Meat of the Matter: A question of empathy

Animal rights activists have long argued that the only way people can "stomach" eating meat is by pretending that it didn't come from a living creature.

For many people in our modern, civilized world, where food comes from a supermarket cart, or in a bag someone hands us out of a drive-thru window, that's probably true. We want our food to be sanitized, sterilized, pre-mixed, pre-packaged and pre-cooked, ready-to-buy and ready-to-eat.

Even the idea that someone had to plow a field, plant seeds, provide irrigation and fertilizer, then harvest, and haul the crop to a wholesaler, who ships it to a processor, who turns it into ingredients, which are sold to manufacturers, who create food products, which are shipped and stored and eventually sold to the rest of us just isn't part of the miniscule amount of time and thought the average consumer devotes to worrying about their daily sustenance.

But activists have always leveraged the "don't eat anything with a face" meme to insist that if only people knew where their meat comes from, they'd stop consuming beef, pork, and chicken.

A new study attempted to prove that assertion.

In a study reported in Medical News Today, researchers Jonas Kunst and Sigrid M. Hohle of Oslo University in Norway, conducted experiments with more than 1,000 adults in Norway and the United States to determine whether people worry about where their meat comes from.

I could have told them in 60 seconds what the results would be, but that's not how science works.

Here are the five experiments they conducted:


Experiment No. 1: The researchers showed people a whole chicken, chopped chicken fillets, and chicken drumsticks to see what the participants associated with the chicken and how far they managed to empathize with the bird.


Experiment No. 2: Participants were shown images of a roasted pig, with and without its head on, to measure the association with the pig and feelings of "empathy."


Experiment No. 3: Participants were shown one ad for lamb chops using a living lamb, and another that didn't. The ad with the live lamb left fewer people wanting to eat lamb chops.


Experiment No. 4: A restaurant menu used the words "pig" and "cow," which the researchers said invoked "disgust."


Experiment No. 5: Using the word "harvest" instead of "slaughter" made people less empathetic, since people associate harvesting with plants, not animals.

As a summary of the project on the Medial News Today (UK) website reported, "The authors concluded that processing meat reduces people's empathy with the animal, enabling them to distance themselves from the idea that it is really an animal.

"The less recognizable it is, the less empathy and disgust people feel, and the more willing they are to eat it."

Close-ups to avoid

Presumably because thinking about where meat actually comes from is just too gory, too violent, too unpleasant for people to imagine, much less witness.

But that's true for many processes and procedures in life, including ones that are not able to be replaced by kinder, gentler alternatives.

How about watching a routine surgical operation, like a gall bladder removal, much less something serious, such as open-heart surgery? Or even a prostate exam, for that matter? Would we need a scientific experiment to determine if most people experienced "disgust" if they were made to sit and watch the entire procedure?

Yet if any of us need such a medical intervention, god forbid if it isn't handled in such a way that we never see or feel the incisions, the blood, the stitching or stapling required.

Or how about filling our cars and trucks with gas on the way to work? Do we stand there as the pump calculates the price for another tankful and consider the environmental impact of the drilling disasters, the pipeline ruptures, the tanker spills or even the costly remediation required when old fuel storage tanks deteriorate and the taxpayers get stuck with the tab for the clean-up?

Maybe someday we'll all be driving solar-powered vehicles, but for now, we don't dwell on the ecological impact of fossil fuels, because we've got errands to run and the needle's pointing to "E."

Or how about the reality of an active logging site? For most people, the image of a forest is one where the sunlight filters through the treetops, songbirds accompany the rustling of the wind and all the animals we can't see, but which we assume are present, are running around enjoying a blissful co-existence.

We don't consider the death and destruction that occurs when a timber company is busy "harvesting" — or maybe we should call it "slaughtering" — all those beautiful green trees. That's because we need all the paper that piles up in the office or the cardboard boxes in which our important online purchases are delivered, or the lumber that holds up the vaulted living room ceiling that was on the "must" list of amenities in the custom home we're so proud to have purchased.

Yes, empathy tends to diminish the further we're removed from the actual activities that provide the food, the products and the energy that power our modern lifestyles.

But we don't need to question a thousand people to determine whether we're interested in radically reversing that dynamic. ‚ñ°

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.