[From the Archives] Meat Consumption and Food Traceability

Dennis Soron’s “Meat Consumption and Food Traceability” first appeared in our combined Issue 73-74. Since the publication of the essay in 2010, interest in the origins of food has only increased: controversies over pink slime in our hamburgers and cochineal dye in popular beverages have dominated news cycles in recent weeks.  In this essay, Soron argues that now is the time to start tracing where the meat we eat comes from.

In the fall of 2007, the Canadian magazine Maclean’s published a story about Farmer Direct, a Saskatchewan-based organic grain and cattle co-op that had recently developed a program to enable consumers to access detailed information about the origins of their meat, including the animal’s name, breed, and diet, the place and date of slaughter, and facts about the farms involved in the production process (Cuthbert). While acknowledging that this effort to foster a more transparent relationship between consumers, farmers, and food animals was reflective of mounting contemporary anxieties surrounding the safety and integrity of animal products, the article perhaps overplayed the quirkiness of Farmer Direct’s initiative. There are a number of parallel cases. Years earlier, for instance, public concern over the “Mad Cow” crisis prompted some Japanese supermarkets to begin placing computer terminals in their meat departments, allowing customers to use the ID numbers affixed to steak packages to call up a scanned copy of the cow’s health test results and access comprehensive documentation of its entire history. In the United States, large producers of organic meats such as Niman Ranch and Heritage Foods USA have also long employed similar tracking systems. In line with its formal commitment to the principle of traceability, the latter organization has created a website with interactive maps providing photographs and descriptions of sourced ranches across the country, profiles of farm families, details about abattoir facilities and slaughter practices, and even an online “turkey cam” showing the everyday life of free-range turkeys at Good Shepherd Ranch. This innovative approach has been taken to new heights by a variety of online “Moo Tube” sites that grant urban consumers glimpses into the lives of dairy and beef cattle. Particularly notable is the UK-based mymootube.com, which highlights the environmental and animal welfare commitments of its affiliated dairy producers by offering links to lavishly shot, stirringly scored videos of cows chewing their cud and lolling contentedly in vernal pastures, and to “wireless cow-cams” attached to the animals themselves.

Though marginal in some ways, such cases point to broader trends in the advanced capitalist world, where public anxieties surrounding the anonymous origins and pernicious implications of meat and other animal commodities have fed appeals for improved food traceability. In a narrow technical sense, traceability pertains to a variety of risk-management strategies in the food industry that enable it to identify and isolate the source of unsafe or tainted foodstuffs in order to protect consumers, reduce liability, and minimize the economic impact of product recalls. In a more ecumenical sense, as Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg have argued, traceability has also become a buzzword in the food industry designating measures for “shortening the distance between the farmer and the eater” and enhancing the consumer’s ability to “know where a food item came from, who produced it, what chemicals were sprayed on it, and any number of other characteristics that reach beyond traditional concerns of taste, price and packaging” (81). Increasingly, efforts to establish a reassuring psychological and cognitive bridge between the flesh people eat and its source pose a strategic challenge to conventional animal agribusiness, which has historically benefited from widespread public ignorance about its everyday operations. They also pose some provocative new questions for progressive animal activists and scholars, who have often focused on the systematic distancing of meat from its origins in urban-industrial society, seeking to raise consumers’ consciousness by rending the veil that blinds them to the hidden reality of animal suffering and exploitation.

To read more of “Meat Consumption and Food Traceability,” visit our archives for Issues 73-74. You do not need a subscription to access the full essay. 

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