‘We need to be adult about meat, ok?’

When food author Hattie Ellis read a book about killing animals, it changed her view entirely and now she thinks it’s about time we all stop being a passive consumer.

Meat is a complex and controversial subject. The latest outcry about beefy bank notes is just the latest sign of its power and sensitivities. I’m of the ‘less-and-better’ meat camp. Recently, I’ve come to feel that those of us who eat meat can play an important role in supporting and maintaining the good farmers who produce grass-fed cattle and sheep and properly free-range chickens and pigs. Mixed farming, pasture-fed meat, and low stocking densities are a counterbalance to industrial food production of all types, and the quality farmers and butchers need informed and active support rather than being lumped in with factory farming.

Then my three step-sons turned veggie. Discussions at home sharpened my mind further. How much was I really bothering to eat the best meat possible, and was it ok in the first place? A new book, The Ethical Carnivore, My Year Killing to Eat  by journalist Louise Gray, has helped me examine my position.

Gray’s journey takes her to abattoirs, to examine the issues of catching wild fish and farming salmon, to get down-and-dirty with a roadkill warrior who wears bones in her dreads and to look at the possibilities of non-animal ‘meat’.  Strong reportage, allowing emotions as well as objective facts and sights, take us from the moment when Gray pulls the trigger on a rabbit up to the climactic chapter in which she kills a stag. What makes this book special is that it somehow manages not to be sensationalist and yet also to be entertaining, making a tough and difficult subject digestible.

As an environmental journalist, with in-depth knowledge of climate change issues, Gray takes the challenges of livestock farming and greenhouse gases seriously. For my part, I believe the carbon off-set of pasture and eco-benefits of small-scale mixed farming can be part of the answer, and this is central to the less-and-better meat argument.

If there is one underlying message in this carefully balanced yet truthful and unpreachy book, it is that we need to be adult about meat. And, as for anything, that means taking responsibility.

Now, this doesn’t include taking up a gun (or, thank goodness, going to an abattoir; Gray has done this for us and let’s you draw your own conclusions). For consumers, it’s about properly recognising that meat demands special consideration and – crucially – taking steps to source it well. What matters is that you are not a passive consumer but an active ‘hunter-gatherer’, albeit with a shopping bag, not a 2.2 rifle.

As my meat self-questioning continued, I came across The Food Assembly idea from a farmer, Simon Cutter, of Model Farm in Herefordshire. Listening him talk in detail about cattle, sheep and pigs, and their feed, life and slaughter, the nature that thrives on the land they graze and his growing understanding of the role livestock can play in eco-systems, I felt again the values of what is good in British farming. Whilst far from universal, we do have a strong tradition of high-quality livestock farming, partly because we are good at grass in this green and (sometimes) pleasant land.

To keep going, people like Simon Cutter need to sell directly. I have a good butcher’s nearby, where they provide details of their farms, sometimes buy meat online from people I know, and also shop at my local farmers’ market in London. So there are different ways to make a connection with the producer of your meat. I can see how Food Assemblies take this idea further.

Meat isn’t just another food. To know the breed, feed, farmer and more about how meat comes to your plate is another way of taking responsibility. You can take this further into the kitchen. To know the cut, to cook it well, to share the dish with friends: this is the opposite of the sad and anonymous chicken breast, isolated in the microwave and served up infront of the TV, eaten for function.

A properly engaged way of eating meat is for me a complex alternative to becoming vegetarian or vegan, and of returning meat to its proper place as a powerful food with layers of meaning and responsibility. Real meat, as The Ethical Carnivore shows, isn’t just for Christmas. To adapt the Tesco ad, every effort helps.


Hattie Ellis

Hattie Ellis

Hattie Ellis is a food writer and author of eleven books on food and drink that focus on where food comes from and the people who grow, farm, collect and produce it. Those books include: 'Planet Chicken', and 'What to Eat?'