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Guilty pleasures: eating the dirty burger

Better product sustainability information can nudge consumers to enjoy meat with a clean conscience, says Professor Dominic Moran.

Can we talk about meat? Is it just me or is anyone else getting more shame-faced when ordering it in a restaurant – increasingly rare lately for more reasons than one – or putting it into their supermarket trolley? Is there a meat equivalent of ‘flygskam’ - flight shaming? If so, who feels it and why?

Own your own feelings you might say, and I really want to, if only they weren’t so conflicted.  As an economist, I know this is symptomatic of the struggle to reconcile the competing and often contradictory claims on my wellbeing. So closing down my question doesn’t help, especially if my feelings or preferences are influenced by the fate of the whole planet, on which you also happen to live.

To be clear and declaring an interest, I eat meat. I also possibly know way too much about this subject, and may be over-thinking it as a part of a paper I’m writing on the changing demand for meat, to be published in the journal Animal. But whichever way I look at it, we do have to think about it longer term.  What can we envisage for meat eating, and by extension, the footprint of the trillion dollar industry (for it is mostly dollar-denominated) behind it?  

Livestock production accounts for around a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions depending on how these are counted, most of which are unregulated compared with say, the emissions from the energy sector or other energy-intensive manufacturing industries. If we add the latent effects of excessive antibiotic use, water consumption, habitat destruction and yes, potential pandemics, then the picture doesn’t look good for the livestock sector. This is all before we consider the potential negative health consequences of actually eating meat.

Internal conflict

Burgers
Whether to eat meat can be a challenging decision.

As a researcher focused on agriculture and knowing all this I am further conflicted. I like seeing cows in the countryside and that preference plus all my childhood dairy cow folklore have to count for something.  I also get that many livelihoods in poor countries depend on animals. I know that science can mitigate the effect of some of these things, with for example genetically improved animals and better feeds, all destined to assuage my meat-eating guilt. But that still feels a bit like developing better ways to put out fires that I keep deliberately starting. Or in the case of the greenhouse gases analogy, I’m just turning down the tap on a bath that is already about to overflow.  So am I a pyromaniac or am I effectively advocating for the deindustrialisation of animal agriculture?  

All this came into sharper focus when I recently happened on a small unprepossessing shop front during a recent post-confinement walk in my neighbourhood. Its blacked-out windows were eye catching, and more so the small white signage words “Dirty” and “Waygu”; an intriguing juxtaposition; the second sparking my interest as a high quality beef from a Japanese cattle breed that are typically inordinately pampered for their mottled, tasty and expensive meat. Closer inspection revealed a small inset menu detailing a choice of fancy burgers and a requirement to order online for delivery. Dirty, if you hadn’t already guessed, referred to burger preparation. The more garnish you pile on for taste, the messier and more calorie-laden it gets (dirty is a personal choice). As far as I could tell Dirty didn’t include a choice of meat substitutes. When it comes to burgers, indecency apparently has limits.

But this isn’t a restaurant review and Google will show you what I saw (it’s the black one). The understated down-at-heel nature of the outlet could be part of the generational appeal.  Though times are a -changing, it’s still apparently safe for a brand of (male?) hipster to eat meat. But intentional or otherwise, the anonymous character of the joint put me in mind of a sex shop; the furtive guilt, the dowdy colour and the faint thrill of actually going inside and partaking in something well, dirty.  Were it not for Covid I expect I might have been able to order inside. But pandemic protocol means that I can pay online for goods that come in plain paper wrapping.  My anonymity and reputation intact as the consequences of my choice are spirited away to a nebulous burger-sphere where for many, the true costs don’t count.    

But even the Covid restriction got me thinking by association. The pandemic has shone a light on possible origins of the virus and provoked soul-searching about our dependence on food supply chains that can run perilously close to the edge of wild nature and all the threats this entails for our complacent view of domestication. Some suggest that there is worse than Covid waiting to jump the species boundary. Another reason to be conflicted.  

Luxury option

So what’s the average consumer to do?  Think of meat as a luxury, a treat, and perhaps even a guilty pleasure. Think of it as a high-class niche in which those of us who still crave can choose to partake at a price that reflects some of the consequences. But all things considered I doubt it will be something that many of us will do conspicuously. Maybe the Dirty Waygu is the avant-garde shape of things to come.  

Reader, I later ordered and ate that burger (alone).  At £12 for the ‘Dirty Hot Mess’ (gluten-free option available) I can console myself that I may just have been covering some of the true costs of production - most likely the cow pampering sessions and not the other external costs about which we are now more aware.  Did I feel guilty (let’s call it BurgershameTM)? A little, but that’s a woke response, right?  With my supposedly superior insights I had no excuse not to, and ignorance is no defence when the planet is melting.  

I aim to change my behaviour to practice what I preach. But like most people I could use a few nudges to help me. If I can choose and pay for my green (low carbon) energy supplier, why can’t I have similar cues to help me with what I put in my mouth? If we can take out the gluten, what about the other bad stuff?  And here’s the rub. The market isn’t working to allow me to express those preferences, and so the bad practices remain the norm. Everyone in the supply chain can blame everyone else for the way things are. There are ways out of this conundrum, but that’s for another day. Until then, let this be our dirty little secret.  As I said, I may just be over-thinking this.

Image credit: Niklas Rhose on Unsplash