How Old are the Animals You Eat?

Here’s how I became “HumanWikipedia.” I hate not knowing something. When I come across a bit of information I have no clue about, I tend to go out and research it until I’m satisfied. The other day I was eating a gyro and I got to thinking about the difference between types of meat – why is it so taboo to eat veal, but apparently normal to eat lamb – and if lamb is really a young sheep or just the name for the meat from any sheep.

Scrambled Brain

This was my mind.
Image via Life Supercharger

I didn’t know and it started driving me crazy.

So I went to find the research and this is what I’ve come up with, but first a disclaimer. If you get grossed out by meat or thinking about where meat comes from, do not continue.  Ignorance can be bliss.  I will not get into detail of the methods meat is butchered or anything graphic, but you have otherwise been warned. There is a chance some of your favorite food could be ruined in your mind. I have left images of animals out of this post intentionally.

  Butchering Ages of Common Meats
  Type of Meat   Life Span   Butchering Age   Percentage
  Sheep (Lamb)1   12 years   7 months   4.86%
  Sheep (Mutton)   12 years   14 months   9.72%
  Cow (Beef)2   20 years   12 months   5.0%
  Cow (Veal)   20 years   6 months   2.5%
  Pig (Pork)3   8 years   7 months   7.29%
  Chicken4   6 years   3 months   5.0%
  Fish (Tilapia)5   5 years   14 months   23.33%
  Fish (Salmon)6   4 years   36 months   75.0%

**Life span refers to the life span in the wild for wild animals (fish) and domesticated life span otherwise. Butchering age is an estimated average.**

I did not include animals which are not raised domestically, such as shrimp or lobster.

As you can see, what I wanted to look at was not empirically how old the animal is, but how old they are in relation to their whole life span when they are normally butchered, as represented by the “Percentage” column.

So, what jumps out here?  First, lamb is indeed a young sheep and mutton is adult sheep.  Mutton is not at all popular in the United States, partly because it has the reputation of being a tough or gamey meat and partly because it was a meat commonly used to feed soldiers, who grew to hate it – either because it was poorly stored (old and gross meat) or poorly prepared (cafeteria food without the modern appliances).

Next, when scanning for the lowest percentage of life spans, Veal does come out as the lowest (2.5% of life span).  I also found most of the stigma and appall appears to be associated with the living conditions where the calf is raised and that they are still feeding from their mothers, which no other of these animals do at the point of butchering. But, there is not a large difference of normal beef from a chicken or lamb – all are at or below 5% of life span.  After that, Pork and Mutton come in between 5% and 10% of the life span.

The fish are well beyond these bounds with Tilapia at 23.33% and Salmon at a gigantic 75%.  The reason fish were so high is that I used life span in the wild as my gauge and that fish grow relatively slowly.  Wild tilapia will live 5 years typically and it takes about a year to get to a decent size for eating.  Salmon is a huge percentage because they are harvested as a very large fish (3-5 times larger than a fully grown tilapia) and because their life span is the shortest of any of the animals on this list.  They spend their lives growing large enough to swim back upstream to spawn and then die at 4 years of age.  So when commercial salmon is “harvested” at 3 years old, they are about the same size as 4 year old wild salmon, but it is a substantial investment in terms of how much they are fed compared to how much meat is sold, which is likely why salmon is a rather expensive meat.

When is it okay to butcher an animal for its meat?

First, let’s put aside whether or not animals should be butchered for meat. So long as people eat meat, it will be efficient to raise domestic livestock rather than allow the animals to be wild – and therefore profitable to raise and butcher animals solely for the purpose of human consumption.

Maturity seems to be the big issue, and there seem to be three points of maturity that matter:

  1. When an animal is no longer feeding from its mother. Taking a baby from its mother is mostly considered cruel to the mother, however animals like chickens do not feed from their mothers, not even second-hand as other birds do in a nest. But, eating a chick would seem cruel and appalling.
  2. When an animal has reached its full size. After this point, the owner of the animals will only be having a higher cost for waiting to butcher the animal.
  3. When an animal can breed.  It may be cruel to let an animal, especially females, to reach breeding age and then possibly butcher a pregnant animal. This can happen before or after the animal has reached its full size.

Ultimately, its your opinion and choice of what to eat. I have never eaten veal, but it is also true I’ve never had lobster.  Because they are bugs. I am still deciding about how I feel about lamb.

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