With bad news stories about red meat hitting the headlines, Scottish farmers are fighting back and leading the way in showing how animals should be handled.
A juicy steak is the ultimate feast for any carnivore, but with red meat making headlines as a possible cause of cancer, and growing concern about its contribution to climate change, how ethical is it to eat beef?
With their big brown eyes, it’s hard not to be soppy about cows, and you can understand why people would be vegetarian rather than eat such seemingly sweet-natured creatures. But it is equally difficult not to feel a pang of hunger at the thought of a Big Mac or a bowl of spaghetti bolognaise.
In my year as an ethical carnivore, I want to investigate how red meat reaches our plates. Is it bad for the environment, or could it be good for the countryside and your health?
To find out about cattle farming, I visited the only man in Scotland to win Farmer of the Year and Young Farmer in the same 12 months. Adrian Ivory also caused a stir when he appeared in an Asda advert for Scottish beef, and was described as the ‘Brad Pitt of British Agriculture’. He laughs it off and insists it’s not about him – it’s about his beloved cows. Adrian keeps 250 breeding charolais and simmental cattle on his farm near Blairgowrie.
The brown and white cattle may look beautiful dotted over the Valley of Strathmore, but cow flatulence has been blamed for causing more harm to the environment than cars. A UN report calculated that livestock pumps out 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases – more than the transport sector. If you want to tread more lightly on Earth, replacing your hamburger with a veggie burger occasionally will help.
However, if you also want to go on supporting Scottish farmers, there are sound environmental reasons to eat red meat. As Adrian explains, the grass acts as a carbon dioxide sink, ‘sequestering’ carbon in the roots. He points out that these hills are better suited to grass than growing grains. Raising cattle keeps the landscape alive and employs people, and it is nearly always free-range meat, unlike pork or chicken.
Adrian takes pleasure in seeing the cattle con tentedly munching grass, and giving Attaboy, his huge simmental bull, a scratch between the ears. ‘We give them as enjoyable and stress-free a life as possible,’ he says. ‘But we also realise they are here for a purpose.’
Scotland’s livestock sector has not had an easy time in recent years, but the nation’s farmers have fought back by setting up their own-label Scotch Beef brand to promote cattle raised on free-range pasture.
In terms of animal welfare, Scotland is leading the way. Adrian shows me his cattle-handling system, which was inspired by the American scientist Dr Temple Grandin, dubbed ‘the woman who thinks like cows’.
Dr Grandin, who is autistic, is a leading animal behaviour expert. She designed curved races in a semi-circle that entice cattle forward, rather than goading them from behind. Since introducing these techniques, Adrian has found it a lot easier to move his own cattle. He points out that cattle that are kept calm make for more tender beef. ‘With cattle you get back what you put in,’ he says.
The cattle must also be calm when they die. In the course of researching where meat comes from, I forced myself to visit abattoirs. The animals are kept calm in the lairage beforehand by keeping them in familiar groups and even by playing classical music.
When the time comes, the cow is led into a box and a captive bolt is applied to its head. It was over so quicklyit was hard to process that such a huge animal could be gone so fast. I felt grateful for the cow but also to the slaughtermen, who are highly trained yet gain little respect for what they do. Once the animal is killed, it is skinned, eviscerated and broken down into quarters.
Inside the huge processing plants it looks like something out of Game of Thrones, with men in chainmail aprons wielding huge knives. In terms of ethics, the most important thing is that the workers are respected for doing this tough job and that every part of the animal is used.
I joined Sascha Grierson at her farm in Perthshire to find out more about butchery and to try my hand at breaking down a beast. The Aberdeen Angus cattle here are raised on organic grass grown with no fertilisers, only manure and clover to build soil fertility.
According to some studies this results in the beef containing higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids. We start sawing through the huge animal, carefully removing the fillet steak from beneath the spine and stripping the feather blade from the shoulder. I admire the intramuscular fat – marbling through the meat – that adds flavour, while the dark colour comes from a few weeks of hanging to tenderise it. It feels like the life of the cow is being honoured by using every piece.
The World Health Organisation recently issued a statement saying that eating too much red meat is probably carcinogenic. But read it carefully and it’s clear that the risk it is still very low. Many important nutrients, such as vitamin B12, are found in red meat.
The NHS insists that eating less than 70g of red meat a day – a couple of slices of lamb or beef – is okay. What the report did make clear is that eating a lot of processed meat, such as bacon or sausages, which contain vast amounts of salt, is bad for you. It’s common sense: quality not quantity.
Meat like the steaks coming off Sascha’s cows, which have been raised and butchered with care, seems to me not only ethical, but good for you too.
(This feature was originally published in 2016)