Meinolf is about the best thing that can happen to a sow. As boars go, he is relatively inconspicuous. He is seven years old, weighs 122.5 kilograms (270 lbs.), and the fat on his back is exactly seven centimeters thick. But he does have one shining talent: He has sired many a perfect piglet.
Meinolf is a "top genetic boar," one of the most productive animals at the Weser-Ems Pig Insemination Center in northern Germany. The facility advertises the impressive animal in one of its catalogs, which is filled with technical information about fattening and slaughter performance formulas, feed conversion ratios and lean-meat content. The 148-page catalog is something of a pin-up calendar for hog farmers, with 16 boars featured on each spread.
The company produces and markets 1.5 million vials of sperm a year, making it one of Europe's largest pig insemination centers. To ensure that Weser-Ems remains a success, Meinolf, like many of his fellow boars, spends day after day in a sterile stall, and the only thing he is permitted to mount is a so-called phantom.
Meinolf stands at the beginning of the distribution chain in Germany's pork production industry, which has been growing steadily for years. Success in the pork industry requires sacrifices from each of its participants: the animals, the producers and their employees. In the end, consumers also pay a high, albeit hidden price for the meat made in Germany so efficiently and cheaply.
The representatives of the meat industry, including farmers, feedlot operators and slaughterers, often feel misunderstood and unfairly criticized. Their critics, on the other hand, have strong arguments against the industry's global game plan, because the system also inflicts massive harm on human beings, animals and the environment.
For instance, the liquid manure from pig feedlots poses problems for groundwater. Other problematic issues include the widespread incidence of animal cruelty and the need to import massive amounts of feed from places like South America, where rainforest is burnt down to create farmland.
But that isn't the whole story. To keep barns disease-free, antibiotics are often used preventively. This leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which will eventually pose a serious problem to humans when diseases are no longer treatable.
And then there are the highly efficient slaughtering factories, such as the one owned by Clemens Tönnies in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which is increasingly under fire for its alleged wage dumping and slaughtering on an industrial scale. The pork industry is a massive, humming machine, and its operations reach from the vials of sperm from a breeding boar like Meinolf to gelatin production plants somewhere in China or Brazil.
Christian Henne owns the old Deitersen farm in the southern part of Lower Saxony, about halfway between Hanover and Kassel. Henne raises piglets and sells them to various feedlots. He has about 700 sows in his barns, which produce approximately 18,000 piglets a year, according to a carefully calibrated schedule.
Tuesdays are "in-heat" and "insemination" days. That's when Henne's boar begins putting on a show of sorts for the sows, although his job is merely to get them in the right mood. He walks back and forth in front of the sows as they lie in their narrow, individual bays.
This behavior stimulates the receptive sows that are in heat, allowing Henne and his employees to insert purchased sperm into the sows from behind, using a long plastic pipette. One €2.50 ampoule of sperm is used per animal, with the goal being for each sow to produce a litter of 12 to 13 piglets. "It's optimized production," says Henne. Optimization is everything.
Growing Appetite for Meat
The industry has to meet strong demand. Germans consume 39 kilograms (86 lbs.) of pork per capita each year. The average German also consumes another 22 kilograms of meat from cattle, chickens, turkeys and other animals.
Man's appetite for meat is growing continually and globally, in both Germany and the developing countries of Asia and South America. In Germany, 85 percent of the population eats meat and cold cuts daily or almost daily -- a number four times as high as in the mid-19th century. Pork consumption alone has almost tripled since 1950.
This trend in meat consumption is evident on the refrigerated shelves of supermarkets nationwide, which are filled to brimming with meat products -- sealed, prepackaged and available at rock-bottom prices. One German supermarket chain, Rewe, sells packages of four marinated pork shoulder steaks for €3.49 ($4.80) apiece. Netto, a subsidiary of the Edeka chain, has five steaks on sale for €2.39. Even the European Union uses terms like "excessive supply and availability" to characterize the meat industry. But this availability comes at a cost that isn't reflected in retail prices.
Agribusiness is about increasing production, about pigs processed per hour, about growth, about quantity over quality. Unnoticed by the public, there has been a fundamental change in livestock farming. Animal and meat production has become one of the most productive areas of agriculture.
In industrialized countries, it amounts to more than half of total agricultural production. Barns containing 2,000 pigs or 40,000 chickens are no longer a rarity.
The supporters of this industry have long felt it unnecessary to discuss these changes. But now there is growing resistance to what some see as ordinary farming and others call factory farming. Critics keep asking the same questions: Is this form of meat production the right one? Can animals be pumped out like mass-produced goods? Is this necessary? And, most of all, is it moral? What is going wrong in this distribution chain, which is geared toward perfection and yet is creating new problems in many areas?
Breeding and Piglet Production
A veterinarian checks the sows to see if the insemination process in farmer Henne's barn was successful. If his ultrasound device indicates pregnancy, the animals are marked and the waiting begins. A sow has a 110-day gestation period before giving birth to a litter of piglets. Until then, the animals are kept together in groups in a so-called waiting barn. Keeping the animals in groups has been required by law in the EU since the beginning of 2013.
Farmer Henne does what he can to give his pigs comfortable lives. About 35 pigs are kept together in each bay of the barn. Some time ago, Henne installed dividers for the loners among the sows so that they could spend time alone. Chains and ropes are provided to encourage the animals to play.
About a week before the birth date, the sows are moved to the farrowing shed. They lie in circular iron pens called farrowing crates, which restrict their movements and prevent them from turning to the left or right. These crates look unwelcoming but are designed to prevent the sows from accidentally crushing their piglets.
A sow is allowed to be overdue for no more than one day. After that, the birth is induced hormonally. Otherwise the entire system would be disrupted. Just as insemination is always done on Tuesdays, the schedule requires sows to give birth on Thursdays. Breeders have been so successful that sows often produce more piglets than they have teats.
Henne's farm treats its livestock better than many other farms. Most pigs are still kept in individual crates for all but a few weeks a year. Animal rights activists are sharply critical of the narrow, metal crates, in which the pigs have almost no room to move around. And according to a study by the Eurogroup for Animals, a Brussels-based animal welfare group, only 73 percent of German pig farmers have changed their practices to comply with the new requirement to keep pregnant sows in group pens.
A sow is usually slaughtered once it has produced a number of litters, because some of its teats become so worn that they no longer release equal amounts of milk, so that the piglets can no longer be fed uniformly. A sow is "unproductive" after five or six years, at the most, and is sent to the slaughterhouse. Her "normal" life expectancy would be about 15 years. But what's normal nowadays?
Castration Without Anesthesia
The life of a piglet is also tied to a strict plan. Piglets are allowed to remain with the mother for their first 28 days. Then they are sorted by size and moved into the so-called nursery barn, or what Henne's employees jokingly call the "kindergarten wing." For the next six to eight weeks, the farmer's sole objective is to have his pigs put on as much weight as possible. About 400 grams (roughly a pound) a day is ideal.
During this period, the animals are vaccinated and given ear tags, so that they can be identified at any time in the future. Their teeth are clipped and their tails are docked to prevent the animals from injuring each other. In addition, most of the more than 20 million male piglets have their testicles cut off in their first few days of life to prevent their meat from later acquiring an offensive odor known as boar taint. In conventional pig farming, castration is usually done without anesthesia, although the animals are given a pain medication called Metacam. An EU ban on this practice is not expected to take effect until 2019.
"What we do here hasn't had anything to do with consumers' romantic notions for a long time," says farmer Henne. His industry has changed dramatically, he explains, but it hasn't kept the consumer in the loop. He now gives tours of his barns to groups of schoolchildren and pre-school children. "We have nothing to hide. But we have to make money in our jobs, just like anyone else."
Horst-Friedrich Hölling has 4,000 pigs in his barn, and yet he still notices when one of the animals isn't feeling well. "They get pale when they have digestive problems," he says. Sometimes their bristles become coarser when they're sick, and when they have a fever they seem lethargic. "Technology does a lot for us nowadays," says the tall farmer from Salzhemmendorf, west of Hildesheim in northern Germany. But it's also important to have a good eye for problems, he explains, because it helps farmers "notice when an animal is sick."
And that's critical in Hölling's business because, as a feedlot operator, he doesn't make any money with sick animals. Some of Christian Henne's piglets end up in his finishing barn, where they quickly grow to become large and heavy animals. Their weight quadruples in only four months, from 30 to between 110 and 120 kilos. Farmers refer to animals as "fast-growing" if they put on 850 grams a day. Some breeds, however, grow so quickly that their bones can't keep up. The animals become too heavy to support their own frames, and their legs fracture as a result. From the animal's perspective, being fast-growing isn't always pleasant.
Between 12 and 15 pigs are usually kept together in each pen. There are crevices in the floor for the drainage of urine and feces, so the barn can be kept relatively clean and dry. Finishing barns have become bigger and bigger in recent years.
A good place to see how it's done is the southern Oldenburg region, the true center of the industry. More than two million hogs live in the Vechta and Cloppenburg administrative districts alone, in the unspectacular landscape between the northern German cities of Bremen and Osnabrück.
The 'Liquid Manure Belt'
The region, where there are more pig barns in some villages than houses, is referred to as the "liquid manure belt." Pigs produce about 1.5 cubic meters of urine and feces in their short lives, creating both an esthetic and a logistical problem. According to a survey by the chamber of agriculture in the state of Lower Saxony, far too much liquid manure is produced in the southern Oldenburg region. Although liquid manure can be used as a fertilizer, it also seeps directly into the region's groundwater.
Geologist Egon Harms is familiar with the consequences. He works for the Oldenburg-East Frisia Water Association in the town of Brake, one of Germany's largest water utilities, where he is in charge of clean drinking water. His district includes the "liquid manure belt."
"Nitrate levels in near-surface ground water have increased alarmingly in the last seven or eight years," he says. And although some wells had to be sealed in the 1980s because of high nitrate levels, the association was able to minimize the problem at the time by digging deeper wells and reaching agreements with farmers.
But now things are getting more expensive. In the last few years, the association has spent €50 million to buy up land in water protection areas to safeguard the quality of tap water. To keep levels well below legal limits, nitrate-laden water has to be mixed with clean water, and farmers need to be compensated. All of this comes at a price. "It translates into our customers paying about 10 cents more per cubic meter of water," says Harms.
The survey by the state chamber of agriculture, which Christian Meyer, the state agriculture minister, plans to unveil this week, shows how dramatic the deluge of liquid manure has become. Pig feedlots in the two districts of Cloppenburg and Vechta alone produce 7.4 million tons of the material a year, but less than half of it is permitted to be spread on local fields. The rest should be transported to regions where less liquid manure is being generated. That would require about 120,000 trips by tank truck.
In reality, some state government officials suspect that farmers may not be adhering to the fertilizer regulations and are secretly allowing more liquid manure to seep onto their fields than is good for the environment. To address such concerns, Meyer, a member of the Green Party, wants to start checking disposal documents. "The liquid manure numbers show that the limits of growth in southern Oldenburg were exceeded long ago," says Meyer.
This rampant growth is starting to affect public opinion about industrial farming. For many people, this intensive agriculture is literally starting to stink. The town of Damme, with statistically one of the highest concentrations of animals in Europe, is a case in point.
The town was constantly covered by a cloud of smog, and even some farmers were fed up with the expansion of neighboring farms. Five years ago, it addressed the problem by imposing building regulations on farmers for the first time. Other businesses in Damme were having trouble recruiting skilled workers, because no one wanted to live in the midst of pig farms, says Mayor Gerd Muhle. "People are no longer quite as accepting of factory farming."
In fact, the construction of new barns is increasingly becoming a political issue, even in rural areas. Local residents fear for the value of their homes, are worried about bacteria and odors and feel that their quality of life and health is threatened. Four years ago, people in the eastern city of Magdeburg formed a network called "Farms Instead of Factory Farms." The network now consists of 250 groups, clubs and associations.
Eckehard Niemann, one of the initiators and the spokesman of the Rural Agriculture Consortium, sees the organized resistance against local expansion plans as a great success. "This year alone, we were able to stop the construction of 28 factory farms in the area."
But at what point does a barn become a factory farm? At 100, 500 or 1,000 animals? Does a pig really care whether there are three or 300 bays in his barn? And doesn't professionalism increase with the size of an operation?
Intensive Use of Antibiotics
Unlike the production of frozen pizzas, yoghurt or frozen, prebaked rolls, the meat industry's product is a living animal. And there is one indicator, in particular, of the fact that modern livestock farming isn't just detrimental to pigs but also to consumers: the use of antibiotics.
According to a recent analysis by the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety, German veterinarians inject or feed animals with 1,734 tons of antibiotics a year, about twice as much as the antibiotics prescribed and administered to Germans in the same time period. Some pigs receive antibiotics in their feed for 60 days in a row, and many piglets are given a long-term dose of antibiotics immediately after birth.
Farmers are simply afraid that their animals could get sick. The administration of up to 520 tons of antibiotics a year is the result of "the farmers' need for security," estimates Thomas Blaha, a professor at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover. He heads the school's epidemiology field office in Bakum, a small town in the middle of the liquid manure belt, and he is considered an expert in the field of animal health.
Many veterinarians dispense the drugs both routinely and prophylactically, even though that is strictly prohibited. They play along because they earn a share of the profits from dispensing the antibiotics. But all experts agree that using antibiotics on this massive scale is extremely dangerous. As doses increase, so does the risk of resistance development. In the end, modern medicine's most powerful tool in the fight against many infectious diseases could be rendered ineffective.
This irresponsible use of antibiotics has already had consequences for humans. Some of the drugs veterinarians prescribe also play an important role in human medicine. Growing resistance leads to the spread of multiresistant bacteria like MRSA and ESBL, which can render antibiotics ineffective. Hospitals are sounding the alarm, because the numbers of effective antibiotics are already dwindling.
Farm Lobby Blocking Change
Five to 10 percent of all hospital-acquired infections are caused by these pathogens, estimates Petra Gastmeier, the head of hygiene at Berlin's Charité Hospital. Tests in hospitals have shown that 20 percent of the pathogens are attributable to agriculture.
In fact, experts now know that there is a noticeably high incidence of multiresistant bacteria in farmers, feedlot operators and slaughterers. Some 40 percent of veterinarians who work with pig facilities have tested positive for MRSA.
Because of the substantial risk of infection, the Netherlands requires that patients who work in agriculture must be tested before undergoing surgery and, if necessary, placed into quarantine first.
The risk of exposure doesn't just come from direct contact with animals. The exhaust gases from feedlots apparently play a role as well. "But the biggest threat comes from spreading liquid manure onto fields," says Michael Schönbauer, the former chief veterinarian for the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety.
For consumers, on the other hand, eating meat appears to be relatively risk-free. Although tests have shown that MRSA is present in meat, the bacteria are killed when the meat is cooked. However, infected meat can pose a threat when it is thawed in water and cooks with cuts on their hands are exposed to the contaminated water.
Although lawmakers have been aware of the problem for years, they have yielded to the farm lobby's resistance to more stringent controls. The first politician to fight for a significant reduction in antibiotic use has been Green Party member Johannes Remmel, the consumer protection minister in North Rhine-Westphalia. Remme was spurred on by the results of a systematic antibiotic study conducted last year, even though it was done in chicken farms. More than 90 of the animals had received antibiotics in their short lives, and in some cases up to eight different drugs were administered.
The last thing ordinary hogs see in their lives is a gray corridor, about two meters wide, with a slight incline. After turning one or two corners, they reach an elevator of sorts, which can accommodate four or five animals at a time. The curious animals calmly crowd into the enclosure, as an automatic grate pushes them from behind until the door closes.
Then the pigs are gassed. It is surprisingly quiet in Clemens Tönnies' slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrück in northwest Germany, the largest slaughterhouse in Europe. About 25,000 pigs are killed there every day, or about 1,700 an hour. Some 160 trucks filled with pigs arrive by the hour, and yet there is almost no noise at all: no squealing, yelping or whimpering.
If Tönnies is to be believed, this is because the animals feel good until the last minute. In fact, it's important that they feel good, because stress would reduce the quality of their meat. In his slaughterhouse, the animals' happiness literally becomes a question of money, a factor affecting the bottom line.
The pigs are given water when they arrive. They remain in their group for two hours, in rooms with heated floors, so that they can recover from the agitation of the trip.
While the elevator takes the animals two or three meters down, they are anesthetized with the help of CO2 and pushed onto a conveyor belt. Workers then hang the pigs from two hooks attached to their hind legs. From there, they are automatically pulled up to a platform where the slaughterer is waiting.
The pigs bleed out within a few seconds, the circulation declines and the heart stops beating. An animal is dispatched every three seconds in this manner. "It's currently the best way to end an animal's life," says Tönnies, who is proud of the efficiency of his gigantic machine.
He doesn't understand how someone could fundamentally object to killing on such a large scale. "Would it be better if all of these animals were killed in many different, significantly smaller slaughterhouses, under far worse conditions?" he asks.
It's a rational way of looking at a product that was once an animal. For Tönnies, the objective is to produce a product for consumers around the world.
And this process should proceed as perfectly, gently and efficiently as possible.
State-of-the-art technology is used to make that happen. Each animal is measured with an ultrasound device. Each dead animal is scanned, and the percentages of lean meat, fat, bone and skin are carefully appraised. There are standard reference values, and any variance leads to plus or minus points. All of this data is then used to calculate the price the farmer receives for his pig.
It is the prelude to a production process in which every detail has been carefully considered. Every puncture and every cut has been perfected at Tönnies's slaughterhouse. Once the carcasses have been partially cut apart, they continue down the line to the veterinarians, each of whom checks a specific organ for abnormalities.
Anything that doesn't conform to the norm is weeded out. The innards are removed and then the animal is completely cut up. Thanks to a transponder in the hook, the conveyor belt knows exactly where each part goes. For instance, the thicker hams are later shipped to Italy while the somewhat thinner ones go to Spain and France.
As efficient as the process is, the work, which is demanding in every respect, still has to be done by people. But Tönnies, Vion, Westfleisch and the other major slaughterhouses often pay their employees very low wages. The success of the meat industry is partly the result of excessive wage dumping.
That's because the companies have long since stopped using German skilled workers and shifted the work to Eastern European subcontractors, in which they sometimes hold a financial stake. An estimated 7,000 Romanians, Poles and Hungarians are now standing at slaughterhouse conveyor belts, sawing apart pig halves, boning hams and mincing meat.
"The entire system is based on wage dumping," says Matthias Brümmer, managing director of the Food, Beverages and Catering Union (NGG) in Oldenburg-East Frisia. For more than a decade, the trade unionist has been involved in disputes with the meat industry. Brümmer supports workers suing companies, and he is repeatedly the target of lawsuits himself.
There is a white board hanging in Brümmer's office near the Oldenburg train station. He writes "€1.03" on the board and says that he is familiar with cases in which this is precisely what companies pay their subcontractors to slaughter a pig. A slaughtering crew of 60 people can process 600 animals an hour. "That makes €600 in revenues," he notes. Then he deducts expenditures for administration, materials and ancillary wage costs. The bottom line? "An hourly wage, before taxes, of exactly €5.04 per employee."
Foreign Contract Workers
The calculation would also work the other way around. "Let's assume that they're paid a decent hourly wage," says Brümmer, "say 12 to 14 euros." How much more expensive would that make a kilogram of pork for the consumer? "In that case, slaughtering would have to cost €2.50. The supermarket price of a kilo of schnitzel meat would increase from €7.10 to €7.35."
The only problem is that consumers have become accustomed to the food retailers' low prices. And of course retailers are not going to ask customers if they would be willing to pay 25 cents more so that an unknown Romanian butcher can have a better life.
However, this avarice has many consequences, as is evident in the town of Essen, population 8,500, in the Cloppenburg district of Lower Saxony. In the last local election, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) got almost 77 percent of the vote. There are many farms in Essen, as well as a large slaughterhouse.
A visitor standing in front of Essen's attractive art nouveau town hall would be surprised to see that the windows of many houses are covered with curtains or sheets. Even a former doctor's office in the center of town seems to have been transformed into a haunted house of sorts. In fact, the houses are not empty but overfilled.
Hundreds of people live in the center of town, and there often 20 or more names listed on the doorbell plates. Essen has become a center for Eastern European contract workers. There are reportedly 800 to 1,000 of them in Essen, with three or four sometimes living in a single, dark room.
Even officials in the Essen town hall have no idea how many there are and where they come from. Men in cheap tracksuits stroll through the town carrying plastic bags from a discount supermarket, and they are increasingly bringing their families along. The local high school has just notified town authorities that 14 new students have arrived who speak no German at all.
There is apparently plenty of poorly paid work to be had. Week after week, some 64,000 pigs are killed, gutted and cut up in the Essen slaughterhouse.
The Danish company Danish Crown, one of the world's largest companies in the meat business, bought the slaughterhouse three years ago. The Scandinavians go where cheap labor is to be had. In Denmark, the Danes would have to pay workers three times as much as in Germany, says union leader Brümmer.
He has spent a lot of time in Hanover and Berlin in recent years. He even wrote to Margot Kässmann when she was head of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, to draw her attention to the problems. But there was no reaction to the letter. "No one was interested in the issue," says Brümmer.
That has changed since last year, when the Catholic Church discovered the issue and it became a topic in the Lower Saxony state election campaign. Stephan Weil, the state's new governor, has since paid two visits to Essen, promising to help resolve the problems.
Negotiations over a minimum wage in the slaughtering industry are set to begin this week, now that even top dog Tönnies has shown his willingness to compromise. The subject has also been raised in the coalition talks between the CDU and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). But the negotiations are likely to be difficult.
Employees at Tönnies like to joke about all the animal parts that would probably forever spoil meat consumption for German consumers: paws, tails, snouts and heads. But these are all usable animal parts, and they all command a price.
They are exported to countries like China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. "There's a buyer for every part of an animal. You just have to find him," says Tönnies. He exports the uteruses to China, the tracheas to Thailand, the spareribs to the United States and Canada, and the 18 different kinds of rinds to the rest of the world.
Parts that can't be used as food are sold for other purposes. Bones, fat, hooves, blood and intestines are used in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, among others, to make products like fertilizer, grease and animal feed.
Salmon farmers, for example, feed blood plasma from pigs to their fish to give the flesh a rosier color. Minerals like phosphorus, calcium and magnesium are also derived from the remains. Finally, Tönnies burns what's left, such as the dried sewage residue and stable manure, in the company's own thermal power station. This is sustainable. Most of all, however, it's part of an economic calculation.
All of this shows that in a globally competitive world, it's no longer enough to simply slaughter a few pigs. Today's objective is to get as much as possible out of the animals.
The Germans do a good job of it. Tönnies, Westfleisch and others have continually worked their way forward, and Germany is now the world's second-largest pork exporter after the United States.
In 2011, some 645,000 tons of pork were sold abroad, and with close to 60 million slaughtered animals, Germany is the world's third-largest slaughterer, behind China and the United States. Conditions are favorable in Germany, with relatively low wages in feedlots and slaughterhouses, inexpensive feed and high animal health and hygiene standards -- all important values for global trading partners.
Factory farming is shaped by capital-intensive technologies. The slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, which Tönnies prefer to call a "quality meat production facility," has cost €650 million to date. Because of the high overhead, a handful of players control the lion's share of the gigantic meat production business, companies from the United States, China, Brazil, Germany and Denmark. JBS, a Brazilian company with €28 billion in sales, now heads the list of the world's 10 largest meat producers.
A subsidy policy that was pursued for years is one of the reasons the meat business is so lucrative. Meat is considered the most valuable food product, which is why lawmakers dispensed billions in subsidies to producers for decades. They include subsidies for feed production, for transport infrastructure and EU subsidies for investments in buildings. The environmental organization BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) calculated that €1 billion in direct payments were made in 2009 alone to subsidize crops grown for pig feed. The EU's farming reforms haven't done much to change this massive government help. "The outcome is clear: Neither the feedlot operators nor the meat industry pay the real costs of their production -- and, as a result, they can rake in substantial profits," says Reinhild Benning of BUND.
Love of Meat
Tönnies himself likes meat and eats a lot of it. "Every day!" he says. He is even fonder of eating cold cuts. But he watches his carbohydrate intake so as to stay in shape. The debate over cutting down on meat doesn't interest him. His position is simple: "I accept that there are vegetarians, but I also want them to accept that there are people like me."
Others seem to share his attitude, as became evident in the recent election. One of the few hot-button issues was a proposal by the Greens to introduce a meat-free day in Germany. The idea was that public canteens would voluntarily dispense with meat dishes once a week.
Both Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party, and Social Democratic Party Chairman Sigmar Gabriel dismissed the initiative. The pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) expressed outrage over what they perceived as government paternalism. Despite the brouhaha it caused, the proposal isn't even all that absurd.
Michael Sagner can attest to its potential benefits. The president of the European College of Preventive and Lifestyle Medicine wasn't surprised by the uproar over the meat-free day proposal. "We know more about good nutrition and diets than ever before," says Sagner, a medical doctor. "But at the same time, more people than ever are dying because of their own habits."
The expert cites studies by the World Health Organization (WHO), which conclude that 80 percent of a person's health depends on lifestyle factors, especially exercise and nutrition. According to WHO, only 20 percent is predetermined, whereas conditions like heart attacks, stroke, diabetes and cancer are primarily attributable to our own poor behavior. That includes bad nutrition and too much red meat.
This is nothing new. Hospitals, diet consultants and health educators have been warning about the consumption of too much and excessively fatty meat for years, and yet worldwide consumption has been on the rise for years.
"For many people, eating isn't eating unless there is meat involved," says Sagner, as he sits in a restaurant where he has just ordered a fish dish with an extra serving of vegetables. He shows us research from the United Kingdom, which concludes that a person who eats twice the average daily meat consumption of 50 grams increases the risk of developing intestinal cancer by 18 percent and of contracting diseases of the cardiovascular system by 42 percent.
Meat is unhealthy for several reasons. The fat in chops, hocks and bacon increase blood cholesterol levels -- one of the key causes of heart disease. Cold cuts, in particular, contain a lot of unhealthy fat.
Sagner doesn't advocate that people do without meat altogether. Instead, he recommends "limiting meat consumption to three times a week." It's an idea that isn't likely win widespread acceptance anytime soon.
Nevertheless, he makes an interesting argument. According to Sagner, man's "species-appropriate nutrition" is based on plant products. Throughout man's evolutionary development, meat has always been more of "a luxury," says Sagner.
One thing is certain: This luxury has never been as cheap -- and simultaneously as costly -- as it is today.