I was a vegetarian for 15 years because of concerns over animal welfare and my inability to ethically source meat as a teenager. Having lost an argument over dairy products (I was being inconsistent), I decided to take up ethically sourcing meat and dairy products and became mostly vegetarian. I often explain my position to people and often people find my position appealing, they then ask ‘Is it easy?’ to which the answer is sadly ‘no’. Ethically sourced meat is basically meat from animals that have been reared in a traditional manner, where animals can express natural behaviours, generally grazing outside during the warmer months.
Ethically sourcing meat isn’t easy for two reasons. Firstly there is a lack of a clear labelling system. In the UK food labeling is a bewildering array of labels and standards, whether publically regulated (state level) or independently regulated (where you have to trust the labeling body). The second issue is a lack of direct connection between the consumer and the farmer, it is difficult as an individual consumer to monitor welfare levels at each farm, hence the need for labeling). Basically it all comes down to trusting the source
So, my solution has been to take a precautionary principle, sources of meat are investigated and then personally approved. Then the products have to pass a more important second test, this is a visual test of the meat itself, as free range meat looks and tastes differently to intensively produced meat. This second test involves identifying the quality of the meat by the presence of marbling (deposits of fat in the muscle which is indicative of an active life) and colour (active muscles are generally a darker hue), these qualities are then confirmed by the taste test.
My system is actually fairly inefficient, as I have to invest time and effort when sourcing meat products. Indeed, occasionally i consider going vegan for a simpler life! Really a proper labeling system would be more efficient, instead of every individual consumer conducting investigations, a single body can do the job for everyone, which would be much more economically efficient.
The system sometimes fails due to geography. In rural areas it works fairly easily, as relationships are built up with suppliers such as local butchers and other independent stores, who can state where and how the meat was reared and it is possible to check up on claims, so trust is established. In urban areas it gets a lot more complicated, as any followers i may have are aware, I was living recently in an urban area of Southern England, which had no local butcher shops and only supermarkets were available within convenient shopping distance for a weekly shop. what happened was that my meat consumption dropped to barely one meat containing meal a week. The issue was that the supermarkets only had a very limited range of ethically sourced meat and generally charged a very high premium for it. I could have ordered meat online, but being available for delivery of a refrigerated product was overly burdensome.
What it is is that the British public do tend to want ethically sourced meat, but are constrained from doing so, by the post-industrial way our society is organised. Since free-range eggs have been labelled and regulated consumption has increased from 2% to over 50%, the demand is there. Economic efficiencies of scale enable urban living and diversity of industry, yet with meat the industry has developed without popular consent for welfare standards and to have industrial efficiency in meat production and distribution requires labelling. Sadly the state, the UK and EU governments have failed to develop a comprehensive food labelling system that the consumer can trust. This lack of economies of scale hits farmers, where farmers do produce a high welfare, sustainable and tasty product, as individual small businesses, it is very difficult to get their produce to the the market for higher quality produce. Local farmers to me, sell on their high quality product in the same way as producers of low quality produce, because once the animals are sold at market, the high quality status is lost into the vast pool of meat that goes off for export to England and beyond.
Another question to address is will a comprehensive labeling system ever come about? There is a desire from politicians in both the Welsh, UK and EU government to implement a system. However, there are hurdles in place caused by international trade laws and there is potential under the proposed TTIP trade treaty for this process to become more difficult. Far from promoting free trade, these international laws stifle free trade by blocking regulatory systems, as states cannot breach these laws by implementing ‘non-tariff barriers’, by which having a local labeling system is difficult as it favours local businesses over foreign ones who can’t readily buy into the labeling system. Potentially TTIP will require a common labeling system to cover all of the EU and all of North America, it may take a very long time, if ever to reach a consensual agreement.
So, potentially, this leaves the consumer to regulate themselves, develop individual relationships with producers. This seems to be a failure of laissez-faire capitalism, where once economies of scale were thought to come from increased international trade, these economies are actually prevented by the system itself as consumers increasingly resort to local level solutions, rather than industrial solutions. It seems that no longer can individuals trust their local state democratic apparatus to regulate markets and thus free up there time to be more economically productive, there is no longer perhaps a ‘once size fits all’ approach, everyone has to do everything themselves, it does increasingly feel like it!