Touch Free Meat Packaging

I began writing this in a coffee fuelled rage, muttering under my breath as I typed frantically about how ridiculous this whole situation is. My initial thoughts were: ‘if it is that terrifying to touch, and the thought of eating a dead animal really revolts you so much, perhaps it’s time to start questioning why you’re eating meat at all.’

And then I stopped, and reflected, and decided I’m going to start off in defence of millennials. I am one, after all. Where has this fear of handling raw meat come from? I believe it comes from the same place as all these discussions surrounding food, which is a total lack of awareness.

After my initial reaction of ridicule subsided and I gave it some thought, I’ve realised I really do have an understanding for the fear that is instilled in people. We can write the whole thing off and call it laughable, but with ever-dwindling food education in schools, how are we supposed to learn about all of this if our parents don’t know either? If we are unaware of what we need to be looking for when we are buying meat in the first place, the whole process becomes daunting, increasing the level of fear. Storing food, preparing food, cooking food, reheating food. All of this becomes a huge minefield to navigate.

It’s easy to laugh at, but if you think about a time you’ve been trying something new - whether it’s going on a first date or learning a new skill - it can be daunting. Add to that a sea of information online, in the media, on social platforms, along with the risk of potentially killing yourself if you get it wrong, and you begin to see why some people are simply terrified.

As Michael Pollen explains in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: ‘When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you… The cornucopia of the American supermarket has thrown us back on a bewildering food landscape where we once again have to worry that some of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us.’

And of course this isn’t just applicable to American supermarkets, or the foods that only ‘nature’ has to offer. It has become such a complex and confusing daily task for so many, and yet it’s the most vital thing we all do to keep ourselves alive and healthy (or not so healthy) every day.

The Telegraph talks of ‘millennials’…apparent inability to become reconciled to some of everyday life’s harsher truths’. What’s worrying to me about this is that since starting out on my quest to dive headfirst into food, I’ve come across numerous people that haven’t been aware of what they’re consuming. I set off on a journey of exploration last year from ‘Piglet to Plate’, to raise my very own pigs and take them to slaughter. I wanted to experience the entire process of eating meat, from start to finish. As I’ve documented this journey the shrieks and cries of ‘but you can’t eat Babe’, ‘I only eat chicken because they’re not as cute’ and ‘lamb is a baby sheep???’, only serve to reconfirm the fact that we are totally disengaged from our food systems. The ties between farm and fork have been brutally severed, and for all the glorious middle-class led talk on reconnecting to our food, and buying higher welfare, organic food, there’s still a much wider issue that needs to be addressed. Our education system is letting us down and the repercussions are vast, particularly when it comes to public health.

There is a responsibility on all of us to look after ourselves, to be better at looking after our environment, thinking more carefully about what we are consuming and generally being more conscious of the way we choose to live. Yet for big corporates, the ‘responsibility’ goes hand in hand with making money.

From what I see, everything about this move from Sainsbury’s is a step in totally the wrong direction. It is encouraging a further disconnect from what is on our plate. Encouraging more disposable plastic waste and encouraging the idea that it’s better not to handle what we are going to be putting into our bodies.

Katherine Hall, product development manager for meat, fish and poultry at Sainsbury’s ‘put fears down to an increasing awareness of bacteria that can cause serious, sometimes lethal, food poisoning.’

Campylobacter is the bacteria responsible for much of the worry when it comes to raw chicken, and it’s certainly received plenty of media coverage to add to the scaremongering. Interestingly when I tried to look at statistics for factory farmed vs. organic chickens, I found the Food Standards Agency did not perform broad scale testing. In 2015 the FSA announced their results of a year-long testing programme for campylobacter in both supermarkets and butchers. They claimed that the levels of campylobacter on UK chickens were too high, regardless of production method, and that their focus would be on reducing the levels of the bug rather than looking at farming methods. Interestingly only ‘28 skin samples were taken from organically-raised birds in a total of more than 4,000 chickens…

And yet I believe a healthier chicken is less at risk than an unhealthy chicken. Industrial production of any animal makes them far more susceptible to disease and since campylobacter is carried both in the chicken gut and faeces, it seems obvious that the more cramped and crowded the conditions for these animals the more likely this disease is to spread. To me this simply points to another way in which the food industry has a huge amount of power and control. Proving that well raised animals in organic environments could significantly reduce infection levels would be of no benefit to these mega money-makers.

Dr Tracey Jones, Director of Food Business, Compassion in World Farming, said: “Campylobacter is not just a public health issue but an animal welfare issue too. The link between bird welfare and public health cannot be ignored if we want a reduction in campylobacter.

So, as much as I do understand the genuine fear of food poisoning, I believe this is simply sticking a plaster over the situation, hoping that it will continue to encourage sales of mass-produced chicken to fear-ridden consumers. This is not the solution. What this boils down to is how disjointed our food systems are and how deeply we lack education to make our own informed choices about what we consume. I don’t believe there are many people who would visit an intense factory pig farm and be able to stomach a bacon sandwich straight after. Yet our demand for meat is too high, which has led to the mass production of animal products. Retailers and food giants want to continue to encourage the sales of factory-farmed meat, rather than addressing the root cause of the problem.

I don’t believe this is much of a step away from the well-documented chlorine washed chicken practice that occurs in the USA. Rather than focusing on animal welfare, hygiene standards and good practice, the solution is to spray chicken carcasses with chlorine to help manage pathogens such as salmonella and campylobacter.

The Sun reports that ‘Experts hope the plastic bags will encourage the snowflake generation - born after 1980 - to try and cook more at home’ – I don’t think this is the point at all. Experts hope to sell more ‘convenience food’, to keep sales of intensively farmed meat buoyed.

In an ideal world, if we could all cook our own food, anything we want, but had to prepare it all from scratch, I’m certain this would lead to far better diets. Craving a glorious bowl of ice cream? Fine, but you’ve got to make it yourself. Crispy, crunchy, fried chicken taking your fancy? Sure, but be prepared to sweat over a pan of hot fat. If our choices were limited to only the food we have prepared ourselves we wouldn’t have the choice of processed foods, we’d consider more carefully what was going into our meals and would be reaching for veggies, salads, fruits and simple meals with basic ingredients.

It’s also another fantastic marketing ploy for those who are ‘time poor’ – pre-prepared for even more convenience, reducing potentially time opening a packet and washing up any utensils the dreaded chicken may have touched. The food industry has ‘saved’ us an extra half an hour every day with prepared, processed and convenience foods, and yet we’ve all found ‘nearly two more hours in our busy lives to devote to the computer each day’ (Michael Pollen, Cooked) Time poor we are not. It is education that is lacking and convenience that is prevailing.

On top of this we’ve got the plastic pollution issue, which in environmental terms seems pretty contradictory to Sainsbury’s packaging commitment to ‘reduce our own-brand packaging by 50% compared to 2005’ and ‘work with our suppliers to reduce and optimise packaging.’ I’m not entirely sure how yet more plastic is solving this…

Many people see my project, Piglet to Plate, as a platform for championing eating meat, but this is not the point at all. I want to encourage people to consider what they’re eating, just as I have delved deeper into the world of rearing animals, visiting slaughterhouses and making more conscious decisions about what ends up on my plate, and ultimately, in my body. I simply don’t think adding more layers of plastic and more layers of detachment is a responsible or positive step in the right direction.

First published on Huffington Post here.