TV Critic Alice Wibberley argues that this TV experiment failed to meat its purposes
Channel 4’s Meat the Family is a social experiment in which four families look after various farm animals over a period of three weeks, before choosing to either send them to slaughter or sanctuary. The catch is, they can only send them to the sanctuary if they pledge to go vegetarian. If they choose the slaughterhouse, the animals will be returned to them, ready to eat.
The programme can be praised for showing where food really comes from, and beginning to undermine the widespread ‘speciesism’ which enables people to eat a pig but shudder at the thought of eating a dog. The majority of the participants came to see the animals as pets, which made it a tough decision.
Meat the Family also explores the environmental and health impacts of meat, and the programme has been praised for not being ‘too preachy’ in its uncovering of the source of meat. Stefan visits a commercial beef farm in America, and when quizzing the proprietor about climate change, is met with a defensive spiel denying its existence. John researches preservative techniques, learning about the link between bacon and cancer. Visits to various factory farms, a trip to see an intelligent pig, a glimpse into the research into the intellect of sheep, and videos from abattoirs further contribute to the case against meat.
However, the families are also invited to visit farms praised for their ‘high welfare’ standards, and for the third family, a trip to see the slaughtering process for lambs actually restores their confidence in the meat industry, praising it for its efficiency and respect for animals. It’s hard to tell where the bias of the programme lies, but at times it does seem to act as an advertisement for high-welfare meat products. It’s these preferable practices that contribute to the decision of each family – leading to the use of the phrase ‘ethical carnivore’ to describe the first family’s new habits.
Meat the Family is not one to binge. Watching it is an emotional experience: dread before each decision day, frustration when parents silence views of their children, and anger with the selfishness of the participants.
In most of the families, there seemed to be a generational divide. The two eldest daughters of the first family treat their chickens as pets and form close bonds with them. Similarly, there is similar emotional turmoil with the second family, as mum Pam creates a close bond with the piglets.
However, the whole premise of the show – hoping to connect viewers to the source of their food – was not entirely successful. Despite dreading each episode due to successive let-downs, faith in humanity is somewhat restored as some family members recognise the value of vegetarianism. The idea of vegetarianism for other families seemed too difficult, drastic and out of their reach, most of them explaining that they couldn’t pledge to do something they knew they couldn’t maintain.
Overall, Meat the Family’s concept was undermined by its participants. It had the potential to erode speciesism and change habits. Instead of inspiring change, a middle ground was found, which was neither satisfying to the viewer, or those hoping for a programme to bring about change.