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FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about the world of meat

It is true that producing meat has more impact on the environment than other foods?

Meat is generally placed amongst the foods with the highest environmental impact per kilogram. This is due to the fact that its production chain is fairly elaborate. Unlike products of agricultural origin, to produce meat in fact requires a “double passage”: first you produce feed for animals, then you start the process of converting protein during their breeding. A second aspect particularly valid for bovine supply chains is represented by the impacts of the dam (mother of calves), that are bred solely for the purpose of giving birth to calves with an average rate of one a year. The last aspect is related to the management of manure and enteric fermentation involving a significant impact, especially with regards to the greenhouse effect.

These aspects are undeniable and are part of the natural characteristics of supply chains: a correct understanding of the processes and transparent information on how they are organised allows, however, to understand how one can aim at achieving a production that is as sustainable as possible, valorising, for example, the characteristics of the production model adopted in Italy.

The Environmental Hourglass, presented here in preview, multiplies the environmental impact of food and the weekly amount suggested by the most recent available nutritional guidelines INRAN (now CRA-NUT), which are modeled on the Mediterranean Diet. It shows how eating the right amount of meat does not entail any significant increase in the environmental impact. If you follow the right food model, in fact, the average weekly impact of the meat is aligned with that of other foods, for which the unit impacts are minor but the amount consumed is generally higher. This concept is clearly expressed in a intuitive way by the Environmental Hourglass itself, which shows in detail that in a proper dietary pattern the Carbon footprint of protein is equal to 5.9 kg of CO2 equivalent, a value in line with that of fruits and vegetables, which is of 5.6 kg CO2 equivalent.

Are 15 thousand litres of water really necessary to produce one kilo of beef?

The concept that it takes 15 thousand litres of water to produce a kilo of beef meat is one of the clichés that has had the most media attention when considering meat. A striking figure, which is now assumed to be credible. But is it really true? Not really: in the calculation of meat’s water footprint there are many aspects that are unnecessary considered. Others, instead, are too superficially ignored. In other words, the Water footprint, on which several critical reviews have already been made, presents quite a few omissions.

We start from the first: it does not quantify the environmental impact associated with the use of water, but only the volume of water used. Not only that, it totally ignores the specific context in which the production and breeding occur (which have developed where there is a greater availability of water). In all the areas with the highest livestock density, according to data collected globally through the Water Stress Index, a parameter that expresses the relationship between water use and water available taking into account the variability in monthly and annual rainfall, the presence of cattle has never resulted in a depletion of underground water reserves.

The water footprint usually calculates the amount of water that is used in production processes. It is the so-called “virtual water” which, when it comes to meat, also includes the water used to produce feed for livestock production and the slaughter phase. This method of evaluation of water consumption in the livestock sector calculates the water footprint of a product by adding the blue water, that taken from groundwater or surface water, green water, rainwater transpired from the ground during crop growth, and the gray water, the volume of water necessary to dilute and purify the waste water production. The weaknesses and inconsistencies presented by the different calculations of the water footprint starts from the fact that this does not distinguish between the three different types of water, adding them together as if they had the same impact on water availability, which is a substantially incorrect approach.

The water footprint of the Italian beef production amounted to 11,500 litres of water to produce 1 kg of meat (25% less than the 15,415 litre world average), and only 13% (1,495 litres) of this it is really “consumed”. The remaining 87%, is therefore constituted of “green water”, in other words rainwater used in the cultivation of raw materials for animal feed. The reasons for a lower volume of water being used in Italian production are to be found in the national livestock system which, being based on the combination of extensive and intensive farms, permits the achievement of a good efficiency in terms of resources used per kg of meat produced. Moreover it can be observed how Italian beef production occurs predominantly in the best areas with a greater availability of water (for example along the Po River and its tributaries).

On the whole, the entire meat sector (bovine, poultry and pork) uses 80-90% of the water resources part of the natural water cycle, which are reinstated to the environment as rainwater; only 10-20% of the water needed to produce 1 kg of meat is really consumed.

Can you save the planet by becoming a vegetarian?

Increasingly we hear that becoming a vegetarian is the only way to save the planet. Those who choose not to eat meat, do so in fact often for ecological reasons, even before legitimate ethical reasons. Yet, eating meat in a balanced way does not impact substantially on one’s overall environmental impact. Food choices are not the only way to reduce ones own carbon footprint. Indeed, many such actions related to mobility, energy consumption, the purchasing choices (clothing, electronics etc.) and in general the wasteful lifestyles of today, can be much more important.

As evidence of this, just try using the official calculator of the Global Footprint Network, which allows you to calculate what is yours ecological footprint. Try the test twice, leaving unchanged all the data except meat consumption. By putting and removing meat in the two different tests you will notice that the final result will not differ significantly. For a person with a lifestyle like the average Italian, the “real” details obtained vary from a minimum of 2.1 “planets”, necessary to support their own style and life choices (double what we have available ) to a maximum of 4.2 “planets”. The maximum deviations obtained between the “real” and the values of the test redone “with and without meat” are at most 0.1 “planets”.

It is true that farms use indiscriminately antibiotics and growth hormones?

No. The use of antibiotics on farms is subject to compliance with strict rules:

– Antibiotics can only be used when previously authorised exclusively by the Health Authorities. Approval is granted only for those substances that have proved to be effective and the safety in use with animals for which the metabolic characteristics are know (basically in how much time they are “disposed of” by the animal’s organism).
– There is a positive list of medicinal products containing antibiotics and they can be used only where there is a prescription from a veterinarian who must have visited and diagnosed the disease.
– The use is limited in time and in any case the animals can be slaughtered only after the drugs have been completely eliminated or at least the residual concentrations are completely harmless to human health.
– There are annual meat sampling programmes to verify the absence of harmful residues. The results of these tests show that the irregular meat samples are well under 1%.

In practical terms, therefore, meat does not contain antibiotic residues and information like those whereby eating meat means you eat tot grams of antibiotics each year must be considered false.

Since 1981, in Italian and European farms, the administration of hormones to animals whose meat or products are intended for human consumption are strictly limited to certain therapeutic and livestock treatments. Any other administrations, like growth stimulants, are absolutely prohibited – but still allowed in countries like the US and Canada, so much so as to bring the EU to ban (since 1988) the importation of overseas beef treated with certain growth hormones. Each country of the European Union, in addition to compliance with the Community rules, implements a national programme for the surveillance and monitoring of residues of illegal chemicals in foods of animal origin. The use of antibiotics in the veterinary field, in fact limited to the treatment and prophylaxis of animals’ infectious diseases, is banned also as growth promotion, which could be done instead before 2006.

The controls of the Competent Authorities in 2012 showed that in over 6700 tests on poultry products, only 5 cases were found in which the rule on the use of drugs had not been fully respected. Similar results are also found in the 2011 Programme, reflecting a consolidated and efficient system.

Antibiotic resistance (i.e. the appearance of bacteria that have developed resistance to some antibiotics) is a very serious and important issue where everyone involved must do their part. In fact, as reported by WHO, the approach to this issue must involve animal husbandry, but also the use or handling of antibiotics in human medicine, from domestic to hospitals use.

Even the national poultry industry, for example, pays great attention to this problem and approaches it with a sense of responsibility and concrete commitments. In fact, data on the consumption of antibiotics in poultry from 2011 to 2013 declined by about 10%. In addition, the industry has decided to take a significant step by developing a voluntary national programme of rationalising the use of drugs in poultry farming, with the collaboration of the Italian Society of Avian Pathology and the supervision of the Ministry of Health that will permit further ambitious progress.

What is the difference between a vegetarian diet and the Mediterranean diet?

Often we tend to think that the Mediterranean diet consists only of pasta, carbohydrate based foods and fruit and vegetables. It is not the case. The Mediterranean diet is very varied, and includes balanced amounts of each type of food. The nutritional value of the Mediterranean diet was demonstrated in the 70s by the “Seven Countries Study”, when comparing the diets adopted by different populations it was possible to demonstrate the association between eating habits and the risk of developing chronic diseases, with particular reference to cardiovascular ones. Overall, what emerges from the Mediterranean model is a way of eating with a high consumption of vegetables, legumes, fruits and nuts, olive oil and cereals (including 50% whole), and a moderate consumption of fish ,dairy products (especially cheese and yogurt), meat and sweets.

Meat is therefore part also of the Mediterranean diet. In the past, in fact, besides fish, venison was eaten, many yard animals (chickens, turkeys, rabbits, geese, etc.) and pigs, whose feed was based on the use of agricultural by-products and human food waste. The slaughtering was done by the owners of the animals, which if of large size (pigs and cattle in particular) required the preservation of the meat for use in subsequent periods. This need allowed the “creation” many cured meats, which have become a pride of our food production and are appreciated all over the world. Suffice it to say that of the 244 DOP and IGP certified Italian products, 1/3 comes from breeding production and 40 from the meat category.

It is true that in breeding farms animals are mistreated?

The respect of animals in recent years has become nothing short of a priority, both in the EU and in those countries that export meat to Europe, required to comply with standards equivalent to those provided for the EU countries. The reasons are many, but beyond the undoubted ethical significance and therefore more attention from the public and supervisory bodies, there is the consideration of a purely economic aspect: potential stress factors and poor living conditions can not only cause needless suffering to farm animals, but also lead to an increased susceptibility to disease. As a result, the quality of the meat and products made from it could be compromised, as well as its commercial value and the safety of the entire food chain.

Whatever the reason you decide to give farm animals the respect they deserve, it must be said that the European Union, once again, is particularly advanced in this respect: the Commission is in fact working hard to increase the level of animal welfare in the member states, with continuous investment in the improvement of regulatory standards. An effort that brings Europe to invest on average 70 million Euro per year in actions aimed solely at the protection of animal welfare. The EU has banned all those rearing methods that cause suffering or injury to livestock, and it requires that the animals are observed daily and, if appropriate, treated. Not only that, under EU law, freedom of movement must be guaranteed to all animals, while the equipment for the supplying of feed and water must be designed, constructed and installed so as to minimise the possibility of food or water contamination and the adverse effects of competition between animals.

What other products are obtained from farms apart from meat?

Meat production represents only a part of what is obtained by breeding animals. Bags, shoes, medical devices and heart valves; or even soap, fertilisers, natural rennet and biogas are just some examples of the huge amount of products and by-products that are obtained from the livestock sector. The amount of meat which is obtained from an animal to be allocated to human food consumption varies depending on the type of animal. In the case of bovine, for example, it is about 33-35%, while for pigs the percentage decreases to 18%. But since from animals nothing is thrown away, except for those residues considered at risk of transmitting infections that are disposed of in specific installations, very many ways have been found over the centuries to valorise what is obtained from breeding farms.

Cow and sheep hide, just to name a few well-known examples, are used for durable goods such as leather, which are used in turn to produce shoes, handbags, belts, or to cover sofas and car seats. The bovine and pig fat, however, are used in the cosmetic industry to make soap. Smaller amounts, but of great importance, are used in medicine. Bovine and pigs provide the pericardial tissue used for the preparation of medical devices such as heart valves, while bones and pork rinds are very useful in the pharmaceutical field for the encapsulation of drugs. Natural rennet (the only coagulant allowed for the production of DOP cheeses such as Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano) is produced by the dairy industry thanks to the bovine abomasums, the last of the four chambers that make up the stomach of ruminants. Chickens also provide important products in addition to their meat. Such as the fat, used for the production of feed and, in increasing quantities, for the production of biodiesel. So much so that, in 2011, after having incentivised an experiment to evaluate the use of chicken (and bovine) fat in the production of a bio-fuel for the functioning of aircraft, NASA has shown that this allows to reduce pollutants compared to traditional fuels. But these, of course, are just a few of the thousand examples available.

What happens to manure and slaughter waste?

Manure and slaughter waste are increasingly used for the production of biogas, and thus for thermal and electrical energy. The most advanced farms, exploit livestock waste to produce more or less important quantities of electrical and thermal KWh. Everything is reused, including the solid digestate. This takes place thanks to plants of anaerobic digestion of biomass , i.e. those plants in which the anaerobic co-digestion of sewage sludge, rumen and blood are made. The biogas produced runs a cogeneration machine consisting of an internal combustion engine of high transformation efficiency.

In particular, the thermal energy is fully utilized for the same digesters (which in the more efficient variants work at a constant temperature of 40°) and for the production of hot water in the plant from which the sludge derives. Not only. They are also used in a dehydrator machine, which in this way treats the solid digestate at a zero thermal cost and makes the final product suitable for use in agriculture. In this way, in essence, they greatly reduce the waste materials, through the implementation of a virtuous process leading to their re-employment. In environmental terms, this type of projects are usually saving the equivalent of several thousand tons of oil and CO2 being released into the atmosphere every year.

It is important to point out that the livestock farms exploit this technology only to recover their waste products and increase the energy efficiency of their plants. Other types of biomass, such as cereal flours, in conflict with the food sector or animal feed, are not used. The use for energy purposes of food matrices may in fact cause difficulties in the major supply chains and market distortions.

What are the benefits of eating meat properly?

Meat, if taken in the right amounts, can have positive effects for our health and well-being. It is no coincidence that, as always, it is considered an important food source of essential nutrients for optimal growth and development. Indeed a proper consumption of meat, especially lean cuts, can be beneficial at different stages of life. Such as growth, during adolescence, when boys and more girls have a higher protein requirement and must avoid the risk of anaemia from iron deficiency.

Even during pregnancy, one of the moments in which the increased need for nutrients is greatest, the intake of meat (in this case, well done) is very important. So as during childhood, another period of life in which the protein requirements are very high, since one is growing and they are used by the body for building tissues. Even in old age protein intake can not be underestimated. Inadequate intake of protein in an older person helps to increase skin fragility, to reduce the resilience of the body and immune function, causing difficulty and an extension to recovery times after illness.

Always accompanied by copious amounts of fruit and vegetables, the right amount of foods of animal origin can increase the intake of vitamins B, C and D and minerals such as calcium, iron and iodine at every stage of life. Compared to a diet free of meat, a diet that includes lean cuts  contributes to better protein intake, selenium, thiamine and vitamin B6, without increasing the intake of total fat and saturated fat. Not only that, unlike foods based on fats and carbohydrates, it has a high satiating effect. The anti-hunger effect is due to blockade of ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates hunger, caused by the digestion of proteins.

Is there much waste in the meat industry?

All the phases of each food chain, unfortunately, generate waste. The meat chain, even for the enormous amount of destinations that the meat by-products have and the reuse of manure and slaughter waste for the production of energy, is in this sense the most virtuous. The production and consumption of meat, in fact, generates a lot of scraps (edible food “lost” in the production process) and waste (food thrown away once placed on the market) more than halved compared to fruits and vegetables, and almost equal to half of the waste produced by cereal chain. Waste that despite the efforts to reduce the environmental impact of this sector are due mainly to the stage of final consumption.

The most wasted food, in fact, are those of vegetable origin: those which, not coincidentally, also have a lower price (maximum 2 Euro per kg). On the contrary, generally one takes good care of wasting products of animal origin, regardless of their price. A fact that is probably also linked to the social and cultural value perceived for centuries about these foods.

It is true that the chickens grow in cages?

No it is not true. And to confirm this, simply visit one of about 3,000 Italian farms, where all chickens, turkeys and other poultry meat are not caged, but on the ground, free to scratch about in spacious and bright environments, walking on layers of straw or wood chipboard that are absorbent and hygienic. In several cases, there are also open-air farms.

It is more than 50 years, from the early 60s, that there is no longer “battery” breeding of chicken meat. This prejudice (which involves still a good 8 out of 10 Italians) is mainly due to the legacies of the past and to an erroneous confusion between the rearing of broilers and the more diffused breeding of egg laying hens, where animals are raised no longer in batteries, but in cages modified according to the most recent Community legislation on animal welfare, so as to ensure the maximum comfort and health to the animals, together with the hygiene of eggs produced.

Next to the horizontal rules that guarantee the well-being of any animal species in the early stages of farming, transport and slaughter, there are also in force many vertical regulations, which set out the welfare requirements of each species, including egg laying hens or broilers (chicken meat).

The commitment of the poultry sector in ensuring a uniform and optimal application of these standards throughout the country has resulted in major initiatives such as the drafting of the manual “Operating procedures for the protection of poultry during transport”, in collaboration with the Italian Society of Preventive Veterinary Medicine and with the approval of the Ministry of Health. The manual “Correct practice for poultry hatcheries” is in the approval process with the same Ministry. Finally the poultry sector (Unaitalia) has promoted a number of training courses in animal welfare for farmers throughout the country, training more than 1,500 farmers.

Eating meat causes cancer or other diseases?

We answer this question with the words of AIRC, the Italian Association for Cancer Research, who writes on its website: “Animal proteins are made by the same chemical molecules of the plant,  amino acids. The danger to health if consumed in excess, lies primarily in the way they interact with the body. For example, the preparation of meat for their conservation and cooking methods alter the molecules, making them potentially dangerous to health. The foods of animal origin contain, in addition to proteins, also many other substances including saturated fats and the iron of the heme group. In excessive doses they stimulate the increase of cholesterol, insulin levels in the blood and inflammation of the intestinal tract, increasing the risk of certain diseases, including cancers, in particular those of the colon-rectum. A modest consumption of animal protein is not dangerous to human health. Conversely, excessive consumption of red or processed meat is associated with a greater risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. […]

As for the other diseases, the Airc site always writes that “no disease is caused only by the consumption of meat, and there is a relationship of cause and effect between direct, absolute consumption of animal protein and the development of a given disease. […] There are currently no studies that indicate a convincing relationship between disease risk and modest consumption of animal protein; indeed, in certain cases a very limited intake of animal protein has beneficial effects, because it provides important micronutrients”.

Recent researches of the World Cancer Research Fund and The Institute of Cancer Research, suggest the limitation of meat consumption to 100-120 g per day, indicating an increased risk beyond the threshold of 160 g. If you consider the consumption suggested by a balanced diet, you notice that in Italy the amount suggested already coincides with the real consumption. For these amounts the relationship between diseases and consumption can not be proved and scientific studies lead to non definitive conclusions.

An increasing caloric diet together with a sedentary lifestyle, are among the main recognised risk factors for the spread of so-called “Diabesity” a term coined by the WHO (World Health Organisation) to highlight the close association between diabetes mellitus type 2 and pathological obesity.

In some European countries, obesity and overweight has hit  50% of the population and one in three children. On this last point, the WHO (World Health Organization) emphasises that the majority of advertised foods, high in fat, sugar or salt is one of the risk factors for childhood obesity and other chronic diseases related to diet. At the top are the sugary drinks like soft drinks, sweetened cereals for breakfast, biscuits, snacks, confectionery and ready meals. While the incidence of these diseases, over time, has increased, the consumption of meat has reduced.

Why is the presence of animal protein important in a balanced diet?

Given that if one speaks only of protein we could only say that for the same intake, animal proteins have a higher biological value. Fortunately animal products not only make proteins but also vitamins (some of which are scarce or absent in vegetable sources), extremely important minerals such as iron, zinc and calcium.

So in a proper diet there must be space for both proteins accompanied by the above-mentioned minerals and vitamins, and with a low caloric intake, both for protein accompanied by fibre and carbohydrates, such as those typical of vegetables, with higher caloric intake.

What is the Environmental Hourglass?

A healthy diet should include a balanced consumption of all foods available. If you follow the consumption advice recommended by the dietary model of the Mediterranean diet, the average weekly impact of meat is aligned with that of other foods, for which the impacts are minor but generally more unit quantities are consumed.

This is the concept represented by the environmental hourglass, obtained by multiplying the environmental impact of food (for simplicity the Carbon Footprint) by the weekly amount suggested by the INRAN 2003 (now CRA-NUT) nutritional guidelines. According to this representation, eating meat in the right quantities does not significantly increase the environmental impact of an individual. Moreover, a sustainable lifestyle should compete with other choices such as mobility, energy consumption, clothing and leisure habits.

For more information on both the Environmental Hourglass and the other topics covered in the  FAQ, we recommend downloading the document “The Sustainability of Meat in Italy“.