Every time racism seems to have run out of places to hide, national debates inevitably kick aside a stone and reveal a new refuge. One of Britain’s latest tabloid apoplexies has centred on the question, posed by the EU, of whether meat should be labelled with the slaughter method of the animal involved, including dhabihah halal (Muslim) and shechita (Jewish). The Daily Mail informed its readers – The horror! The horror! – that ‘Millions are eating halal food without knowing it.’ Last year, it was the horsemeat scandal that was making The Mail’s readers choke in outrage on their morning bacon.
Australians, on average, consume about 37 kg more meat per year than our British counterparts but, like them, we tend to get worked up about ethical issues in meat production only when other countries are involved. Deep concern for animal welfare, long confined to far left and radical circles, looked for a moment to have crossed over into the mainstream when the controversy over live exports to Indonesia erupted in the wake of a stomach-churning Four Corners investigation in May 2011. The outcry was, however, short-lived and ultimately ineffective on a political level. By contrast, Australia’s problem with Japanese whaling has been sustained, culminating in the recent orgy of back patting which followed a successful legal challenge in the International Court of Justice to Japan’s JARPA II ‘research’ program.
Australians are, on the whole, comfortable with the idea that we don’t treat the animals we kill for our consumption as badly as our regional neighbours treat theirs. We have short memories. In May 2012, a review by the New South Wales Government uncovered evidence of animal cruelty in every single one of the state’s red meat abattoirs. Around the same time, the Wilberforce abattoir in the Hawkesbury Valley was temporarily shut down when footage obtained by Lateline showed workers hitting pigs with metal bars.
But it is not just visible, high profile cases of this kind that should unsettle our smug conviction that it takes a Muslim butcher or a Japanese whaler to cause an animal tremendous suffering before it is eaten. Broiler (meat) chickens bred for consumption in Australia in the usual way, kept indoors with little or no light in overcrowded cages for the duration of their radically shortened lives, are slaughtered only after having been pumped full of antibiotics, and only if they have not died from illness, thirst or starvation, or been crushed to death first.
The chicken, you might say, is not an endangered species. But nor is the minke whale, hunted by the Japanese in sustainable numbers. But, you might further object, animals killed with halal methods are not stunned first and therefore suffer more. Well, it has been shown that almost all of the animals killed in this way in Britain are subject to pre-stunning as it is widely accepted by Muslims that animal unconsciousness before slaughter does not contravene Islamic practice. And besides, how seriously can your concern for animal welfare be taken if it doesn’t seem to stretch to worrying about the suffering that goes on during, and not just at the end of, the life of the animal?
The truth is, racism and bigotry have always hidden behind smokescreens – pseudoscientific ‘race theory’, ‘colour-blind’ law and order measures – and feverish, hypocritical condemnations of food production and consumption in other countries and under different sets of religious or cultural norms is just one more. After all, if food labelling really was the issue, wouldn’t we be much angrier about the fact that meat produced in cruel factory farms is not labelled as such, or that there is no consistent or legally enforceable definition of the term ‘free range’ for eggs produced in Australia?
The bottom line is that while many Australians profess to care about how the meat on our plates gets there, we want to be able to have our lamb shank and eat it too. We are happy to criticize as long as our responsibility goes no further than a bit of casual racism, but certainly not as far as actually modifying our own eating habits in order to reduce the suffering that we know goes on as a matter of routine in our own country. That’s for the Japanese, the Jew, the Muslim and those horse-eating surrender monkeys, the French, to do. God knows, what with environmental degradation, climate change, heart disease and obesity, Australian meat eaters have already got enough on their plates.