Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Latest round in meat war hits the streets

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Whether you eat meat or not, the ad campaign running on Winnipeg's transit service this month is bound to give you pause.

The ads, part of a national campaign by the vegetarian lobbyists Mercy for Animals, portray household pets alongside baby livestock asking the question "Why love one but eat the other?"

Aside from a few gaps in basic knowledge -- for example, cows aren't castrated, bulls are --the campaign masterfully tarnishes the animal industry with an ugly mix of truths and half-truths.

It's the latest example of how food has been transformed from what we eat into what we believe. It used to be that food meant the difference between being hungry or not. For much of the world, it still does.

These days, meat politics are polarized and visceral. Some of what anti-meat campaigners say is accurate. Pregnant sows really are kept in narrow crates. Other claims are not, such as the suggestion dairy cows are left to suffer with mastitis,

But separating the facts from fiction becomes difficult.

Are sow crates cruel? Perhaps, but some of the alternatives might be worse. The hog industry would have the public believe if pregnant sows were given some freedom, savage fighting would result. There are even photos making the rounds showing how mean pigs can be to each other.

It's the truth -- if the producer feeds them as a group, if the sow groups are constantly mixed up with new members, or if conditions are crowded. It certainly happened in the past, which is one of the reasons the industry turned to sow stalls. Pigs are a herd animal, so they sort themselves out every time the hierarchy is disturbed.

However, research shows maintaining stable groupings, giving the sows adequate space, straw bedding, different genetics and protected feeding stations so a sow can eat her supper without being pestered by other hogs, goes a long way toward peace in the pigpen. There is a way forward on this one that doesn't go back.

But just like in politics, it's not so much about what is true, as what the public can be persuaded to believe.

Livestock producers see their livelihoods threatened by what they view as meddling by city people with too much time on their hands. Early on in these meat wars, they made mistakes from which they never fully recovered.

They assumed there was a homogeneous entity called The Consumer that cared about production efficiency. Consumers care about price, but they don't necessarily equate the two.

Producers thought if they ignored the activists, they would eventually go away. They didn't. Then they tried using logic, which doesn't work.

Now producer groups spend resources trying to win the credibility contest while conceding to change. It's particularly galling knowing their concessions won't win them any new customers -- just prevent them from losing more.

There are rare exceptions, such as the recent confession by one of North America's most famous vegans, Alexandra Jamieson. She has reverted to eating animal protein. Her coming out left her vilified and "unfriended" by many of her former fans.

Make no mistake. This is an election of sorts. We're voting every time we fill our grocery carts.

Laura Rance can be reached at: laura@fbcpublishing.com

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2013 B9

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