Given the chance, meat will kill you. We try to contain its dangers with a whole range of precautions but all it takes is for meat to be poorly butchered, inadequately cooked or left out of the fridge a little too long and it will show its true colours. The overwhelming majority of all food poisoning in the UK originates from animal produce and there are millions of cases and hundreds of deaths caused by meat every year. Nor can care in the kitchen protect us from all of meat’s risks - BSE spread unobserved for many years in the cattle population and even today we do not know how many people may have contracted CJD as a result. Globally, the epidemic may have only just begun: experts fear that countries like China may harbour the disease and be unwilling to admit to its existence for fear of the economic consequences. New diseases are constantly emerging: the killer infection E. coli 0157 only evolved in the last few decades and wasn’t identified until the 1980s, after it had already claimed human lives - something it continues to do. Meanwhile, the routine administration of antibiotics to billions of farmed animals has contributed to the emergence of so-called “superbugs” – antibiotic-resistant bacteria which are a major and growing threat to human health. Antibiotic-resistance, like bird flu, foot-and-mouth and BSE, does not respect borders: what other diseases which were created or exacerbated by human interference are out there waiting to be discovered? In a global meat and livestock marketplace, our health and welfare is at the mercy of too many business interests, too may incompetent, neglectful or indifferent governments and too much luck.
Why, in this day and age of efficient, industrial food production and pre-packaged, processed meat are millions of British people still infected with food-borne illnesses? Why is it that despite all our theoretical knowledge and expertise, illnesses fatal to human beings are allowed to develop and spread on our farms? And why is it that farmed animals themselves suffer from endemic diseases and are so often the victims of devastating epidemics like BSE and bird flu?
This report will show that animal and human diseases are utterly intertwined – that what causes half of all pig carcases to show signs of pneumonia at slaughter also leads to food poisoning; that what causes lameness and heart failure in broiler chickens is implicated in bird flu fatal to human beings; and that mastitis in dairy cows and variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease in humans are ultimately symptoms of the same fundamental problem.
As individuals and as a society, we need to look at the processes which put meat on our plates - the hidden and unpalatable reality of the lives and deaths of farmed animals and the flawed and fallible systems which make food products from their flesh. What becomes clear in conducting such an examination is that those processes do not exist to serve consumers or protect animals’ health but are designed solely to fulfil the needs of powerful business interests - interests to whom meat is simply a commodity and for whom meat production is about no more than squeezing costs and boosting profits. But while meat may be a commodity like any other to supermarkets, agribusiness and financial institutions, it is a substance like no other in its origins. What underlies this huge business edifice is still the messy, dirty and shocking business of turning walking, eating, excreting, thinking animals into cuts of meat. From farm, to abattoir, to butchery and packaging, it’s time to peel back the wrapping and expose the rot beneath.