BBC three has been running a programme the last few nights, entitled “Kill it, Cook it, Eat it“. The premise – a rather laudable one by my book – is to try to show viewers exactly what goes on in an abbatoir. The reasoning behind this is because meat, these days, often comes wrapped in plastic and all sanitised, and for many, the connection between the meat and the life (and death) of an animal is very removed.

Some may be thinking .. well why is this a problem? Its a problem for a couple of – to my mind – very different reasons. There’s the ethical one: if an animal has given up its life for you to have sustenance – you should be thankful for it. All too often, with anything to do with meat, that whole aspect is disregarded, and the meat is taken very much for granted. You see it in supermarkets: the public’s insistence on being able to buy very cheap meat has led to the kind of BSE/bird flu problems that we’re seeing today within the commercial meat industry (and infact, beyond that to the wider food industry). Then there’s the health aspect: in taking meat for granted, particularly its very cheapness, its downgrading the quality of the meat that the majority of us eat, to the point where our own health may well be affected. And finally, in treating animals in this way, with no respect: what are we teaching our children, not only about how to treat animals but about where their food comes from?

The programme has been extremely enlightening. Monday night covered cows and beef: they’re stunned via a bolt to the head, then slaughtered. I won’t go into a great amount of detail here, because i know not everyone can handle watching this kind of thing. What i will say is that although it was disturbing at first (there were one or two elements to the slaughter of a cow that weren’t prevalent in the slaughter of other animals) what struck me was the calmness and speed with which it all happened (and as Michiel pointed out, a far nicer death, (and death must come to us all) than many wild animals can expect – they are eaten, alive, or die painfully from disease/injuries. not for them a stunning to render them unconscious, oblivious to the impending doom till the last moment).

The slaughterman didn’t pussyfoot around, but he did treat each cow (each animal in fact) with a great deal of respect. The animals are hung up during the butchery, a necessary fact to keep them from the floor (and the risk of bacterial taint) and pushed around the abbatoir, but there’s no shoving. Its gentle pushing, going about their work calmly, professionally. Once the cow had been slaughtered and butchered, it was brought into the cafe area where the butcher cut parts off for the chef to cook (and yes, freshly killed meat like that can be eaten, but you must do it before rigor mortis sets in – after that, beef at least, must be hung to allow the enzymes to tenderise the muscle) and the butcher (the brother of the slaughterman) explained the difference between the different cuts, what to look for in poorly grown/slaughtered beef, and any number of other, fasincating information.

After that, the chef showed a couple of simple dishes, and the audience was invited to taste the meat. It was a variety of people; from vegetarians to ardent meat eaters, members of the public to food professionals of one kind or another. The reactions were sometimes predictable, sometimes not – some ardent meateaters couldn’t face it, others who had been vegetarian for a while ate it. but more than anything, in terms of reaction, was not so much a change towards vegetarianism, but a respect for the meat; for the cow who gave up her life for the meal, and several said that they wouldn’t stop eating meat, but that they would source good beef, where the cow had been well treated, slaughtered well, and had good provenance.

And from that perspective, the programme succeeded.

The second night covered lamb, the third night pork, in much the same way. The pork programme for me was interesting, mostly because i found the way in which pigs are raised (in closed barns on concrete) extremely unattractive, and the programme made it clear that that pig breeder was one of the better ones. I think back to the photo i saw of Stonehead’s pig, feeding her piglets after birth, although she’d been brought inside (because of the cold weather), she was lying on straw and free to move around (sadly the blog seems to have been closed so i can’t provide a link), and compare that to what i saw: the sow trapped between iron bars, unable to really move, delivering her piglets onto concrete who are dragged up to a light box to help them dry off, before they stagger down to feed from their mum. Ironically pork is one of the meats we eat the most of (followed by beef and chicken) in the form of bacon, and its certainly making me think again in terms of wanting to eat free range pork instead.

Additionally, in the pork programme, the programme raised the issue of other abbatoirs. Its made clear throughout the series that although the abbatoir has taken care to make it so that the animals are not aware of the people watching them (from behind a one way mirror), or distressed in any way (silence is called for during the slaughter, for example), it is also made clear that that abbatoir is a best practice one. I had said to Michiel on the first night (when the beef programme was being broadcast), that if that was a best practise one, it made you wonder what standard abbatoirs are like, ones where the whole process is more mechanised, more of a production line than happens in that one. Although the Vet on the programme made it clear that no animals would suffer, that all slaughterhouses had vets working there to ensure no animals were treated inhumanely (and that any incidents were dealt with accordingly), at the same time there has to be a difference between the production line, and a small abbatoir where time and care is taken.

The whole series, for me, has been fascinating. Its confirmed, for me, my belief that if you eat meat, or consume dairy food, you should take responsibility for the food that you eat: as far as your purse allows (and ours doesn’t allow a lot) to source meat that has been treated well at all stages. And for my part, although my purse probably won’t allow me to source all my meat that way, i have since discovered that the abbatoir in question is located in Glossop, and has a butcher’s shop attached to it. I for one will be paying them a visit next week, to see if i can buy some of their cheaper cuts of meat – and in the process, saying thank you to the animal that gave its life so that we can eat.