This report has confined its assessment of the human implications of meat consumption to the health problems arising from infection alone. It has not considered the well-documented association between a meat-based diet and illnesses such as heart disease, strokes, hypertension, diabetes and some forms of cancer. Nor has it addressed the new theory that meat is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. Even without the reinforcement provided by that information, however, this report has still documented and illustrated the simple fact that meat is a dangerous substance.

Humans have eaten dirty and diseased meat since we first scavenged for carrion and clubbed down the weakest member of the herd, hundreds of thousands of years ago. While we imagine our ancestors feasting on mighty animals, nobly killed after a brave chase, the reality is that humans - like all predators - have always taken the sick, the weak, and the vulnerable. But although humans are predators, we are not carnivores and the consumption of meat comes at a price for us. When the flesh of dead animals was just an occasional supplement to our essentially vegan diet, we could afford to pay that price - but that is no longer the case. Modern farming techniques have brought meat to our tables every day and have, at the same time, magnified its risks immeasurably. We still consume the weak and sick animals: the difference is, we consume them in huge and unnatural quantities, and it is us who made them sick in the first place.

Today, our diet is based upon the systematic exploitation of animals in their billions. It is based on principles which by their very nature make animals vulnerable and diseased. The pursuit of productivity and profit has distorted their bodies and made them dependent upon drugs and human intervention to survive the brief period we permit them to live. The drive to minimise cost has led to husbandry techniques which place them at even greater risk of disease. And all this makes sense because for an animal to become meat, all that is required is that it is worth more when it is dead than it cost to keep it alive.

It is for this reason that 100,000 chickens die on farms every day and millions of animals were shot and burned on pyres during the foot-and-mouth epidemic. It is for this reason that the overwhelming majority of the animals we consume are lame at slaughter. It is for this reason that we face the probability that BSE is still infecting human beings across the world with a fatal illness and for this reason that we risk the possibility of a single mutation in avian flu killing tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of people.

We cannot rely on the businesses which rear farmed animals to protect us from the risks of dirty meat: it is they who have largely created the problem. Nor can we rely on those who slaughter, process, butcher, prepare and sell our food to us to protect us, because they profit from our ignorance. Nor, last of all, can we rely on governments to protect us, as the evidence shows. Instead, the solution to this problem is in our hands.

Meat is the unhealthy product of an unhealthy system. Intuitively, we all know that. When we heard during the BSE crisis about cattle being fed the brains of other cattle, we knew it was wrong – even though the farmers and the retailers and the government tried to tell us it wasn’t. When we are forced to think about the factory farm, the abattoir and the processing plant, we feel revulsion. When we consider animals suffering, as they do in their millions every day so that we may eat them, we feel compassion and outrage. Indeed, often when we simply see or smell a carcase in a butcher’s window, we feel repulsion. The meat we eat is overwhelmingly likely to have come from a diseased, stressed and suffering animal and the truth is, we only continue to buy and eat it because we keep the knowledge of where it came from out of sight and out of mind. Meat has a dirty secret: it isn’t wholesome, it isn’t natural and in the final analysis, it isn’t safe. When humans started eating dirty meat, we had the luxury of ignorance: in the twenty-first century we can’t afford that luxury anymore.

Further Reading

Viva! Pig in Hell: A Viva! Report on the Pig Industry in the UK

Viva! Sentenced to Death: A Viva! Report on the Slaughter of Farmed Animals in the UK

Viva! Ducks out of Water: A Viva! Report on the UK Duck Industry

Viva! Stop Bugging Me: Meat and Food-borne Illness

Vegetarian and Vegan Foundation (2003) Fishing for facts