Perhaps turkeys aren't as stupid as we thought they were. Opening your beak and gulping down rainwater until you drown seems eminently sensible when the alternatives are (a) to be trampled underfoot by the 25,000 other members of the meleagris gallopavo tribe that you share your shed with, or (b) be hung upside down on a conveyor belt and have a disinterested abattoir worker slit your throat. "Merry Christmas, pass that delicious-looking vegetarian risotto please."
This week's stomach-turning Channel 4 documentary on "factory" turkey farming wasn't the revelation that many people thought it was. We've always been foul to fowls, as Peter Porter noted years ago: "London is full of chickens on electric spitsCooking in windows where the public passThis, say the chickens, is their AuschwitzAnd all poultry eaters are psychopaths."
But the programme will surely have left an indelible impression on even its least squeamish viewers. Schoolchildren may have been tucking into traditional Christmas dinners as usual last week (see page 3), but many of them will by now have lost their appetite for turkey. Cats will find it is a great Christmas for leftovers, and school cooks may struggle to tempt children with any meat dishes next term.
Nevertheless, this present scandal over the way turkeys are hatched and dispatched, and the continuing furore over BSE, do not warrant quite as much attention as they have had. Scare stories abound about CJD, the fatal brain disease, but perhaps we should remind ourselves that there has been a two-thirds drop in the incidence of BSE over the past two years, that only two British teenagers have died of CJD, and that vegetarians can suffer from the condition, too.
It is, however, understandable that so many local education authorities and schools should want to ban beef until the chief medical officer can offer hand-on-heart assurances. This week's news that experiments with mice suggest that BSE cannot jump species to man will change nothing. Perhaps if the experiments were conducted on spokesmen for the meat industry they would be taken more seriously.
So what's to be done in the meantime? Supplying school kitchens with organically-farmed beef and turkey is out of the question - there isn't nearly enough to go round, and organic turkeys can cost seven times as much as factory-farmed meat. In any case, it would be ludicrously inconsistent to introduce such a policy if the hamburger bars where teenagers congregate are not obliged to follow suit. As a general ban on factory-farmed British beef is inconceivable, the haphazard patchwork of school beef bans will almost certainly continue, and more and more children will opt to become vegetarians. Both they and their parents will therefore need more information on how to live healthily on a meat-free diet and schools may have to take the lead role.
LEAs' central kitchens may also have to show more sensitivity to changing tastes and apprehensions. This week, for example, one county kitchen insisted on providing its free-meals children with corned-beef sandwiches which even the supervising staff were not prepared to eat. But at least no child has needed to go hungry in a British school. Tragically, unless the Government has a change of heart, we will soon not be able to say that because hundreds of asylum-seekers' children are poised to lose their entitlement to free meals. Ironically, astrologers are predicting that a new humanitarian age will start next month because Uranus is due to move into Aquarius. Perhaps they should tell the Government.