The firefighters' sausages that sparked strong emotions

Sausages served up to firefighters at Pewsey Fire Station Image copyright Pewsey Fire Station
Image caption Firefighters celebrated their reward by putting the sausages on a barbecue

Some firefighters save a group of piglets from a barn fire - and are later rewarded with a gift of sausages made from the animals. It was a story that provoked strong emotion, from discomfort, through to disgust and exasperation. But what does this bizarre tale tell us about our attitudes to the consumption of meat?

Peter Sanchez-Iglesias, who was last week named the UK's best chef in the Good Food Guide 2018, believes that people being confronted with the reality of where their meat comes from can be challenging.

"I guess it did sound a bit weird for the firemen to eat the piglets, but then this is life, this is what happens - slaughtering of farm animals happens," says the Michelin-starred chef.

"It's a case of out of sight, out of mind. If people don't see the pigs they don't mind eating them, but if they see a piglet that reminds them of Babe then there's a chance they will change their mind."

A survey by the Vegan Society last year found that 3.25% of the UK population are now vegetarians, and that the number of vegans is growing rapidly.

Siobhan Dolan from Viva!, which promotes veganism, believes the tale of the rescued piglets has helped to encourage consumers to consider where their food comes from.

"It takes issues like this to get people to take a step back and really think about what they are eating," she says.

She believes the information easily available online now allows consumers to "delve deeper into where their food comes from".

"A few years ago this would not have been newsworthy, but there has been a massive shift in consumer opinion."

Image caption Siobhan Dolan says it's now easier for people to learn more about where their food comes from

While the firefighters' barbecue was leapt upon as a chance by some to discuss the morality - or lack thereof - of meat eating, for meat and dairy farmers around the country, there was a collective placing of heads in hands.

Farming journalist Chris Rundle certainly shares this sense of exasperation.

"My first reaction was 'what a ridiculous state of affairs this country has got itself into'," he says.

"You would have thought these firemen had been indulging in some form of cannibalism."

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Media captionGrateful farmer Rachel Rivers gave the sausages to firefighters

He accepts there has been a shift in public opinion in recent years, and believes this is because of a failure to promote the health benefits of eating meat and dairy - an "information vacuum" he argues has been filled by the "big money" spent by vegan groups.

He also rejects the assertion that people are more aware of where their food comes from.

"I've seen parents put their hands over their children's eyes when they have walked past a butcher's shop where carcasses are hanging.

"People don't want to see that, they don't want to handle meat, and these people are more susceptible to vegan ideology."

Image copyright Waitrose/PA
Image caption Peter Sanchez-Iglesias says better education about where our food comes from is needed

But for Siobhan Dolan, arguments that vegan groups are benefiting from a failure to better promote the virtues of eating meat are wide of the mark.

"The food market has been dominated for a long time by the meat industry, which now feels threatened by our campaign," she says.

"We are not forcing our opinions on people, we are just giving them the facts and showing them the reality of the meat industry."

Minette Batters, deputy president of the NFU, agrees with Mr Rundle that consumers "don't want to know about the end-of-life stage" of how meat is produced, and says the distance between consumers and their food is greater than it has ever been.

"Farmers are upset about the reaction stories like this produce and are angry about how certain groups seek to impose their views on other people," she says.

"They feel threatened by the reaction on social media, which makes it look like there is a tide of opinion against them."

Image caption The piglets were rescued in February

Mr Sanchez-Iglesias, the chef-patron of Casamia in Bristol, agrees with the argument that consumers are too "disconnected" from their food.

"People don't want to think about where their food comes from; they don't want to eat pigs they can 'see'," he says.

"Meat used to be a luxury, and while it's nice that people can enjoy it more, we can't keep producing it in the intensive way it often is.

"The more we educate kids to find out where their food comes from, the more they will respect meat and its real value.

"They will likely grow up to eat less of it and see it as a luxury, and we'll see a less emotional reaction to stories like this."

Image caption Rachel Rivers, who runs a farm in Pewsey, says she is just trying to make a living

As for Rachel Rivers, the Wiltshire farmer whose donation of the sausages sparked the controversy, all she wants to do is make a living.

"It's very difficult. Farming is what we do here: it's not an animal sanctuary and we don't have the animals for the fun of it.

"I do understand that some people don't eat meat, but some do, and farming is our life."

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