Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

Food for thought

Eating animals is bad for your health. Vegetarians have higher life expectancy than carnivores. It's not too late to have a meat-free Christmas, says Liam Clarke

Bootiful was how Bernard Matthews liked to describe the seven million turkey carcasses produced by his company each year. Judging by sales, many agree with him that one of these birds, plucked and basted, looks appetising - especially when surrounded by roasties and cocktail sausages.

It is easy to see why Matthews, who died last month, was so enthusiastic. For the former mechanic who scaled the dizzy heights of commerce to become Europe's biggest turkey slaughterer, self-basters, crowns and twizzlers were milestones along the road to riches.

But how about the rest of us? Why do we associate dead animals with the season of goodwill? Why is this product always on the menu?

The point of reducing meat consumption isn't to score points, or make a fuss at shared meals. Tomorrow I won't worry too much if there is suet in the Christmas pudding - nobody would slaughter animals just for the odd product.

However, instead of turkey, I'll be tucking into macadamia and pistachio nut roast with spiced yoghurt sauce - Delia's recipe.

Last year, I had nuts, grain and soya protein, which may not sound as mouth-watering as turkey and ham, but actually tastes better.

And, of course, soya, grains and nuts can't look you in the eye, or incubate avian bird flu to threaten the human population, as a Matthews turkey shed at Holton did in 2007.

Bootiful Bernard had been moving stock between Britain and Hungary where a near identical strain of the disease was found.

It was all to do with the Christmas market, but that wasn't the only problem at his plant in Holton. An official report found that his farms flouted bio security guidance - in spite of warnings.

Gulls scavenged for infected turkey trimmings from bins outside processing plants, while rats, mice and small birds could get into the sheds through holes in the wall.

Matthews was forced to slaughter 160,000 birds at his plant in Holton to halt the spread of the virus, which had killed at least 166 people worldwide.

That is one inherent problem. Animals are genetically closer to us than vegetables and we can get diseases from them if they aren't healthy.

We all remember mad cow disease, which came from feeding cows, who are by nature vegetarian, on the brains and spinal cords of other animals to cut costs.

Experts fear that a BSE time bomb could still be incubating in the human population. There were also scares when dioxin levels in Irish beef were found to be 400 times too high. Compensation is now being paid out after pig meat was contaminated by tainted oil.

When animals were raised less intensively, the problem wasn't so serious. Fewer people could afford meat, which was eaten occasionally, or not at all.

Now everyone expects it every day and developing countries aspire to eat like Americans, who each consume an average of 260lbs of meat every year.

Meeting this demand at a price people will pay encourages intensive production methods like turkey sheds, pig units, battery cages for poultry and factory beef farming (which we don't have in Northern Ireland - yet).

These places are the perfect environment for disease to incubate and mutate so that it can cross to humans. E Coli and salmonella from factory-farmed animals can also infect us.

Creatures are bred 'for the table' regardless of suffering. Like some humans, intensively-reared male turkeys, which are often the best value, are incapable of sexual reproduction because of their extreme weight.

They are pumped full of antibiotics to prevent the spread of infections. They have joint disorders, their legs fracture and they are kept in such cramped conditions that their beaks have to be cut off to stop them picking their neighbours.

Understandably, workers on factory-scale facilities stop thinking of the produce as living beings. It is a brutalising job.

A few years ago, employees on a Matthews farm were secretly filmed playing 'baseball' with live turkeys to pass the time.

Regular meat-eating isn't healthy; life-expectancy is higher for vegetarians or occasional meat-eaters than regular carnivores. Standard health advice is to consume five portions of fruit and vegetables-a-day so as to get enough dietary fibre, folic acid, vitamins C and E, and magnesium, as well as cutting down on saturated fat. On the other hand, a World Cancer Fund study found meat-eating came after smoking and alcohol as a cancer risk. The report's author said there was no recommended safe level of meat consumption and anything over 110g-per-day - about the size of a quarter-pounder - is problematic.

So it makes sense to reduce.

If you have your bird already, then you may as well enjoy it. Whether it is a humanely reared bronze organic, or even a selectively bred monster which never saw daylight, it is dead now.

However miserable its life and undignified its end, it would be pointless to waste it and, if you don't prepare it yourself, show appreciation to whoever did.

The meat on the plate is dead now, but the cook still has some feelings left. As it says in the cracker, you could make her falafel.

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