Where’s the beef with cattle welfare?
COWS have always eaten grass, so it surprised the world when, 30 years ago, we found that quite a lot of them were being fed minced-up meat. ‘Cannibal’ cows were contracting the bovine form of CJD and fears that it would spread to humans forced on Britain the most stringent health measures. Even so, the UK had to fight hard to recover the reputation of the roast beef of old England. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the American meat industry had its own problems. It was producing ever-cheaper meat by feeding animals close together in feed lots and filling them with antibiotics to ward off the disease prevalent in such unnatural crowding. Quantity not quality was the watchword.
Then, gradually, on both sides of the ocean, things began to change. Campaigning journalists began to reveal the dark secrets of the meat industry in the USA, the lapses of hygiene, the welfare concerns and the sheer greed of industrial meat production. Customers began to ask where their steaks came from. Then, the mighty Pew Charitable Trusts began to highlight the sharp decline in the effectiveness of antibiotics. It revealed that 70% of these drugs used in the USA were being used indiscriminately in animals and, as a result, superbugs were becoming resistant. More and more people contracted illnesses that couldn’t be touched by medicines. A human health crisis was unfolding.
The meat industry, dominated by three huge conglomerates, began to stir itself. The Brazilians stole a march on their American competitors and instituted higher standards in welfare, husbandry and the use of drugs. Finally, even tardy Tyson, the world’s biggest meat trader, announced the end of unnecessary antibiotics in its chickens. The customer wasn’t having it any longer and the industry’s fightback had begun. Producers marketed ‘grass-fed’ beef as if it were something exotic. Supermarkets identified the farms from which their meat came. In the UK, Morrisons and Waitrose became very particular about their meat supply-chain. Above all, customers showed they were prepared to pay more for quality.
Not that the battle’s over. Antibiotics are still being used on animals all over the world, much of them unnecessarily. Governments have still failed to produce tough regulations and a whole generation is threatened by the growing resistance of dangerous bugs, so, still determined to win, the governing board of the Pew Trusts gathered this month in London to renew the fight.
Its meeting coincided with news from another front. Grass eating isn’t without its drawbacks. It causes cows to burp and the seemingly insatiable appetite for beef makes for more and more burping round the world. So great is the methane output that it’s become a serious contributor to the sum of greenhouse gases that are changing our climate. No wonder campaigners had begun to demand we eat very much less meat, making common cause with health advocates. Yet another defeat for red meat seemed inevitable.
However, it looks as if the Danish have come to the rescue. Their researchers are close to producing a strain of grass that encourages milk production while dramatically reducing burping. It’s the first real breakthrough to help farmers reduce their huge impact on the climate, so action now could make all the difference. Defra could make the UK the first adopter of low-burp grass and insist on tough new rules on antibiotics. UK farmers could begin to make Britain a byword in healthy beef production. They could—but only if concerted action is still possible in this disjointed and disrupted world.
‘Antibiotics are still being used on animals all over the world, much of them unnecessarily
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