Through much of human history, meat has enjoyed an exceptionally prominent position in our diet. It is both an important source of protein and a cultural product with deep significance. Nonetheless, current and projected levels of meat consumption over the next several decades promise to overtax the food distribution system, push agriculture to more and greater reliance on industrial meat production practices, and exhaust valuable environmental resources.
Professor Josée Johnston and Professor Shyon Baumann have recently begun a new research project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, to study the ideas, beliefs and practices around meat consumption in North America.
They have noted that concerns around industrial-raised meat have coincided with something of a renaissance of meat as a cultural product. Even as tainted meat scandals shock consumers and firms work to allay public fears, meat plays a dominant role on upscale food menus, and butchery skills continue to confer status for chefs and home-cooks alike. Nor has the overall consumption of meat declined.
To study these trends, Johnston, Baumann and their students are scouring contemporary and historic news stories and advertisements related to the meat industry, conducting consumer focus groups, and interviewing meat producers. Despite the growing body of evidence that North American meat consumption is a social and ecological problem, meat carries powerful meanings about class, gender, ethics and taste. In some cases, meat is connected to national identity, and to masculinity.
By understanding how meat consumption is framed in public discourses, this research will help us better understand the social contexts that shape consumer choices about the meat they eat.