Australia is a nation of meat-eaters. Our identities are deeply tied to our pastoral history: we have the highest rates of meat consumption in the world. But with increasing urbanisation, Australians are becoming more disconnected from how their food, including meat, is produced.
A survey undertaken for the Primary Industries Education Foundation of Australia reported that 75% of year six children thought cotton socks were an animal product. Although there are programs to teach children how vegetables grow, there aren’t too many (at least at primary school level) that involve raising an animal for food.
Our research group has been investigating a range of questions related to Australians’ understandings of “ethical” food, including community attitudes to farm animal welfare. We wondered how children learned where meat came from, and whether parents felt comfortable having this discussion with them.
In many settings in Australia, discussion of slaughter is taboo, with the exception of families that engage in farming or hunting. In many other cultural contexts, such as in Asia and the Middle East, slaughter is more visible. It is part of everyday life and major religious festivals.
Our research, recently published in the journal Appetite, involved a survey of 225 primary carers of children from households where meat was consumed. (It included parents who were vegetarians so long as their children ate some meat.)
Most of the parents – almost all of whom had talked with their children about meat production – had done so when the children were five or under. Most conversations about meat production occurred when preparing or eating meals.
Parents felt it was important for children to know where their food comes from, preferably from an early age. In fact, they reported that the older kids were when told where meat comes from, the more likely they were to become upset.
Most (64%) of the carers in our study were women, and there were some differences in the way that women and men thought about meat eating.
Women were more likely to agree that children should make conscious decisions about eating meat. They were more likely to be understanding if their children stopped eating meat and more likely than men to feel conflicted about eating meat themselves.
Men were more likely to think that children should eat what is served to them without question, and that meat should be eaten as part of a healthy diet.
We also found that people who lived in cities seemed to find these conversations about food animals and meat more difficult than people in rural areas. City dwellers were more likely to express a preference for avoiding these conversations and feel they lacked some of the necessary knowledge to talk about meat production.
Families who lived outside of the cities didn’t perceive these conversations as difficult or to be avoided and thought that children should be shown aspects of animal production for food.
Most of the participants shared stories of how their children learned about the origins of meat. For rural children it was part of their day-to-day lives, with some being directly involved in raising farm animals for food.
Others (particularly city dwellers) described instances where children had become upset and chose not to eat meat for a period of time. One of the key themes that both rural and urban parents thought needed to be communicated was a sense of respect: treating animals well on farms, dispatching them humanely, and recognising the effort that goes into producing meat.
The gendered aspects of our findings are interesting, although not surprising, as the links with meat and masculinity have been well documented. Culturally, women have stronger links than men to meat avoidance and concern with animal welfare.
The attitudes expressed by rural people in our study may be directly linked to their roles in animal production for some participants, but may also reflect other rural values.
Our research highlights that the home environment is where children start to learn about food production, including meat, and that parents talk to children about meat in ways that reflect their own values about meat production.
Our research team (which itself holds diverse views on meat eating) was struck by the importance of the value of respect to most study respondents. It’s an encouraging starting point for a broader conversation about the future of ethical, sustainable and affordable food.
This is the third article in our ongoing series on food and culture Tastes of a Nation. Previous instalments ask: when did we get so obsessed with food? And can we be Australian without eating indigenous food?
Do you have a story idea for this series? If so, please contact Madeleine De Gabriele.