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Meat Free Week provides food for thought

From 18-24 March, thousands of Australians will give up their steaks, salmon and sausages as part of Meat Free Week (MFW), an inaugural campaign which attempts to draw attention to Australia’s factory farming issue.

Melissa Dixon and Lainie Bracher, colleagues with extensive careers in publishing and journalism, founded Meat Free Week to spread the word about the harm caused by the industrialised farming of animals for meat – which, Melissa says, causes more than 500 million creatures to suffer every year.

“We’re trying to create a conversation – increasingly there seems to be a demand for cheap meat and this has come at a cost,” she says.

Excessive meat consumption can be harmful to both the environment and our personal health, and our increasing demand for the produce has resulted in industrialised and inhumane farming practices.

Melissa also warns that the amount of meat (not only red meat, but also fish) that we eat is well above the recommended guidelines.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2012 report, Australia’s Food & Nutrition, Australians consume on average 116kg of meat each per year – almost three times as much as the world average.

The project has attracted celebrity ambassadors including host of ABC’s The Cook and The Chef Simon Bryant and former Miss Universe Laura Csortan, as well as ‘Friends’ such as Planet Ark founder Jon Dee, and fashion label Ksubi’s Dan Single, who designed a limited edition t-shirt to raise funds.

Celebrity chefs Maggie Beer, Belinda Jeffrey and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have also offered their support in droves, encouraging ‘ethical eating’ and cruelty-free farming.

“We eat far too much meat in the West,” said Fearnly-Whittingstall.

“Too much for our own health and far too much for the welfare of the many millions of animals we raise for food.”

Among the thousands of registered participants, there are a few standouts – such as nine-year-old Elyse Hovenden who became passionate about the cause after watching documentary Food, Inc., and Speedy Gonzalez, a chihuahua who is willing to give up his favourite roast chicken to “help raise money for [his] fellow animals”.

Jenna Klug, described by Lainie as one of Meat Free Week’s most passionate fundraisers, said the initiative provided the perfect opportunity to have her say about factory farming.

“I have always been an animal lover, and the more I have learned about the processes of factory farming, its atrocities and how widespread it is, the more I felt the needed to do something about it,” she says.

Funds raised by participants will be donated to Voiceless, an independent, non-profit think tank dedicated to educating Australians about the detriments of factory farming to animals, the planet and ourselves.

Senior Communications Officer for Voiceless, Elise Burgess, says that many Australians aren’t aware of the dramatic changes to farming practices over the last 40 years.

“We now eat ten times more chicken than in 1960, but the number of chicken farms in Australia has plummeted and two corporations now produce the majority of our poultry,” says Elise.

Our dramatically increased consumption is coupled with a reduction in meat producers overall, with this progressive industrialisation leading to poorer conditions for the animals themselves.

“Due to their legal status as ‘property’, [farm animals] are subjected to treatment which would be illegal against other animals such as dogs,” Elise says.

“Conditions endured by animals in factory farms are cruel and unnatural and the only way to improve this situation is to stop the suffering created by intensive farming systems.

“Whether this means becoming a vegetarian, eating less meat or simply eating meat from an animal that has not been forced to endure life in a factory farm is totally up to each individual consumer.”

Elise says that although Voiceless is not prescriptive in regards to people following a certain diet (vegetarian, vegan or otherwise), education like that provided by the Meat Free Week campaign is vital in improving public understanding about animal products and farming practices.

“It is important for consumers to be aware of the truth about where their food comes from and the processes involved in its production,” she says.

“[We] felt that people were disconnected with how meat comes to be in the supermarket and/or on their plate,” Melissa agrees.

Jenna says Meat Free Week certainly opened her eyes to the meat industry in Australia.

“I was aware [of the factory farming industry] on some level, but have always avoided watching the videos of the factories as they are just so hard to endure and your instincts tell you to stop watching,” she explains.

The haunting images have been “burned into [her] consciousness”, and influenced the way she thinks about meat consumption.

“It’s going to be hard for me to ever be okay with eating a piece of meat if I don’t know where it comes from and how it was raised.”

Although Jenna has changed her viewpoint because of Meat Free Week, the responses to the campaign have been mixed.

“Australians love their meat!” Melissa says.

“[But we believe] we have taken a moderate approach in that we respect people’s choice to eat meat.”

“As it’s such a complex issue, it has also attracted a lot of emotional responses as well as informed and rational conversations about meat production and consumption,” she says.

Unfortunately some farmers and representatives of the meat industry have reacted negatively.

“Their general feedback is that Meat Free Week is threatening their livelihood, which is surprising to us as we’re just asking people to consider eating less meat, rather than permanently eliminating it.

“[But] we’ve also had some very positive feedback from some who work in the industry or those who have taken the time to consider our message,” Melisssa says.

Author Paddy O’Reilly (@paddy_oreilly) responded to the campaign’s critics via Twitter, stating:

Dear anti #meatfreeweek people. It’s about sustainable animal farming without cruelty, not crazy people trying to snatch your hamburger.

Jenna hopes that Meat Free Week will encourage others to take responsibility for the animal products they consume, and calls for Australians to support the initiative.

“I believe if people are educated, they will feel compelled to make more ethical decisions.

“Sign up to MFW, or sponsor someone.

“But most importantly, read about factory farming, watch video clips and movies and educate yourself,” she says.

“You’ll shop smarter, you’ll do the planet a favour and your body will be healthier.”

“The only way to lift the veil of secrecy that protects factory farming is to educate ourselves about the realities of intensive food production,” says Elise.

“The good news is that the animal protection movement is gaining momentum as the next great social justice movement and more Australians are becoming aware of the conditions endured by animals raised for their meat.”

The Meat Free Week movement is also gaining momentum in the political sphere, with a motion introduced by Greens NSW MP and Health spokesperson John Kaye to the Upper House on 15 March.

The motion indicated the party’s support for the campaign, and urged the community to get involved.

“Meat Free Week shines a much needed spotlight on the role of meat in our diets and the impact it is having on individual health,” Dr Kaye says.

“Australians have the second highest consumption levels of meat in the world [and] this is having devastating impacts on our health, the environment and for the millions of animals raised in factory farms for slaughter each year.

“All members of the Legislative Council are invited to consider the overwhelming evidence linking higher meat consumption with increased rates of disease and mortality and support the Greens motion endorsing Meat Free Week when it comes before parliament next Wednesday.”

Although political support is obviously another matter, the real push for change can sometimes come from a community level.

“Never underestimate the power of consumers to bring about change,” Melissa says.

The support Jenna has received has exceeded her expectations, and enabled her to spread the word about Meat Free Week to others.

“My goal was to raise $500 and I’ve exceeded that which is great, but even more rewarding for me has been being able to educate friends and family,” she says.

“So many people are so unaware of these issues, and many were appalled to discover the facts.

“I’ve even seen some start to make smarter purchasing decisions which is fantastic.”

Lainie states the mission of Meat Free Week simply:

“Ultimately, we hope Meat Free Week encourages rational conversation around meat production and consumption – and that this conversation leads to active inquiry, education and better choices when choosing to eat meat.”

Published on On The Record.

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