Perspective: Meat and Materiality

Kristie O'Neill

The Meat of the Matter: An introduction to the materiality of meat
Kristie O’Neill’s research is anchored in understanding how dietary changes emerge at the intersection of trade arrangements and cultural ideals.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Explain how governments, businesses, and eaters’ food interests are aligned and in tension.
  • Articulate the wide range of reactions that meat elicits from people.
  • Discuss how we make meaning about who we are and how we should act through meat.


Food researchers explain how global reductions in meat consumption will lessen environmental degradation and improve physical health.[1] Yet researchers also understand that getting people to adopt dietary recommendations is difficult. Food, like meat, is not simply a physical object that people ingest in order to meet daily survival needs.

This chapter will explore the “more than” element of meat. Scholars use the concept of materiality to illustrate that objects like meat are produced through people’s work, that they have a physical presence that people react to, and that they are used to express social relationships and identities.[2] The point here is to better understand how meat is socially embedded so that we can also understand why calls to change meat practices may feel unrealistic and even offensive.

Meat and government and business strategies

Governments’ and businesses’ concerns about food safety, profit, and animal welfare influence people’s work of raising and slaughtering livestock. For instance, Brynne explains how in British Columbia, Canada, regulatory attempts to align federal, provincial, and territorial meat inspection practices made it illegal to slaughter animals directly on farms.[3] Since adopting new slaughtering standards was costly and difficult to implement, by 2012, there were only 50 abattoirs in the province, rather than the more than 300 that existed in the early 2000s.[4] The loss of local abattoirs meant that fewer farmers were able to provide consumers with the locally farmed meat they desired. Brynne’s work illustrates that efforts to standardize meat production had the effect of favouring big businesses, which could keep up with regulations.

Moreover, businesses’ and governments’ interests diverge when it comes to animals and food. The tensions that exist among government ministries (and between ministries and businesses) garnered media attention in 2019 when Canada revised its national food guide and launched a new version. The latest edition of Canada’s Food Guide recommends that people eat more plant-based foods and lists nuts, beans, tofu, and more alongside meat, eggs, and dairy in the “protein” category. These recommendations promote human and environmental health in line with Health Canada’s mandate, yet contradict strategies that are in line with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s mandate to promote Canada’s animal-based industries.[5]

In short, the ways that meat is made available through livestock raising and slaughtering practices have changed over time. The approaches different ministries and businesses take to eating meat are not always in sync. However, government and businesses are not the only actors influencing meat supplies and eating practices. Meat itself elicits many reactions.

Meat and agency

Beyond the struggles that emerge among businesses and governments, it is also important to consider how meat calls forth reactions from people. Meat is a visceral substance, and invokes sensory responses. Sight, smell, texture, taste, and even sound are part of people’s experiences in responding to what is ‘edible’ or ‘inedible.’ The reactions meat elicits are sometimes described as indicators of the agency of things.[6] In many supermarkets, raw selections are provided to consumers on plastic-wrapped trays or are wrapped in paper, seemingly distancing consumers from the process of how that particular cut came into being. Not all markets take this approach, with some offering displays of feet, heads, roasts, and live fish (to be killed). In this regard, meat brings about reactions from disgust to desire.

What signals edibility versus inedibility changes with people’s cultures, preferences, and knowledge.[7] For instance, organ meats have “a reputation for triggering disgust and hesitation”[8] but do not do so uniformly. Foie gras is made from geese or duck liver and is a traditional delicacy for many.[9] In contrast, it also symbolizes animal cruelty to other eaters, as it is produced through force feeding. The meat-related cues that eaters react to vary based on individual understandings of what is good to eat and why. Like foie gras, the edibility of veal has been hotly debated.[10] For some eaters, veal cutlets tinged with pink (versus white) signals to eaters that the calf was not crated and is therefore acceptable to eat. For others, veal is never an acceptable option. The quality and cost of meat provide cues to eaters about the conditions of animal rearing, as do colour, texture, flavours, and even freshness.[11]

In addition to meat itself, the infrastructure around meat calls forth reactions. Where abattoirs are to be located, and how slaughtering and butchering are in view or hidden are also part of meat’s agency. For example, the location of abattoirs elicits reactions from people, as residents find themselves confronting the regular transport of animals to slaughterhouses, as well as related smells that can waft through their homes.[12] The location of abattoirs and farms also brings about questions of environmental racism, in terms of who bears the burden of closing windows to avoid smells, avoiding time outside, and the economic penalty of living in housing with depreciating value. Moreover, the outbreaks of COVID at meat-packing plants have drawn attention to the fact that industrialized slaughter and butchering work is typically done by immigrants, temporary foreign workers, and/or racialized people.[13]

Meat is thus a material object that people react to with their senses and daily living practices. Sense-based reactions and ways of living with meat are often part of people’s culture and identities. Different options offer inviting, stomach-filling, and socially enriching experiences to some, while symbolizing something revolting, inhuman, lacking in compassion, or taboo to others.

Meat as culture and identity

Meat is not just eaten to satiate hunger: what is eaten, how it is obtained, how it is prepared, and how people come together to eat it can be an integral part of people’s cultural identities. For example, hunting, trapping, and fishing activities reflect Kistiganwacheeng’s, or Garden Hill First Nation’s, deep-rooted relationship with land, animals, and people.[14] “This cultural foundation includes the knowledge of wildlife behaviours in their habitats, as well the protocols, including ceremonies, required to hunt, fish, trap, gather, and live on the land”.[15] In this regard, relationships with people, animals, and the land are meaningfully interconnected, and eating meat reflects these bonds.

The type and qualities of meat available to people in institutions and at public gatherings can also selectively invite and exclude people. In their study of the halal food market in Canada, Adekunle and Filson regularly learned from Somali-Canadian participants that having halal options readily available in supermarkets would make them feel more included.[16] Food nourishes bodies, as well as communities, and integration and inclusion matter.

People express who they are and interpret each other through eating practices, and this includes if and how people eat meat. Gender expressions are associated with meat eating. A “strong man” script associated with meat eating links consumption to aggression, strength, and virility.[17] There are multiple scripts at play at any one time, which inform how people should act in different lived contexts,[18] and gender expressions around meat intersect with sexuality, class, race, and ethnicity. When a study about vegetarians and vegans seeking sexual partners with the same eating habits made global headlines, both journalists and commenters responded rudely, with some commentators threatening sexual violence against non-meat eaters.[19] The pressure to eat meat, often illuminated when people are prompted to explain why they are not eating meat, underscores “how much attention we [in society] pay to what we’re eating—and what everyone else is eating—and how that obsession affects other aspects of our lives”.[20]

Meat eating can be a polarizing topic. Meat eaters have been vilified as cruel and savage, and non-meat eaters as militant and hyper-sensitive.[21] Contention sometimes emerges in discussions amongst “those who think meat will destroy the planet and those who believe that…livestock can heal it (and of course those who prefer not to think about the issue at all).”[22] Discussions about meat can target people’s heritage and identities in ways that may not be obvious to the critic, but are degrading to those who are targets of comments.


This text introduced readers to ways in which meat is an substance produced through work, work that is influenced by governments’ and businesses’ different interests. It also showed how meat is an substance that calls forth reactions from people, that people use to make value-based inferences about one another, and that can nourish us physically, culturally, spiritually. Meat is socially embedded, as our relationship with it is entangled with our political, economic, social, and cultural relationships with other people. In this regard, meat is an object of considerable complexity.

Discussion Questions

  • Think of an advertisement or promotion for meat-based foods (including packaging messages). What claims are made about the food? Who is depicted (e.g., farmers, families, eaters)? How would you describe the social demographics of the people who are depicted (e.g., gender expression, ethno-racial heritage, class, sexual expression)? How would you describe their attributes (e.g., knowledgeable, trustworthy, happy)?
  • When marketers transmit messages about food products, they also transmit ideals about who people are and how they should act. What can these ideals tell us about the scripts  that have traction in society? Why might it be important to pay attention to script patterns in advertising?


Looking at Daily-Protein Consumption

Have a look at the “protein” section in Canada’s Food Guide. Based on the visual display, think of what proteins you have eaten today and consider:

  • What have you eaten that is represented in the Canada Food Guide?
  • What have you eaten that was not represented in the Canada Food Guide?
  • Why are there differences?
  • How do the differences between the Guide’s dietary recommendations and your everyday eating patterns highlight the challenges involved in making and adopting recommendations?

Mapping Environmental Racism Through Slaughterhouses

In this exercise, you will adopt an environmental racism approach to examining where slaughterhouses are in your area. The aim is to begin to identify if/how neighbourhood demographics—such as race and class—are predictors of where meat-processing facilitates are located.

  • Using Google Maps, find the slaughterhouse nearest to your home using the following search terms: “slaughterhouse”, “abattoir”, “meat packer”, or “meat processor”. Write down the postal code.
  • Go to the 2016 Statistics Canada Census Profiles and under “Search” click on “Postal Code.” Enter the postal code of the slaughterhouse you located. You may have many additional geographic options to choose from. Try starting with “federal electoral district.”
  • Have a look at the demographic information. A lot of information is provided—be prepared to scroll down the page.
    • Do a keyword search for “median total income.” When you find it, write down the figure.
    • There are a variety of demographics related to heritage, and they are not perfect indicators. Nonetheless, you may want to start by writing down the “total population estimate” reported, the “total visible minority population” reported, and the total who indicated “Aboriginal identity.” If you divide the number you wrote down for “total visible minority population” by the “total population estimate” and multiply by 100, and follow the same step for “Aboriginal identity,” you will be able to compare demographics later.
  • Next, enter the postal code of your home. Compare demographic information based on the steps you took to examine demographics related to the nearest slaughterhouse.

Compare income and ethno-racial demographic patterns. What similarities and differences do you observe? Compare your findings with others in your course.

Additional Resource

Waldron, I.R. 2018. There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities. Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing.


Adekunle, B. and G. Filson. 2020. “Understanding Halal Food Market: Resolving Asymmetric Information.” Food Ethics 13.

Bakker, K. and G. Bridge. 2006. “Material Worlds? Resource Geographies and The ‘Matter of Nature’.” Progress in Human Geography 30: 5–27.

Brynne, A. 2020. “The Structural Constraints on Green Meat.” In Green Meat? Sustaining Eaters, Animals, and the Planet. Ryan M. Katz-Rosene and Sarah J. Martin (eds.): 348-387. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

CBC News. 2021 Residents, Politicians “Disturbed” By New Meat-Processing Plant in Toronto Neighbourhood. CBC News.

Deckha, M. 2020. “Something to Celebrate?: Demoting Dairy in Canada’s National Food Guide.” Journal of Food Law & Policy 16.

DeSoucey, M. 2016. Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dryden, J. and Rieger, S. 2020. Inside The Slaughterhouse. CBC News.

EAT-Lancet Commission. n.d. “Summary Report of the EAT-Lancet Commission: Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems, Food Planet Health.”

Font-i-Furnols, M. and L. Guerrero. 2014. “Consumer Preference, Behavior and Perception About Meat and Meat Products: An Overview.” Meat Science 98: 361–371.

Kenefick, A. 2020. “The Practice of Responsible Meat Consumption.” Green Meat? Sustaining Eaters, Animals, and the Planet. Ryan M. Katz-Rosene and Sarah J. Martin (eds.): 254-285. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Mason, R. 2021. “Book Review: Green Meat? Sustaining Eaters, Animals, and The Planet.” Canadian Food Studies 8 (1): 82-84.

O’Neill, K. 2019. “From Inhumane to Enticing: Reimagining Scandalous Meat,” British Food Journal 12: 3135-3150.

Potts, A. and J. Parry. 2010. “Vegan Sexuality: Challenging Heteronormative Masculinity through Meat-free Sex.” Feminism & Psychology 20: 53–72.

Sobal, J. 2005. “Men, Meat, and Marriage: Models of Masculinity.” Food and Foodways: Explorations in the History and Culture of Human Nourishment 13: 135–158.

Thompson, S., P. Pritty, and K. Thapa. 2020. “Eco-Carnivorism in Garden Hill First Nation.” Green Meat? Sustaining Eaters, Animals, and the Planet. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. Ryan M. Katz-Rosene and Sarah J. Martin (eds.): 220–253.

Van Bemmel, A. and K. Parizeau. 2020. “Is it Food or Is it Waste? The Materiality and Relational Agency of Food Waste Across The Value Chain.” Journal of Cultural Economy 13: 207–220.

Weis, T. 2015. “Meatification and the Madness of the Doubling Narrative,” Canadian Food Studies 2 (2): 296–303.

  1. EAT-Lancet Commission, n.d.
  2. Bakker & Bridge 2006.
  3. Brynne 2020.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Deckha 2020, 34.
  6. Van Bemmel & Parizeau 2020.
  7. Font-i-Furnols & Guerrero 2014.
  8. Kenefick 2020, 273.
  9. De Soucey 2016.
  10. O’Neill 2019.
  11. Font-i-Furnols & Guerrero 2014.
  12. Brynne 2020; CBC News 2021.
  13. Dryden & Rieger 2020.
  14. Thompson, Pritty &Thapa 2020.
  15. Ibid, 228.
  16. Adekunle & Filson 2020, 17.
  17. Sobal 2005.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Potts & Parry 2010.
  20. Ibid, 65.
  21. Weis 2015.
  22. Mason 2021.


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Food Studies: Matter, Meaning, Movement Copyright © 2022 by Kristie O'Neill is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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