MUNICH — Slaughterhouses and farms are becoming increasingly larger in size. Tracing the origins of an animal has become next to impossible as our sources of meat are increasingly transported across Europe, and the world. This not only affects the animals but inevitably us as well.
The schnitzel on your plate was once a calf. And that's about all we know, even though an average German citizen consumes 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of meat a year in what is now a multi-billion-euro industry. But how did that calf or cow or pig actually die?
Given the way the current system works, it's far too easy to lose track of an animal's origins. Many travel a long way before ending up as meat products in supermarkets. A pig and its individual body parts can sometimes be transported across Europe before actually being processed. It can travel through as many as seven or eight countries, according to data supplied by Europe's Brussels-based consumer protection agency, the BEUC.
The raising and slaughtering of animals is a highly industrialized process. Many small- and medium-sized meat producers have become victims to the industry's consolidation over the last several decades, and have had to be shuttered. It's now common for farms to raise thousands of pigs or tens of thousands of chickens, with the animals slaughtered and carved up in giant slaughterhouses that are increasingly controlled at a continent-wide level. Quantity rather than quality is now what counts.
The laws regulating animal husbandry are made in Brussels, not Berlin. Meat-industry lobbyists have strong ties to Brussels and know how to sway the institutions to avoid more stringent regulation. The common European market enables producers to move around freely and to produce meat products where it's cheapest.
Moreover, packaging practices don't help consumers who want information about what they're eating. According to EU law, every animal must have an ear tag to facilitate the tracing of its origins, but that ear tag becomes meaningless in the end. A package of 500 grams of ground meat from a discount supermarket can contain the meat of approximately 150 pigs or 60 cows because of the large-scale grinders that can handle up to two tons of meat at a time.
A typical German citizen eats approximately four cows, four sheep, 12 geese, 37 ducks, 46 pigs, 46 turkeys and 945 chickens in his lifetime, according to the Organization for the Environment and Environmental Protection (BUND) and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Accurate tracing of an individual animal thus becomes impossible under the current system. But producers say that scaling back the production process would increase the costs, of course customers don't want to pay higher prices.
Consumers are often left with no other choice but to select products according to price, because facts that would influence the choice are otherwise elusive. The packaging often only names the slaughterhouse but not where the animal was raised or what it ate. A new law that took effect in April says that a stamp of origin is required on the packaging for pork, sheep, goat or poultry, though it hasn't made much of a difference.
But the weakest link of all in this system are the inspections. The horse meat scandals of 2013 and 2015 have demonstrated how easy it is to transform illegal meat into legal meat by simply supplying forged documentation. It's very difficult to uncover illegal meat dealings since producers and distributors are only required to practice self-regulation.
Federal offices that are responsible for inspecting the industry as a whole, including livestock owners, are permanently understaffed and can only act on a regional level. A global meat industry can hardly be policed this way.
The pressure on the industry to produce ever more meat at low prices has also led to a growing number of animal protection violations among large-scale farms. According to government reports, these incidents have doubled over the last four years.
What about political reaction to all of this? Silence. Neither Berlin nor Brussels are willing to supply the necessary funds to change the rules and regulate the industry better, even as approximately 40% of EU funds go to agricultural subsidies.
But for real change, the entire production process itself would have to be transformed to enable the producers to process and identify individual animals and diversify the range of quality. All of this should be discernible on the packaging, which would be a natural incentive for farmers to take better care of their animals so they could get a better price for better quality.
To blame consumers for the misery on farms and in slaughterhouses is not only cynical but also wrong. As long as price is the only discernible difference between available meat products, we can't be held responsible for the production chain that brings it to our shelves. We are left with no other choice, unless we stop eating meat altogether.