food / travel

The Importance And Impossibility Of Tracing Your Meat

The Importance And Impossibility Of Tracing Your Meat
Silvia Liebrich


MUNICH â€" Slaughterhouses and farms are becoming increasingly larger in size. Tracing the origins of an animal has become next to impossible as our sources of meat are increasingly transported across Europe, and the world. This not only affects the animals but inevitably us as well.

The schnitzel on your plate was once a calf. And that's about all we know, even though an average German citizen consumes 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of meat a year in what is now a multi-billion-euro industry. But how did that calf or cow or pig actually die?

Given the way the current system works, it's far too easy to lose track of an animal's origins. Many travel a long way before ending up as meat products in supermarkets. A pig and its individual body parts can sometimes be transported across Europe before actually being processed. It can travel through as many as seven or eight countries, according to data supplied by Europe's Brussels-based consumer protection agency, the BEUC.

The raising and slaughtering of animals is a highly industrialized process. Many small- and medium-sized meat producers have become victims to the industry's consolidation over the last several decades, and have had to be shuttered. It's now common for farms to raise thousands of pigs or tens of thousands of chickens, with the animals slaughtered and carved up in giant slaughterhouses that are increasingly controlled at a continent-wide level. Quantity rather than quality is now what counts.

The laws regulating animal husbandry are made in Brussels, not Berlin. Meat-industry lobbyists have strong ties to Brussels and know how to sway the institutions to avoid more stringent regulation. The common European market enables producers to move around freely and to produce meat products where it's cheapest.

Moreover, packaging practices don't help consumers who want information about what they're eating. According to EU law, every animal must have an ear tag to facilitate the tracing of its origins, but that ear tag becomes meaningless in the end. A package of 500 grams of ground meat from a discount supermarket can contain the meat of approximately 150 pigs or 60 cows because of the large-scale grinders that can handle up to two tons of meat at a time.

A typical German citizen eats approximately four cows, four sheep, 12 geese, 37 ducks, 46 pigs, 46 turkeys and 945 chickens in his lifetime, according to the Organization for the Environment and Environmental Protection (BUND) and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Accurate tracing of an individual animal thus becomes impossible under the current system. But producers say that scaling back the production process would increase the costs, of course customers don't want to pay higher prices.

Weakest link

Consumers are often left with no other choice but to select products according to price, because facts that would influence the choice are otherwise elusive. The packaging often only names the slaughterhouse but not where the animal was raised or what it ate. A new law that took effect in April says that a stamp of origin is required on the packaging for pork, sheep, goat or poultry, though it hasn't made much of a difference.

But the weakest link of all in this system are the inspections. The horse meat scandals of 2013 and 2015 have demonstrated how easy it is to transform illegal meat into legal meat by simply supplying forged documentation. It's very difficult to uncover illegal meat dealings since producers and distributors are only required to practice self-regulation.

Federal offices that are responsible for inspecting the industry as a whole, including livestock owners, are permanently understaffed and can only act on a regional level. A global meat industry can hardly be policed this way.

The pressure on the industry to produce ever more meat at low prices has also led to a growing number of animal protection violations among large-scale farms. According to government reports, these incidents have doubled over the last four years.

What about political reaction to all of this? Silence. Neither Berlin nor Brussels are willing to supply the necessary funds to change the rules and regulate the industry better, even as approximately 40% of EU funds go to agricultural subsidies.

But for real change, the entire production process itself would have to be transformed to enable the producers to process and identify individual animals and diversify the range of quality. All of this should be discernible on the packaging, which would be a natural incentive for farmers to take better care of their animals so they could get a better price for better quality.

To blame consumers for the misery on farms and in slaughterhouses is not only cynical but also wrong. As long as price is the only discernible difference between available meat products, we can't be held responsible for the production chain that brings it to our shelves. We are left with no other choice, unless we stop eating meat altogether.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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