When farmers farm, things are impacted. If you rear animals for food, or animals for anything, really, that impact includes death. There’s no escaping this fact, and there’s no point in trying to paint a picture of a farming system that doesn’t include death, be it plant or animal farming. But there are better deaths than others.
Seeing as so many people eat meat, and the deaths of those animals are within the remit of the humans charged with rearing and dispatching them, it’d be good if we could give livestock animals the quickest, most stress-free deaths possible.
Nowadays, most people are separated from death. For the first time in human history, over the last couple of hundred years, we’ve become alienated from the consequences of our eating, including the impact on animals. In times gone past, most people knew intimately of death, both human and other animal death. It was a part of our world.
Now, when most people eat meat it comes from an animal killed elsewhere, so we’re removed from the concept and reality of taking a life so we can eat, and in the process, someone else has to kill a lot of animals on our behalf. When I say a lot, I mean A LOT. I’ve been to an abattoir that killed an animal, on average, every second. That’s a lot of death at the hands of someone else, just because we want to eat meat.
If you look at things from the animals’ point of view, the least stress up to, and at the time of, death is ideal; so it’s not ideal to expose the animal to new routines, novel modes of transport, strange places, unfamiliar animals of any species, and the smell of blood in the hours before death. In other words, trucking an animal that isn’t used to being trucked, to leave them locked in a concrete-floored pen at an abattoir amongst a different herd than it's used to, where it can get a scent from the killing floor, is a bad idea. But that’s what we require of just about every animal that becomes meat on our tables.
Let’s be clear, all the good breeding ... and all the good butchery and cooking that happens after the animal is killed can all be undone by a bad death.
The very things that cause stress in livestock are part and parcel of the routine of slaughter in Australia, and let’s be clear, all the good breeding, good feeding and good animal husbandry up until the point the animal goes to the abattoir, and all the good butchery and cooking that happens after the animal is killed can all be undone by a bad death.
Until relatively recently, all animals used for meat were killed where they lived, and consumed very close to where they were killed. Farmers know this is the least stressed animal, and they still enjoy this meat, knowing the taste differs, and is better, than meat from a herd mate that has gone to the abattoir. But regulations mean that only animals from a licensed abattoir can be sold to the public, and any meat from an animal killed on the farm must stay on the farm and not be used for commercial purposes.
So why don’t we just have licensed mobile abattoirs so the animals experience the lowest stress, we get the highest quality, and we can all feel more comfortable about animal welfare? Because regulations make it nearly impossible to set up licensed mobile slaughterhouses. The burden of red tape, ostensibly about accountability and safety and animal welfare, is too great even for many a small, local abattoir in a fixed location. So many have gone broke in the last few decades. The outcome for animals is, potentially, poor.
The rules really do make it nearly impossible to become a licensed mobile abattoir. But, thankfully, not completely impossible (except in Victoria where the rules seem to stipulate that an abattoir must be a fixed place). A new mobile slaughter unit, under the brand Provenir, has recently started in southern NSW. A concept many years in development, it was first dreamt up by vet Phil Larwill and partner Deb Sonenberg with chef Christopher Howe and his partner, marketer Jayne Newgreen after they met in 2013. It’s now grown into a business employing six full time staff and it has its own farmer as CEO.
So why don’t we just have licensed mobile abattoirs so the animals experience the lowest stress, we get the highest quality, and we can all feel more comfortable about animal welfare?
The idea, simple as it was, has grown and become more involved. As the complexity of compliance bit, the idea grew from a smaller, manageable unit, to a fully kitted out semi trailer that cost over $650,000. One which can process ten cattle a day, or a larger number of sheep or goats. The animals all need to be at a single location, and the meat is sold under the Provenir name. It’s as high welfare at the slaughter end as meat can be. Meat you can buy, that is.
Provenir is the lone outpost in this work. What they do harks back to what humans have evolved to eat - though usually consumed close to the source for the last 10,000 years or so, since many groups stopped moving and kept livestock. The meat is still shipped, but one day, meat from animals raised, killed and cooked on the one site could well be back on the table of the average person in Australia. If it was such a bad idea, we’d have died out long ago. We didn’t, and while we can always improve as humans in our ability to manage farms, farmland and the farmed, I’m not sure centralised, mega-abattoirs sited a long way from the paddock are the improvement animals needed.
Locally-slaughtered meat, from a properly trained slaughterman, sourced from a farm where the animal knows no stress on the day it dies, can’t be a bad thing. The current rules make it onerous. I really do think there should be oversight of abattoirs. I do think we should care about the safety of the meat we eat, and the quick and painless death of the animals in our care. But I also think we fail pretty much every animal that has to pass through a far flung slaughterhouse because what they experience in their last hours isn’t the best we as humans can do. We can be so much better, and operations like Provenir have the potential to prove just that.
Matthew Evans explores all things farm to table in season 5 of Gourmet Farmer, 8pm Thursday nights from August 1 to October 3 on SBS and SBS On Demand. Visit the Gourmet Farmer website for recipes, the episode guide and more.