Funeral parlours, sewerage systems, landfills, abattoirs – not on your bucket list?

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BeefJam – a great example of Creative Pragmatism from the Youth Food Movement and Target 100 

In agriculture farmers talk a lot about how we need to EDUCATE the public about agriculture but I am yet to come across a large united cohort of farmers who can enunciate how we can effectively deliver their vision of an EDUCATED public

There are some farmers equally adamant that the only people with the ability to EDUCATE the public is farmers with 24/7 365 dirt under their fingernails. The same people who then say I work 24/7 365 and use that as the justification for their inability to have time to EDUCATE the public

Believe it or not too few 24/7 365 farmers pick up the oxymoron here. And worse still the very brave people who do manage to find the time never seem to please the squeaky wheels.

Despite these barriers there is a plethora of superb individuals, some industry bodies and some initiatives doing their bit and doing it brilliantly on a shoestring budget

I just happen to run a couple of those initiatives both of which were externally evaluated in 2015 and I couldn’t be more proud of what they are achieving on behalf of agriculture and I look forward to sharing those reports shortly

It’s always important to give credit where credit is due. Target 100 was a watershed program in Australia agriculture. When it was launched it was seen as visionary and it had a budget the Target 100 team could actually kick big goals with. Like most things in agriculture industry bodies are like farmers when the budget decisions are made.

The options all revolve around one OR the other. The ability to do one PLUS two PLUS three are few and far between and depend on the whims of the government and industry board members at budget decision time.  In the last two years Target 100 has found itself trying to deliver fillet steak outcomes on an offal budget

This takes a great deal of creativity and I am delighted to be able to share one of those highly creative moments with you.  BeefJam  was a partnership between Target 100 and the Youth Food Movement. It involved bringing young producers and young consumers together

BeefJam is a 3-day event that takes young producers and consumers on a crash course of the Australian beef supply chain and gives them 48hrs to reshape the way we grow, buy and eat our red meat.

Rural political journalist Colin Bettles recently lamented that unlike our American counterparts, Australian farmers are yet to grasp the pivotal role advocacy beyond the farmgate plays in delivering economic success behind it

Was BeefJam as wise spend of very limited farmer levy dollars? Should the money have gone into R&D in preference to advocacy?.  Well here is your chance to cast a vote for advocacy.  This blog post on the Youth Food Movement website is a very interesting example of what happens when you do advocacy well

Behind the scenes  at an Australian Abattoir –  I hope you enjoy reading one NON-FARMER consumer’s viewpoint as much as I did.

Please NOTE I was not involved in BeefJam and I have NEVER visited an abattoir and below is THEA’s reflection on her visit to the abattoir as part of her BeefJam experience

We humans like to outsource the things that give us the creeps. Funeral parlours, sewerage systems, landfills, abattoirs, these places are all part of the scaffolding for the modern Australian lifestyle but we’ve somehow collectively agreed that life is less of a downer when we can tuck them out of sight from our daily commutes.

Death and rubbish are uncomfortable. They make us ask big questions about the way we live, demand that we look at the impact of our decisions to live a certain way, and question whether we’re ok taking the – more often than not, mindless – path we’re on. Few things trump the discomfort of being asked to challenge your preconceived ideas about How Our System Works and your own role in that system.

Several months ago, I was part of a crew of young people who took a tour of an Australian abattoir (or cattle processor) – a little outside of Toowoomba in Queensland’s Darling Downs region. We were there as part of a collaborative project called BeefJam launched by Youth Food Movement Australia and Target 100, an initiative of Australian cattle and sheep farmers to talk to the community about the red meat industry and sustainability.

I had the opportunity to see one of those places that we tend not to think about whenever we bite into a pulled pork whatever on a Friday night out. And before you ask the question, five months later, yes, I still eat meat, though it’s my own choice to not eat very much of it, and yes, I still picture the abattoir every time that I do.

To be clear, this visit wasn’t about shying away from the widely acknowledged and serious challenges of meat production (detailed, albeit very differently, by the likes of Target 100 and Meat Free Week). But rather than disengage with meat altogether, it was about confronting meat in our own backyard and the grey areas that exist around an issue that can become so black and white.

I came out of the experience hungry to talk about what I’d seen, as did my fellow team mates, and these points more or less encapsulate that:

WHAT WE SAW ||

Let’s talk nuts and bolts. You can roughly break down our visit to the abattoir into 4 stages:

STAGE ONE // Arrival

Upon arrival and after being suited up in white pants and jackets – OH&S is serious business in a processor- we were taken to see the cattle who were stored in holding pens outside the processor. Most of the cattle had arrived early that morning from their various farms, and the atmosphere was calm and quiet. The cattle are deliberately kept in conditions as close as possible to those they’re accustomed to in their home farms . As was explained to us, a sudden change in environment can cause undue stress to the animals and also affect the quality of meat they produce.

STAGE TWO // The start and end

The cattle entered the processor through a single door, one by one. Once through the door, which closes after each cow enters and reopens for the next, the cattle are delivered a bolt of compressed air to the head on the knocking block and immediately rendered unconscious. The animal’s body is then cradled down so it is lying on its back with its neck exposed and a single slaughterman, who at the abattoir we went to was also an Imam – an Islamic leader – says a prayer and cuts the animal’s throat (the animals which we saw processed were certified halal).

STAGE THREE // Segmenting

Their bodies are then hung and bled, and begin to move their way along a carcass line, upon which their bodies are segmented into different parts by the many people stationed along the line. Each person on the line has their own highly specialised role – it takes years of training and experience to act in some positions along the line – that they’ll carry out on each carcass. For example, one person is responsible for removing the hooves, another prepares the skin for removal by severing it, and operates the machine that removes it, and someone splits the carcass in half with a large saw.

STAGE FOUR // Packaging

Carcass breakdown begins in the next morning once the carcass is chilled. As the carcass is broken down into smaller pieces as it moves along the line, the meat cuts are separated, portioned out and packaged up in plastic bags and cardboard boxes, ready to be delivered out to butchers, supermarkets and other suppliers or retailers as each order required. In terms of processed meats- that is, meat sold in boxes – Australia exports roughly 70% of its total beef and veal production to over 80 countries. Animal products also go on to be used in making a whole range of non-food products such as leather, soaps, cosmetics, glues, plastics and candles.

HOW I FELT ||

It would be fair to say that for all of us who had never visited an abattoir before – and maybe for some of those in the group who had – visiting an abattoir was a highly intense experience. Seeing an animal as a sentient being outside a building, and then several minutes later seeing that animal move through a highly efficient conveyer system as a carcass, was pretty hard. Purchasing meat from a supermarket often feels like such a sanitised experience, and the contrast between this environment and that, was strong. It was very clean, it was highly professional, and everyone had their role to play. It felt systematic, challenging and big – the bodies were big, the numbers of people were big, the systems were big.

For myself, if anything a self-professed meat sceptic, it was also honestly a relief to see the high levels of professionalism on display, both in the systems at work and from the people who worked there. What would have been most distressing – and what many of us consumers in our group feared – would be seeing signs of animal distress, and also signs of wastage. I saw neither. Whilst not all animals may be privy to such treatment upon slaughter for meat, it felt like this story around how processing can work in Australia, and the stories of the real people who work in processors, are rarely told in Australian food media, and it seems they should be if we’re looking to build greater transparency and trust in our food system, and our local one in particular.

THE IMPACT OF MEETING THE PRODUCERS ||

Visiting a processor in the company of young producers – those who invest their livelihoods in rearing their cattle – had a massive influence on the way us consumers felt about the experience. As any ordinary human, I care a bunch about the humane treatment of animals and based off what I read in the media I was pretty nervous about what I might see. But truth be told, the crew of producers amongst us wanted nothing more than for the animals to be healthy, safe and happy and seeing them respond as positively to the system as they did – and seeing them express their own relief, pride even, in the system they sent their cattle to – really framed my own experience.

Spending time with those who work in the industry broke down stereotypes and made me realise that we lose a huge opportunity to better the system, for consumers, farmers and the environment, when we simply typecast the meat industry as solely a heartless money-driven enterprise. The experience of meeting those people allowed me to understand the immense complexity of the system. While I don’t have to agree with all parts of what’s happening, meeting those guys allowed me to humanise the industry, and better understand my capacity to change it.

TALKING ABOUT IT AFTERWARDS ||

The two weeks following the visit was a festival of abattoir conversations. Drop into conversation that you’ve just been to an abattoir and you’ll either be barraged with questions, or receive awkward stony faced silence from people who don’t really want to know. What surprised me at first was not necessarily what people asked, but my own response to their questions and assumptions. Assumptions which I myself held until two weeks prior.

I found I had low tolerance for those who chose to eat meat whilst judging those who worked in the industry. Many of us who are isolated from production find it easy to think that those who work on an abattoir production line are cold, unemotional or more inherently capable of something that we’re not. This experience smashed that assumption out of the park , and several times I found myself defending those who work in the industry as ordinary people who have simply had a difference experience of the world than theirs.

I also found myself with a sudden desire to write about the experience, a desire matched by my terror at the idea of writing about the topic of meat from the ‘grey zone’ – the place I usually find myself somewhere in between those who advocate vegetarianism and those who advocate meat eating. Meat eating after all is a conversation which tends to polarise in the extreme.

If anything, the experience reminded me of why I believe transparency is so damn important and reinforced my belief that if we’re going to let people make their own decisions about what they eat, then we also need to let them in on the story of how their food is produced – whether it creeps them out or not – and respect their right to make informed food choices based on that accurate information.

For me, I still eat the occasional steak or minced beef lasagne, and when I do, I say a silent thank you to those I know – animal and human – that allow me to do so. For me, I feel better for knowing, albeit roughly, what the process is that got the meat to my plate. While I still sometimes question the ethics of eating animals when I have replacements to hand, I don’t question the humanity of those who work in it. Nor will I stop pushing for transparency around those things that give us the creeps.

Related: Read more in the Beefjam series so far

Back to me and my thoughts.   What a great take home message from one consumer to agriculture sector

Open and honest two way communications are the key to building and maintaining mutual trust and respect

Further Reading

Here is an interesting site set up by an Australian cattle producer for those who want to learn more about Australian Abattoirs 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Funeral parlours, sewerage systems, landfills, abattoirs – not on your bucket list?

  1. This is an intriguing post. You talk about the need to educate the public about agriculture and then feature an article about a visit to an abattoir. There’s a sense here that a slaughterhouse is not a thing likely to endear itself or its product to squeamish consumers so far removed from the reality of their meat’s source and hence a little education might help to redeem the situation. Are you sure you mean ‘educate’ and not ‘desensitise’ or ‘sweep under the carpet’?

    As you know, my view would be that it would be much better to teach people about the reality of Australia’s meat production and encourage them to think more about what exactly is going on here.

    A drive to reduce meat’s role as a consumer product, as a source of pleasure and entertainment, and to encourage a sensible balanced approach to taking life for our nutrition, makes far more sense to me.

    I am not convinced by the rather sanitised version of events told here, either. I wonder if we can be so confident that animal welfare is so carefully handled when there are not members of the public present? Activists are maligned for their trespasses and covert surveillance methods, but I suspect those are necessary to see the true state of affairs in many abattoirs.

    When high turnover and profits are the bottom line, I remain sceptical that animal welfare is all that high on the agenda. If it were, then all those activists invading legitimate premises would only have photos and videos of healthy cared for animals to show for their troubles.

    Regardless, the issue isn’t whether the industry is soulless and heartless, or even just how lovely all these processing people are. It is whether what we do to feed a consumption that is utterly rampant in our community and which is ceaselessly encouraged by an industry that IS driven by profit is even remotely reasonable or humane.

    Thea observes that when she does partake of meat, she gives thanks to the animal that allowed her to do so. Were she in the situation where she HAD to eat that lasagne or steak, I think this would be a laudable attitude indeed. When she eats meat for her pleasure as do most of us, I think it’s less so.

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