for The Sydney Morning Herald on March 3, 2008
Americans choked on their gherkins last week at the news that authorities had ordered the recall of 65,000 tonnes of beef following the release of an undercover video taken inside a Californian slaughterhouse.
That's two quarter-pounders for every person in the United States. In other words, they'd have to go without an entire breakfast.
Meat lovers were mightily relieved to discover most of the beef had already been eaten, making the recall somewhat impractical.
The video shows workers trying to make injured or diseased cattle stand up to be slaughtered. The cattle are rammed with a forklift truck, attacked with a high-pressure hose and hit in the face with a paddle. Two of the workers face animal cruelty charges.
The meat was recalled because it is illegal in the US to kill "downer cattle" - cattle that can't stand up - for food as they might have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.
As Paul McCartney once said: "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian." He then ruined it by doing that really annoying whistling and raised-eyebrow thing.
A UK outbreak of BSE in the 1980s led to the culling of 4.4 million cattle and the deaths of 165 people. The US had its first case in 2003.
Schools in America took beef off the menu following the recall, leaving parents wondering how on earth their kids would grow up like normal folks and develop heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and cancer if they didn't eat burgers.
They might have to follow the lead of two women in Sheffield, England, who, when the UK embraced healthy school meals a year or so ago, started delivering fish and chips, pies and burgers to their kids at Rawmarsh Community School in protest at the "low-fat rubbish" the school was serving up.
"It's all down to that Jamie Oliver," said mum Sam Walker. "Well, I don't like him or what he stands for."
Australia is BSE-free. Anyone who so much as watched an episode of The Bill in the 1980s is not allowed to give blood here and moves are afoot to make people who have actually visited Britain wear a bell so they can be easily identified and have rotten fruit thrown at them.
An incident such as the US recall wouldn't happen in Australia, Dave Inall of the Cattle Council said. "All animals ... are inspected for slaughter," he told the ABC.
The RSPCA acknowledges that Australian slaughterhouses have higher standards than those in the US. It seems if you're going to be slaughtered you may as well be slaughtered here, which will come as a huge consolation to the frenzied cattle frothing at the mouth as they wait amid the stench of blood and guts to get a bolt through the brain. But the Australian meat industry needn't look so pleased with itself. The RSPCA says: "Seven million sheep, cattle and goats are exported live each year: 60,000 to a vessel for a three-month voyage to a killing house with lower standards.
"Most Australian pigs spend their whole lives in stalls in which they can take only one step.
"Most Australian laying hens spend their lives in a cage the size of an A4 piece of paper.
"Most Australian chickens raised for meat have been bred to be ready for slaughter at six to seven weeks old. Their bodies grow so quickly that their legs break under the weight."
It's a big call to expect everyone to become vegetarian. We didn't claw our way to the top of the food chain to eat lettuce, as the saying goes. But as we roam supermarket aisles and farmers' markets in search of sustenance, surely we can use our hunting and gathering instincts to track down free-range eggs and free-range pig products, at the very least.
In the words of Nobel Laureate author Isaac Bashevis Singer: "Various philosophers and religious leaders tried to convince their disciples and followers that animals are nothing more than machines without a soul, without feelings. However, anyone who has ever lived with an animal - be it a dog, a bird or even a mouse - knows that this theory is a brazen lie, invented to justify cruelty."
The RSPCA's campaign Fair Go For Farm Animals calls for an end to intensive farming. It does not oppose farming animals but asks that we treat them compassionately while they're alive and kill them quickly and humanely.
As the Prime Minister is a big fan of the fair go, it's something he might want to look at.
In other news ...
HUMAN ingenuity isn't always applied to making a profit from the suffering of our fellow creatures. A South Australian schoolboy has used his highly developed Homo sapiens brain to debunk a myth about the inferiority of animals.
Rory Stokes, 15, devised an experiment in which he put a beacon in his goldfish bowl before feeding time. The fish learnt to associate the beacon with food and swam over to it.
He then took it away for three weeks before re-introducing it. They swam straight to it, proving that fish don't have three-second memories after all. They remembered something that happened three weeks ago. So the next time someone says you have the memory of a goldfish, treat it as a compliment.