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February 19, 2007

Lilian Pizzichini asks, what does the way we let Bernard Matthews treat his turkeys say about us?

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Lilian Pizzichini argues that the way we turn a blind eye to what factory farming does to animals says little for our collective moral compass.

Bernard Matthews, purveyor of turkey twizzlers and turkey breasts, published a lengthy apologia in the Daily Mirror last week, exculpating himself from the charge there had been a cover-up at his Norfolk factory. The allegations surfaced because the H5N1 virus that led to the slaughter of 159,000 turkeys at his plant was "essentially identical" to that found among Hungarian geese at a processing plant he owns in Hungary.

What actually happened in the transmission of this virus from bird to bird is almost irrelevant, but the facts are suggestive: his Hungarian plant sends frozen turkeys to his Norfolk plant; the abattoir where those turkeys are killed is just 30 miles from the infected goose farm.

More to the point is that turkeys are big business for this man. His firm has a £400 million-a-year turnover and is Britain's largest poultry producer. The man himself has a £300 million personal fortune. All this after setting up a hatchery in his backyard in 1950. He has hatched, bred and killed a lot of turkeys to get there. His adverts call it "bootiful", and he is often pictured with a cartoon turkey grazing at his feet or perched on his shoulder. The hypocrisy - and anyone who buys intensively farmed meat is buying into it - is staggering.

The man, his firm and the vast majority of the British public's shopping habits are symptomatic of what Montaigne called "man's impudence with regard to the beasts". Factory-farmed animals and their mechanised slaughter are the fundamental obscenities behind the prevalence of life-threatening viruses such as bird flu and mad-cow disease. How can we hope to escape infection - whether moral or physical - from these unnatural practices?

These practices - breeding animals for meat and domesticating them for company - reveal a strange paradox in our relationship with the natural world. On the one hand we pamper animals close to us, cherish them, and lavish them with love. On the other hand, we turn a blind eye to lab monkeys and the horrors of factory farming. Consider the pig. Or rather do what everyone else does and let her remain invisible as she collapses under the weight of her unnaturally bloated body, a weight imposed by drugs and insemination, unable to move in the confines of her cramped sty, emerging only when she is ready for the slaughterer's blade, which revolves on a conveyor belt, crudely slashing at her throat several times before she is properly despatched.

We treat animals like her and Bernard Matthew's turkeys, which are kept far, far away from our view, as though they were automata. And yet, we know from experience that animals respond to pain and pleasure.

Factory farming is a grotesque expression of how and what we eat (and therefore who we are), and how we exploit and neglect animals' basic needs. It is the equivalent of 19th-century attitudes towards the working classes, who were herded together in mills and slums and, when they had outlived their usefulness, sent to the workhouse. At some point in the 1990s the French philosopher Jacques Derrida stated:

No one can deny the unprecedented proportions of this subjection of the animal.
No wonder we are breeding deadly viruses when we so exploit and ignore the needs of the animals we breed for meat. What is more, it is hypocrisy to gloss over the conditions in which they are bred. Derrida went on to say, there is an
organised disavowal
of the obscenities being enacted at the factory farm. Can we really accept the illusion that animals happily give their lives up, as Bernard's "bootiful" turkeys would suggest? There is nothing beautiful in what he does. Instead, I think, there is a sense of shame that insists on hiding behind the packaging which over-compensates for the ugliness of what is really going on.

The organised disavowal that Derrida speaks of is something to do with the fact that we know what we are doing is bad for us but we do it anyway because we are greedy. There is something very frightening about the mass consumption of meat. It is as though we have all become decadent Romans staggering between the vomitarium and banquet. And look what happened to them.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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If I can look at the other side of the paradox, the “cherishing” of animals. Is it for fear of comeback that the governments of Asia do not embark on extermination programmes to vastly reduce the number of dogs, and so greatly lessen the number of people who die from rabies, which by all accounts is a death much worse even that that from bird flu?

Secondly, the Derrida quotes. The organised disavowal. Is this meant to mean something organized by the powers-that-be? It seems to me to be more of a self-organized phenomenon like the “group intelligence” of ants or the flight of a flock of starlings.

Moreover, both quotations make sense. Can they therefore really be from Derrida? To me his name seems almost synonymous with incomprehensibility.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at February 20, 2007 08:45 PM
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