Out of touch

Categories: Features, Reflections and opinions

Clare Finney on why ‘touch free’ packaging, a new development blamed on the squeamishness of millennials, is emblematic of the failings of our food system, not the delicacy of her generation

“Mmmm, mint jelly!” my older cousin used to goad, every time we saw lambs in a field. “Horseradish sauce!” he’d holler at frolicking calves. I would recoil at this grisly reduction of calves to cutlets. I still do. It’s a hard soul indeed who can gaze on those wide eyes and spindly legs and see only dinner plans. But there is a long and large distance between a reluctance to spend a country stroll contemplating a baby animal’s inevitable slaughter and the sort of cognitive dissonance to which ‘touch-free meat packaging’ is pandering.

I say ‘pandering’ to; I should say, actively encouraging—because for better or worse we live in an age in which corporations hold sway over our purchasing choices. They dictate what products we see, how we see them and which of them we’re drawn to. Did ‘millennials’—my generation, blamed for inspiring this latest spurt of product ‘development’—really demand straight-to-pan plastic pouches which allow customers to cook meat without being forced to touch it? Or did the corporation in question dream it up in order to profit from the 37 per cent of under 35-year-olds who, according to a recent survey, don’t like handling raw meat? And if it’s the latter—which it is, of course—why, rather than chastising millennials for their squeamishness, are we not instead asking why these young people feel so disconnected; why they flinch from touching such a simple and comparatively (next to ready meals) untampered-with piece of produce?

The problem with this innovation is not just the unnecessary packaging—though that is the most obvious offense: at a time when the damage caused by plastic pollution is becoming ever clearer, launching a product that requires even more clear film, one of the very worst pollution offenders—seems backward, to say the least. The real problem is that millennials’ apparent aversion to touching chicken breasts points to a deeper, more existential crisis in our relationship with food.

To touch your food is to connect with it. It is to feel the weight, literally, of its journey from field to fork. If it’s a chicken breast, that means connecting with the butcher who removed it from the bone, the farmer who bred the chicken, and ultimately with the chicken itself. At Borough Market, this journey is obvious: the vendor is the butcher, and often the farmer too. With whole carcasses on view and butchers skilfully carrying out their work in front of you, there’s no escaping the reality of food production.

Viable middle ground
Of course, not everyone can shop at Borough every day, but there must be some viable middle ground between this model, and one in which customers are so distanced from food production that even the path from plastic supermarket tray to dinner plate has to be further sanitised.

In many ways, this packaging is just the logical conclusion of the consolidation of global supply chains. Supermarkets have been dictating our relationship with food since the 1980s. Concomitant with their rise has been the decline of traditional butcher’s shops, and the replacement of small scale farms with huge, intensive agro-industries. For many of us born during or after that decade, our only experience of meat has been cold, slimy, impersonal fillets in packets: decontextualized entirely from the butcher, farmer and animal. Surely companies would serve us—and, in the long run, themselves—better by working to address this disconnect, rather than exploiting it.

“If you can’t bear to touch raw meat you shouldn't be eating it,” tweeted one woman in response to the announcement. She’s right, to some extent. Without full knowledge of where that meat comes from, the conditions in which the animal in question was reared, who profits from it and how to treat the fillet when it comes into your kitchen, that decision is bound to be compromised. I wouldn’t want to touch or eat a chicken breast without knowing where it comes from, whether it had a good life and if it was slaughtered humanely. When I do eat meat, it is with my eyes trained on its supply chain.

If we want to really address young people’s apparent aversion to handling meat, we should be investing in education: school visits, cookery and butchery classes, accessible, easy recipes and clear labelling systems, allowing the customer to make an informed decision about whether they feel comfortable touching and consuming this animal.

Cooking and sourcing
Borough Market and its traders spearhead this. Traders will happily talk customers through any questions they may have about cooking and sourcing. This website’s extensive archive of articles takes you behind the scenes of many a farm and butcher; its recipes cover almost anything you can find on a market stall.

Millennials are not perfect. We’d be the first to admit it. But you only need look at the number of young people who shop, eat and work here to know that understanding food in the round—from farm gate to fork, carcass to coq au vin, pasture to plate—is no barrier to our eating it. After a lifetime of sourcing scares, animal welfare scandals and general confusion, millennials like me need mediation with our meat. Not divorce.