Challenging Dissociation: The Complexity Of The Meat-Animal Link
Some omnivores who are concerned about animal welfare use a central coping mechanism to sustain their continuous meat consumption: they dissociate meat from its animal origins. Many previous studies have suggested that consumers have negative views about industrial animal farming and often oppose factory-farming practices like confinement, low enrichment, and routine mutilations. In fact, industrial farming contrasts with consumers’ ideas of naturalness, where the animals can go outdoors and perform species-specific behaviors.
This often leads to a psychological “meat paradox” among omnivores who enjoy eating meat but dislike harming animals. To sustain their willingness to eat meat, they might reduce their empathy toward certain animals and reduce their feelings of disgust toward eating animal flesh. On the flip side, the more someone personalizes animals, the more the thought of eating them provokes disgust. However, even personalized animals don’t attain stable status as a species. One vivid example is the tenuous subjectivity given to companion animals: when they stop fulfilling their roles as companions, they may lose their status. Similarly, in the face of financial constraints or other anthropocentric reasons, farmed animals that have risen to companion status are often considered killable once again.
In this study, researchers examined how omnivores construct the meat–animal link by surveying Finnish consumers in several demographically different focus groups: gastronomes, hunters, organic consumers, rural women, and supermarket customers.
The paper identified two main paths of logic among omnivores. Sarcophage logic involves feelings of empathy toward animals, so the omnivore must conceal the animal origin of meat to sustain eating it. Meanwhile, zoophage logic revolves around recognizing the animal in meat. Here, omnivores objectify animals as bodies carrying food; hence, there’s no need to conceal the animal origin of their food.
The results of the study were a mixed bag of attitudes and behaviors divided along socio-demographic lines. Supermarket customers expressed dislike of products that reminded them of the animal origin and felt repugnance toward eating anything alive. The sarcophage logic also appeared when they discussed their repugnance toward rare and medium-rare meat.
Rural women and gastronomes associated the welfare of animals with the quality and taste of meat. The zoophage orientation of objectifying animals was evident among them. In the ethical omnivore discourse, the happy animal and the personal witnessing of his or her life and death appear to remove ethical dilemmas related to exploiting and killing animals for food.
Meanwhile, the sentiments among hunters were markedly different. According to them, the rarity and distinct taste of hunted animals’ meat distinguished it from the meat of farmed animals, which they viewed as mundane, everyday food. Moreover, this high regard was also linked to the time and effort required to catch the animal in nature. The hunters expressed a dominating attitude toward animals that most likely stemmed from a combination of their hunting skills and advanced technology. Despite close contact with prey animals, they retained a species-based moral distance that rendered the animals killable.
In the supermarket customer group, respondents felt that if animals such as rabbits and hens were kept as pets, it was no longer possible to eat them. The personal contact with individual animals convinces people that they are subjects capable of emotions and cognitive abilities. Although the respondents expressed that it’s important to maintain a degree of emotional distance from animals destined to become food, the contact obviously doesn’t grant the animals’ stable status. They are killed regrettably while keeping in mind “the special value of their lives.”
As with many studies before it, the results of this study suggest that gender aspects — in addition to these socio-demographic positions — may have played a role in the recorded perceptions. Men on average tend to endorse more pro-meat attitudes and express less concern for farm animal welfare than women. Meanwhile, women are more likely than men to dissociate animals from meat and to avoid thinking about the treatment of animals altogether.
As this study shows, challenging animal–meat dissociation doesn’t imply an increased moral valuation of animals’ lives; even personalized and emotionally valued animals can still be categorized as food. Meanwhile, strategies are desperately needed to combat the fundamental objectification of animals in what the researchers call “zoophage logic.”