Ethical meat is controversial term, but it’s a necessary discussion for a meat-eating, animal-loving nation. Meat has been so cheap for so long it has become easy to forget exactly how it’s produced. Yet various food scandals – including the chlorinated chicken controversy, the horse meat scandal and supermarkets’ fake farms – are making many people consider what we are really eating.

Warning: the reality is pretty grim. You can’t un-know what we’re about to tell you. So scoff that ham sandwich quickly before you continue reading. We apologise in advance if comes straight back up.

Unethical meat from intensive farms

At the intensive end of the farming spectrum, factory farms keep tightly packed animals indoors, feeding them grains to fatten them up quickly before slaughtering them on huge production lines.

This is especially awful for chickens and pigs. Chickens typically have more space in the oven than the sheds they are reared. Pigs reared for pork have their tails clipped and their teeth filed, to stop them getting aggressive from boredom.

If let free to roam, pigs will hold their breath for around two minutes and dive for mussels. Anyone who keeps chickens as pets will tell you they run to greet you at the door if they can.

And yet this is what we do to them in the name of cheap food. This method of “farming” accounts for a staggering 70% of the 75 billion animals farmed worldwide each year, according to campaign group Compassion In World Farming.

“Farming has gone through a massive industrialisation over the last two generations,” explains Richard Smith, farm manager at Daylesford, an organic farm.

“The difference between other businesses and livestock farming is as food has become cheaper, farmers have been forced into levels of efficiency that have never been seen before – and that includes producing animals that grow at phenomenal rates.”

Unethical meat: pigs in a factory farm
Can eating meat be ethical? The harsh reality is that factory “farming” is now the reality for the majority of pigs and sheep in the UK. Credit: Farms Not Factories

Ethical meat farmed in tune with nature

At the other end of the spectrum, organic farms ensure animals have enough space to roam free, eat a grass-fed diet, and are taken to small local abattoirs for slaughter.

Regenerative agriculture is exploring how pasture-reared cows and sheep can be carbon neutral, or even carbon negative in the UK. This is a far-cry from the headlines that demonise the farming of these animals as the main contributors to global warming.

These ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ farms are slowly gaining momentum as increasingly savvy shoppers seek assurances about where their meat comes from.

“For a while, the term organic gained the reputation of a Gucci-style luxury product, but people are realising now that’s just natural food and that’s the way we should be eating,” says Jody Scheckter, who owns organic Laverstoke Park Farm.

Ethical meat: free range organic pigs
Happy as a pig in… Helen Browning’s organic fields. Credit: Martin Phelps

Does ethical meat taste better?

OK, so we’re now broadly on board with the term “ethical meat”. Experts will tell you that the better standard of farming, the better the taste of the meat produced.

As Mark Schatzker, author of “Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef” explains:  “When it comes to steak, we often say fat is flavour, but the truth is, the flavours that make a steak so delicious are dissolved in the fat. So if you feed cattle a bland, high-grain diet (think endless amounts of porridge) you can get ultra-marbled beef which is so revered. The problem is, it tastes like a glass of tap water.”

Ethically farmed pork will have depth of colour and be full of flavour, fry beautifully in its own fat and it won’t release grungy water. Some British farmers are even turning rare breed meat into charcuterie – with impressive results.

As for chicken, “when a bird is slow grown you can taste it,” says Rosie Birkett, chef and author of The Joyful Home Cook.

“There is so much flavour. When roasting a chicken it fills the house with the most incredible scent.”

Although breast is the most popular part of the chicken for majority of consumers, Birkett finds it one of the least interesting cuts in terms of flavour.

She says: “Thighs are one of my favourite parts, they have a bit more fat and are on the bone so plenty of flavour.”

Ethical meat: free-range and organic cows
Daylesford’s commitment to animal welfare goes beyond the requirements set by the UK’s highest welfare standards. Credit: Martin Morrell

Can eating meat be ethical? Going against the grain

Words like “natural” or “higher welfare” are deceiving. We wilfully turn a blind eye to the food we’re eating in restaurants, takeaways and on supermarket shelves.

In a destructive cycle, our meat addiction fuels factory farming, which in turn encourages high levels of meat consumption because it makes it so cheap to buy.

It’s a system that doesn’t benefit anyone, including the farmers who are trapped by being forced to sell meat so cheaply that sales barely cover their costs and they can’t invest in better systems.

It doesn’t benefit us, as our overconsumption of meat is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.

The environment also suffers, as intensive animal agriculture is a leading cause of human-caused climate change – more damaging than even transport. There is absolutely no respect for the animals in these systems.

How to eat meat ethically

So can eating meat ever be ethical?

To eat meat more ethically, the advice is two-fold: eat less (about 50% less, if you can) and choose better quality meat. This is naturally more expensive, so the question is would you be willing to pay more – and perhaps eat meat less frequently to balance the costs – for an animal to be treated humanely and for the food you consume to be better for your health?

We’re on a mission to find the labels and brands to look out for in the supermarket, the food box schemes that that will deliver straight to your door and the butchers and restaurants across the UK that at the very least give animals a life worth living.

As Scheckter says: “When you’re producing the best-tasting, healthiest food, animal welfare comes free.”

Main image: Matt Austin, Pipers Farm