COULD glass walled walkways at abattoirs, allowing the entire process of cattle and lamb slaughter to be seen by touring groups, be the future?
The idea is probably more shocking to the red meat industry than most parents but it’s not a big leap to make given consumer perception research is pointing to the fact it’s time we stopped sanitising the fact animals die so we can eat meat.
And it is already happening elsewhere in the world - an example presented at the Australian Lot Feeders Association BeefEx conference in Southern Queensland last week included pork producer Danish Crown, which has a long waiting list of tour groups wanting to see first hand how live pigs become pork via viewing platforms.
JBS Five Rivers in the United States have also opened feedlots to tours in a bid to interface with the general public, the conference was told.
Leading science communicator and food ethics researcher Dr Heather Bray, from Adelaide University, and Australian Farm Institute executive director Mick Keogh spoke at the conference about how the traditional approach by industry to limiting public exposure was adding to a lack of understanding among consumers about vital food production systems.
Their message about perpetuating problems via the creation of ‘delicate flowers’ was revisited time and again by other speakers, including those from overseas, and by the 400-odd delegates at the conference, most of whom strongly believe it is time to ‘get real’.
“We have to claim the narrative or we lose the space, someone else steps into it and drives the discussion,” Dr Bray said.
“Even just our word choice may need revisiting - saying processing rather than slaughter may actually be doing more harm than good.”
Dr Bray outlined findings from her latest research, which aimed to capture Australian’s understanding of the diverse issues associated with food ethics and food choices.
A key point was that for both city and country parents, creating a conscious respect for animals, and ethical treatment of them, was paramount in their discussions with children about the source of meat.
These shared values (between the industry and consumers) create opportunities for increased engagement, according to Dr Bray.
“It’s the idea of treating animals destined for food with dignity and respect while they are alive - ‘a good life and a good death’,” she said.
Dr Bray believes the perception that explicit discussion of slaughter is inappropriate in front of children may be limiting opportunities for engagement.
What was known before the research started was that children learn early that animals can be categorised in different ways, she said.
“Parents and children may feel cognitive dissonance - how you feel when you hold two differing points of view - from both caring for and consuming animals,” Dr Bray said.
“For some, the uncomfortableness of that is too much and they stop eating meat.
“Discussion of slaughter has never been rated G but there is now good evidence to suggest we need to be braver.”
Skipping from the picture of a happy animal on the farm to a shot of labelled beef cuts, with no recognition of the ‘in between’, could be creating big gaps and opening the way for inaccurate information.
Most parents surveyed for the research had already had conversations with their children about where meat comes from and 60 per cent said it was appropriate to talk about to those under five about it.
The trigger point for conversations about the origins of meat was not a trip to the local agriculture show but rather preparing and eating meals, the research showed.
Interestingly, the red meat sector “hardly came up” in responses from people who considered themselves ethical shoppers.
Discussion of farm animal welfare was almost exclusively about eggs and the chicken or pig industry.
And the idea people are buying free range eggs for animal welfare reasons was not necessarily the case, Dr Bray said.
There was a strong perception free range eggs offered better quality, nutrition and food safety.
In fact, attitudes to farm animal welfare relate to broader values that are shaped by social and cultural factors.
Urbanisation and less interaction with animal production were linked with community concern for farm animal welfare.