just just killing them after a lovely life playing with balls of wool etc then weeping about it.

  2. I don’t eat a lot of meat, but I do enjoy it. Would I enjoy it as much if I had to kill and/or raise it? I don’t think so. I’m not a hunter, farmer or rancher, but for some reason I think it would be easier to eat something I hunted than something I raised from birth. I have no problem fishing and eating the catch. Some of the best fist I ever ate.

    As far as meat eaters not liking to eat something that looks like an animal, that is definitely cultural. In the southern U.S., there are many people who like nothing more than slow smoking a whole pig in a pit underground. In Puerto Rico, they prefer their whole pig roasted. They enjoy variations of roast/smoked pig in Mexico, Central and South America as well as Hawaii, Samoa, and other Pacific islands. It’s definitely not my thing (I don’t eat pork), but a lot of people seem to like it.

    Other whole animals include roasted birds like turkey, duck and chicken and I’ve read that people enjoy whole lamb for special occasions in South Asia and the Middle East.

    It might be a minority of meat eaters in the US, UK and a few other places that want any resemblance to the animal out of sight and out of mind. After all, in addition to the burgers, chicken nuggets, and other unidentifiable meats, people still like eating things like ribs. You can’t eat something like a rib without acknowledging it came from an animal.

  3. “As far as meat eaters not liking to eat something that looks like an animal, that is definitely cultural.”

    Agreed – and I think that as (if) we humans industrialise, we process our meat into strips, bits and slices, and we leave the faces, organs and lower limbs alone. Perhaps you’re right about the ribs. I can remember the last time I saw somebody eat them – 2003, he was from North Carolina. The only things with a face I have seen anyone eat is fish and crustaceans.

    I can’t substantiate my assertion that this processing has been motivated by anything other than convenience, but I did read something intelligent on the subject some time ago that made a lot of sense but that I can’t find.

    There has been a rash of programmes by celebrity chefs who are seeing their meat through from birth to table – I would love to know what effect this has had on animal husbandry (is that sexist?) among ordinary people. The animals are portrayed very sympathetically – almost anthropomorphically – with sentimental or comic music. And in the end they go off to the slaughterhouse and the farmers cry… It is so weird and disturbing.

    Basically I think that we will turn away from meat, but not because of respect for life (although respect for human life may be roped into service as an argument for not eating meat – and it is a good argument given population growth) but because if we can substitute it for something easier and less – I dunno – offensive, we will. That is also a theme in our culture perhaps.

    There was a cover piece in the Vegan Society mag a year ago about growing high-protein cultures which were vastly more efficient… I’d wolf them down if they were ok in other ways.

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