What Are We Eating?

UK - So you only eat free-range eggs, and spend the extra on organic sausages. But what's life really like for the animals that end up on your plate? And how can you be sure that the meat in your shopping bag is cruelty-free? Rob Sharp investigates
calendar icon 7 January 2008
clock icon 2 minute read


The cow is Britain's most iconic farm animal – why our French neighbours enviously know us as Les Rosbifs. In recent years, however, the reputation of the cattle industry has taken a knock from both the BSE crisis and increased concerns over the welfare of our dairy herd.

Most milk sold in British supermarkets is produced by Holstein-type cattle, which have been selectively bred for high yields. Some organisations claim that this means that dairy cows are often lame and suffer from mastitis (inflammation of the breast) and metabolic diseases. The Holsteins generally live inside in the winter and graze outside in the summer, although some unfortunate animals are kept inside all year round. To carry on producing milk, each female dairy cow must be made pregnant every twelve months; most are slaughtered after three sets of "milkings" (the period after the birth of a calf, in which they produce milk) because their production will then go into steep decline. The two "middle class" supermarkets, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, are along with Morrisons the only British outlets where all dairy cows have access to pasture.

The welfare of beef cattle, meanwhile, depends on whether the animal is given access to suitable bedding and allowed outdoors, at least during grazing season. All beef from Morrisons, M&S and Waitrose comes from beasts offered bedding material when housed, while 50 per cent of beef cattle for Co-op and two-thirds for Asda are given bedding. As far as fresh air goes, only a small proportion of beef cattle for Sainsbury's and Tesco are reared in permanent indoor housing. Co-op and Somerfield have ended the sale of beef from permanently indoor-housed cattle.

Another area of concern for welfare campaigners has been the development of "double-muscled breeds", such as Belgian Blue, which are bred to produce more steaks per cow in as short a time as possible, but which can suffer problems when giving birth. At the most recent count (from data published in December by Compassion in World Farming), Co-op, Waitrose and Asda still get some of their beef from double-muscled breeds.

Specialist butchers remain the best places to go for meat from ethically reared cows. Although the taste of a steak is affected by the length of time it is "hung" post-slaughter, meat from a beast that has been allowed to graze naturally and put on weight at a relatively leisurely pace will be the highest quality.

Source: TheIndependent
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