We need to savour our bacon – and here’s how
22 February 2008
It has become a difficult business being a conscientious consumer. In the everyday matter of buying food, for example, there is the ecological cost of transporting goods to consider, the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process, the environmental price-tag on ingredients, not to mention humanitarian, political and animal welfare issues surrounding its production. Never has feeding yourself been quite so freighted with complication and guilt.
But there is one important source of food where, at least for all carnivores, the ethics are straightforward. If a shopper is the slightest bit concerned about the environment, the landscape, the morality of food production, jobs and the state of the economy, he or she has a simple decision to make. Support the British pig. Impose a private boycott on any imported bacon, sausages or pork.
It is a bizarre state of affairs but the country whose favourite cooked meat is bacon and for whom the banger has become part of its national identity is on the point of allowing its pig-farming industry to disappear. Last week, two companies, representing two per cent of the industry, went out of business. Producers claim that they are currently losing £26 on every pig. Unless the current price of 110p a kilo rises to 140p a kilo, the British pork business is finished.
The crisis has been brewing for some time and is largely a consequence of our own buying habits. British pigs are reared more humanely, and therefore more expensively, than in other countries. With the rise of supermarkets and increasingly feverish competition over which chain could sell the cheapest food, foreign pork products, usually from Denmark or The Netherlands, were preferred to those produced in Britain.
Five years ago it was possible to walk down the aisle of one of the larger supermarkets in East Anglia – in the heart of pig-farming country, incidentally – and find not a single item of packaged bacon or sausage that was produced in the United Kingdom. The figures tell their own story. In 1998, 1.16 million tonnes of pork and bacon was produced in Britain, compared to 422,000 tonnes which were imported. Last year, home production had dropped by a third, while imported pork had almost doubled.
A bad situation was exacerbated by the foot-and-mouth outbreak and, more recently, the rocketing increase in the price of wheat, caused almost entirely by global investment in crops for biofuel rather than food.
But the consumer is largely to blame. If there were ever to be a symbol of the hypocrisy and confusion which surround the ethics of food production and consumption, it should be the poor old British porker. Retailers and advertisers eagerly and cynically cash in on the niggling conscience of customers, redesigning their logos and campaigns to be full of trees and greenery and sweet little wind turbines, turning gently in the breeze, but the one product which deserves to be promoted as an environmental success story, the British pig, is ignored.
It has a serious image problem, and image, it turns out, is more important than reality. Many shoppers, however ethical they happen to be, would really prefer not to be reminded of the direct connection between their bangers and mash or bacon sandwich on their plate and the pink, snuffling animal lying contentedly in the mud that it had once been.
In fact, the free-range pig is something of a marketing nightmare. It is too dirty, too obviously an animal, to be given the green-washing treatment. Many people will, in their secret hearts, prefer the European way of producing pork. The advantage of an incarcerated pig is that it is out of sight until, as if by magic, slices of it appear, neatly arranged, in a plastic packet. As is often the case, animal welfare comes a bad second to human comfort.
Admittedly, supermarkets are beginning to realise that an increasing number of their customers are concerned about animal welfare. Waitrose, which is rather cunningly orchestrating a campaign on behalf of British bacon, has committed to buying 95 per cent of its pork from British farmers. Others will follow, playing the now popular game of environmental me-tooism.
In the end, the fate of the British pig will be with shoppers. If a new ethical approach is to be more than dinner-party chat, then we should all be taking a more open-eyed, sceptical approach to the way animals are reared and killed for food production. The best and easiest place to start is with the English pig.
Under normal circumstances, the campaign that is being launched this week would set alarm bells ringing. Farmers complaining of poverty, supermarkets promoting their ethical purity, the inevitable celebrity chefs telling us what we should buy and eat: it all seems distinctly unpromising. But on this occasion, for the sake of the good old British pig, the campaign is well worth supporting.