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“The Netherlands Meat Land” campaign: Towards an ethnography of meat

By Irene Stengs

On 1 September 2022, the Dutch Central Organisation for the Meat Industry (COV, Centrale Organisatie voor de Vleessector), a partnership consisting of organizations involved in the production and processing of meat (butchers, farmers, fodder companies), launched their online platform Nederland Vleesland (see for the partners constituting the Centrale Organisatie voor de Vleessector [COV]). With the Vleesland campaign the COV started a ‘societal dialogue’ under the slogan ‘The Netherlands Meat Land where tastes differ’ (Nederland Vleesland waar smaken verschillen), in order to tell ‘the story’ of meat in a more nuanced way. The point of departure is the Dutchness of meat: ‘meat is part of the Netherlands’ (vlees hoort bij Nederland). This is substantiated by the figure that 94% of the Dutch population ‘chooses to eat meat’.

The Nederland Vleesland campaign is one instance of the intensifying political and societal contestations surrounding the Dutch livestock industry. In its opening statement, the platform announces its aim to counterbalance the tendency in Dutch media to present a one-sided, supposed, biased negative image of meat and meat eating. Spokespersons of the various meat branches tell their ‘more nuanced stories’ about the reality of meat in short video messages (see Different Tastes and Accessible and Affordable).  

The virtual absence of anything that relates the meat industry to issues of nitrogen deposition, CO2 emanation, eutrophication of surface water, or animal well-being, is a good example of what agnotology labels as the ‘production of ignorance’: ‘deliberate, culturally-induced ignorance or doubt typically to sell a product or win favor, particularly through the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data’. Hence, unsurprisingly the campaign so far has been particularly successful in attracting debunking, outraged or ironic responses from journalists, cartoonists, animal welfare organizations, and green politicians, basically, all asking under what kind of rock the COV has been living. Probably, the campaign will soon fade away from the public eye. Then why spend some thoughts on the Nederland Vleesland campaign? What would be the relevance from an anthropological perspective?

A jar of mealworms attached to the above sign as a material token of such horror

Obviously, the architects of the campaign are content with capturing the Netherlands as meat land: a land, in that perspective, of fair meat producers and conscious meat eaters. The slogan was taken up critically by some of the commentators. Certainly, the COV had hit the nail on the head: with 1.5 million animals slaughtered daily and the meat industry’s annual turnover of 10.4 billion, the Netherlands undeniable is a meat land. To me (not a vegetarian), the massive quantity of amorphous meat substance evoked by the Vleesland metaphor, is repulsive.

The meat metaphor evokes the question: what substance is meat? Although, as Emily Yates-Doerr (2012) notes, the FAO definition of meat suggests meat as a singular and stable material – ‘all parts of the animal that are intended for or are judged as safe and suitable for human consumption’ – people’s dealings with meat are imbued with ideas on pollution and inedibility. Why not eat insects?

In an insightful article on the social history of the slaughterhouse anthropologist Amy Fitzgerald states: ‘If Levi-Strauss was correct that “animals are good to think with”, then it would likely follow that the institution which kills the greatest number of them and is summarily obscured from the public’s gaze is particularly worthy of detailed examination’ (2010:58).  Such is the more true, I hold, for the ambiguous matter produced by this institution and its affiliates. Meat has, of course, always been food for thought for anthropologists, but my suggestion is a study of the ‘Netherlands Meatland’ that places meat center stage. The ethnography would follow particular instances of meat modalities across places, people, and practices. I imagine, for example, a chapter on BBQ meat. Moving from the ‘festive everydayness’ of easy, cheap, summer family or neighborhood meals to the emotive employment of BBQ meat as a political tool, when Pegida followers threaten to barbecue pork in front of a mosque or when protesting farmers barbecue amidst their tractors blocking high roads. Investigating the dos and don’ts of meat and meat eating helps to shed light on Dutch society, fleshing out the entanglements of meat, meat production, meat-eating, and what counts as ‘being Dutch’.

Irene Stengs is Senior Researcher at the Meertens Institute, and Professor of Ritual and Popular Culture (VU Amsterdam)

[Featured image: A Dutch livestock farmer’s protest against the government’s 2022 policy to cut down on nitrogen disposition by hanging the national three color upside-down. The sign reads, freely translated, ‘with parties such as Kaag you will get mealworms in your stomach’.  (Sigrid Kaag is the minister of finance and leader of the social liberal party D66, and co-architect of this policy)]

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