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Lessons on the origins of a sausage

28 March 2013

Trevor Barnes applauds one school's approach to the realities of food production

AS IF running a primary school were not a full-time job in itself, Kath Cook, the head teacher of Peasenhall School, near Saxmundham, in Suffolk, is currently having to manage an unexpected extra-curricular event that she surely never thought would be part of her job description when she first joined the teaching profession.

She is having to ask her local police force for help to protect her staff from a barrage of abusive phone calls from animal-rights activists who have lately taken an unwelcome interest in the school's affairs. Not only that, she is also preparing for a possible demonstration outside the school gates if protesters' demands are not met.

What has angered the local vegetarian lobby, the Colchester Animal Defenders, is a school project to rear three piglets in professionally monitored conditions, before the animals are sent to an abattoir for humane despatch later in the year.

No matter that pupils have constructed an eco-friendly sty and pen to house the pigs; no matter that the project is designed to be a clear-eyed introduction to the realities of food production, and has the unanimous support of the parents; no matter that eating bacon is, at the time of writing, a legal activity.

None of this matters to the protesters. Phone calls, emails, and, needless to say, the social media have all been used to mobilise support - from as far afield as Australia - for the campaign of abuse.

Anyone who knows the first thing about the running of a state school will appreciate the hurdles that the project will have had to clear before getting off the ground. It will have been subject to parental and local-authority approval; assessed for its educational value; checked against moral, religious, and gender-inclusivity criteria; scrutinised by satellite departments of the DfE and DEFRA; and finally been shown to have satisfied the stringent demands of health-and-safety legislation.

After clearing the bureaucratic hurdles, the school could rightly have concluded that the way was clear to explain in a non-emotional way how the meat we eat reaches the table. The school may even have hoped that the project would be celebrated as a hands-on lesson in responsible animal husbandry, and praised as a practical demonstration of sustainable farming.

But the head and her staff had failed to take into account the campaigners, whose spokeswoman, Liza Moore, is reported to have said that "children should not be exposed to this sort of thing."

It could be argued that by not exposing the children to "this sort of thing", many will continue to imagine that their sausages are produced on an industrial estate outside Ipswich before appearing magically in the supermarket in their film-wrapped plastic trays.

What "this sort of thing" is attempting to do is to illustrate, in a non-judgemental way, the realities of rearing animals for food.

Moreover, once exposed to "this sort of thing", the pupils may reach adulthood with a proper grasp of the provenance of the meat they propose to consume. They may also come to question whether cheap chicken and cut-price burgers can be produced ad infinitum without some impact on animal welfare.

Some might even grow up to believe that vegetarianism is, on balance, the best option for them. In which case, it would be an irony almost certainly lost on those animal-rights activists who are targeting well-intentioned teachers from the other side of the world.

Trevor Barnes reports for the  Sunday programme and other BBC Religion and Ethics broadcasts.

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