Who ever thought that the rotund, avuncular turkey-farmer made famous by those Eighties TV ads in which he said ‘bootiful’ would come to be seen as a bloodthirsty genocidaire?
Since bird flu was discovered at one of Bernard Matthews’ turkey farms in Suffolk, England, at the end of last week, the maestro of meat has been accused of a variety of sins. He’s been lambasted for keeping birds in horrible overcrowded conditions and for producing cheap meat for a quick buck. He may have survived the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001, continual animal rights protests, criticisms from the anti-GM lobby and the anger of Jamie Oliver (who declared war on Matthews’ Turkey Twizzler as part of his school dinners campaign), but many doubt whether Matthews will survive this latest setback. ‘Is Bernard Matthews stuffed?’ asked one newspaper headline.
Reading some of the coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that Matthews is running concentration camps out in Suffolk and Norfolk. One animal rights activist talks about the ‘bird flu genocide’ at Matthews’ farm, wondering why there has not been a ‘blink of moral repulsion’ about the slaughter of ‘160,000 pain-feeling individuals’ (by which he means the turkeys). The charity Animal Aid issued a press release condemning the ‘suffering endured by the 160,000 birds who have been shoved intro crates and gassed to death’. In the mainstream media the knives are out for Matthews’ breed of intensive farming. On the Guardian website, John Farndon, author of Bird Flu: Everything You Need to Know, claimed that factory farming might produce cheap meat but it also produces disease and destruction: ‘[F]actory farms could well become the incubators for the version of the bird flu virus that spreads so easily to humans that brings a pandemic. Then cheap chicken soup will provide scant comfort.’
Whatever we might think of Bernard Matthews – a capitalist who constantly intensifies production, even if it means cutting corners? Never! – it seems clear that many are using his bird flu crisis as a cover for attacking modern farming methods. You almost get the impression that they were waiting with bated breath for something like this to happen, and have greeted its arrival with an element of glee. (‘So it’s happened. Britain’s poultry industry has finally been struck by the H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus…’, begins one article.)
It’s worth remembering two things. Firstly, the bird flu outbreak in Suffolk was speedily brought under control, and there is little risk that this ‘factory farm disease’ will spread to and kill thousands of humans, as the modern farm-bashers claim. Yes it was the H5N1 strain that can infect humans which was found in Suffolk. Yet the 164 people in the developing world who have contracted and succumbed to this disease lived in very close quarters with diseased birds, even coming into contact with their faeces and blood. Thanks in no small part to modern farming methods, the vast majority of people in Britain don’t have to worry about being woken up in the morning by the peck of a diseased chicken. There are more than a few Vietnamese farmers who would most likely prefer to work in a clean and safe farming factory for a half-decent wage, than to slog it out on a small farm for a pittance while running the risk of contracting a nasty disease.
And secondly, life as we know it would be pretty near impossible without modern farming. These intensive methods produce cheap, safe and generally good-quality food – milk, eggs, meat – for millions of people every day. Such a mammoth task could never be carried out by local organic farmers. Animal diseases are actually rarer today than they were when farming was smaller-scale and more spread out. For example, foot-and-mouth disease was quite common in British farms up to and including the big outbreak in 1967. After that it became an increasingly rare occurrence thanks to intensive farming methods, which separated pigs from other livestock (pigs spread the disease far more quickly and over greater distances than other farm animals); and bigger modern farms also meant that animals could be vaccinated more easily and treated more quickly when disease did strike. The big foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 was the first major reoccurrence in years, and it is widely thought that the outbreak started on a small farm that used ‘peasant’ methods.
Behind the attacks on Matthews – the transformation of Bernard Matthews into the new Bernard Manning – there lurks a suspicion and hostility for modern life in general. This isn’t new. There have always been small-minded, often quite snobbish people who lambasted anyone who dared to mass-produce food. As John Carey points out in his book The Intellectuals and the Masses, earlier snobs looked down their noses at tinned food and factory-farmed fish, describing it as ‘mechanical and soulless’, ‘offensive’ and ‘unnatural’. Then, as now, what these individuals really seemed to loath was the forward march of modernity. If the Matthews-bashers want to go back to natural, local and organic farming, good luck to them. Most of the rest of us would rather have our food made efficiently for us, so that we can concentrate on living our lives to the full.
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