Psychologists call it cognitive dissonance when you disconnect beef from the killing of a cow. But some think you need to know the animal you eat.

Cattle look on as someone tries to eat a hamburger.

Cows look on as someone is about to eat a fat, juicy hamburger. (Photo illustration by News Decoder)

 This article, by high school student Liv Egli, was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Emily is a student at Realgymnasium Rämibühl Zürich, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.

Philipp Ritter keeps his eyes fixed on the deer, pulls the trigger and hits the animal directly in the heart with one shot. It has not noticed anything and within a few moments the deer collapses and lies still.

Ritter sajd that killing is never pleasant for him. He loves nature. The well-being of the forest and the animals are important to him. Hunters, like Ritter, make sure that nature is in balance. If there are too many deer, for example, the trees get damaged. For most of them, hunting is a passion. They treat the animals with respect and take just as many of them as necessary.

Ritter has thought a lot about how he can eat meat with a clear conscience. He decided that if he wanted to eat it, he had to be ready to kill it. He started with fishing. It was difficult for him to kill his first fish. But he was also somehow proud.

But should a person be able to eat meat without having to kill the animal they eat? Because that, of course, is not the way most people today get their meat. People have gradually moved away from hunting through the intermediate stages of farming and individual butchering to today’s industrial processing of meat, in order to give consumers the most convenience.

Nowadays, it is possible to walk into a shop and buy a nicely packaged piece of meat at a cheap price. It is easy to forget that behind every piece of meat is a life that has come to an end.

Food and farming

Is it right that animals are only bred for the purpose of slaughter? What gives humans the right to have the upper hand like this? What makes the difference between animals and humans?

It has been proven that animals are by no means less intelligent than humans, in many cases they even outperform humans. It has also been observed that they have feelings and communicate within their species.

You could answer that question from a religious point of view. “According to biblical traditions, man is not only a creature of God, but he is also God’s image,” said Kevin Ischi, a spokesperson of the Catholic Church in the Swiss canton of Zurich. “This means that humans should not only ‘own’ or ‘rule’ over animals, but should also care for their fellow creatures.”

Humans, Ischi said, are also allowed to use natural resources for their own needs. From a Christian point of view, the killing of animals for food is therefore not forbidden.

But it is a question of the right measure. It is also about minimising the suffering of living creatures and ensuring that people value the animals that are killed and appreciate them as a gift from God.

A food industry that keeps itself hidden

Showing such appreciation is difficult in the face of increasing industrial, mechanised, invisible and anonymous animal production.

“Conscious meat consumption and the way animals are reared and killed is therefore absolutely necessary from a Christian perspective,” Ischi said. “This is why many Christians don’t eat meat or limit their consumption. Not because their faith directly forbids it, but because their faith makes them act responsibly and consciously.”

But does this really reflect today’s world? Most people like animals and don’t want to harm them, but they eat them anyway. This is the so-called “meat paradox”, a form of cognitive dissonance.

Meat processing companies like Switzerland’s Micarna make it possible for people to live with this contradiction. “We do not consider consumers who eat meat and at the same time claim not to be able to slaughter an animal to be dishonest,” Yannick Schmidt, a spokesperson for the company told me in an e-mail.

He said that the statement these people make, that they aren’t able to slaughter, is theoretical. “It can be assumed that many people could and would kill an animal if they were in the wild and hungry,” he said.

Nevertheless, many would probably have to overcome their own reluctance to do so.

“Butchers and retailers help people, so they do not need to kill, gut and bone an animal,” Schmidt said. “This is the result of the increasing division of labour in the economy and does not only apply to meat production.”

Getting consumers involved in agriculture

Because of the conveniently packaged pieces of meat, many consumers are able to ignore the fact that it came from a living being. “From our point of view, this abstraction offers the opportunity to overcome cognitive dissonance,” Schmidt said.

But is cognitive dissonance something that should be overcome? Should people stop questioning things?

Marlen and Stephen Koch considered this question when they started Obermettlen, a farm located in the canton of Lucerne in Switzerland. The current farming system was not in line with their values, and they wanted to create an animal-friendly meat consumption system.

There are five old suckler cows on their farm that would have already been slaughtered on most other farms. At Obermettlen, however, they live as long as they can give birth to calves.

These calves are then assigned to eight “sponsors” who can visit them on the farm from birth until about two years later when the calves are slaughtered on the farm instead of at a slaughterhouse.

This way the calves have much less stress and are in a familiar environment. The sponsors then receive their part of the meat. They pay 730 Swiss francs for this, which is one franc per day for two years.

“The customers who sign up for sponsorship vary,” said Marlen Koch. “From BBQ lovers to vegetarians who have started to consciously eat less meat again for health or conviction reasons.”

She said that there are parents who want to use the project to show their children what is behind a bite of meat, so that the children can then decide for themselves later in life whether or not to consume animal products.

The farm has a waiting list of two years and 85% of customers renew their sponsorship after the two-year period. Some consumers only eat the meat of their sponsored animal and nothing else.

Neighbouring farmers have taken an interest in the project and and the concept of on-the-farm slaughtering and are beginning to adopt it.

Making sense of the food chain

There are farms in other countries with a similar concept, where you also buy the products directly from the farmer. However, buying meat directly from most of these farms does not require a relationship with the animal the meat comes from. An example is the Charmingfare Farm in in the U.S. state of New Hampshire.

The Obermettlen’s customers include both wealthy and those who have less money, from the city as well as people from the village. What they have in common is that it is important to them that “their” animals are well-treated. They enjoy the place and appreciate the farmers and their work.

This is a new concept and yet it takes us back a little in the history of meat processing to the hunters, to the origins. It shows that certain people are prepared to deal with killing, even if it is only a very small part of society. However, if farms like Obermettlen gain in importance, this could mean a change in society.

The one thing that Ischi, Ritter and Koch agree on is that meat consumption should be about treating animals with respect and having respect for the lives that have been ended. It is important to them all to have a direct relationship with the meat and not just to regard it as a product.

Only the meat processing company, which profits from this, thinks not. That’s not really surprising. Its sales strategy, achieved through advertising, is to prevent buyers from emotionally evaluating whether or not they can ethically justify the killing of animals.

Philipp Ritter was a vegetarian at one point in his life before he found his own way of consuming meat without feeling bad about it. Could this be a way to overcome cognitive dissonance?

Questions to consider:

  1. What makes it easy to eat meat and still love animals?
  2. Do you think it is any more ethical to eat meat if you have seen the animal it comes from?
  3. In what ways do you agree or disagree with the conclusions of the hunter and farmers quoted in this story?

Liv Egli is in the third year of high school at Realgymnasium Rämibühl Zürich in Switzerland.

Share This
CultureDo you see the cow you consume when you bite into a burger?