The Pakistani love affair with meat has been a long and enduring one. In decades past, every neighbourhood, rich or poor, featured a butcher shop, whose front prominently featured a fresh carcass swinging from a hook. Housewives would debate quality with the butcher or argue over the price or the freshness or the cut.
Those were different days, of course, when all relationships of consumption involved trust, when the city was not a megacity and the village was not a town. Even the birds got into the act back then; at least one neighbour regularly threw out scraps on the roof, inviting a dark cloud of crows and carrion birds to feast.
Pakistan may have changed, but its love of meat persists. It is perhaps the former that has made the latter more complicated. At the end of August, local police in Lahore raided the Kotli Ghai locality in Harbanspura and seized 300kg of meat, allegedly of dead donkeys and horses. According to the newspaper report, the three men whom police arrested for the crime admitted to having supplied the meat to the Gulberg area.
In another raid led by Punjab Food Minister Bilal Yasin, several tonnes of dead chicken meat were apparently seized from Lahore&’s Tollinton Market. A few days later, a Punjab Food Authority team led by the director general Ayesha Mumtaz carried out a raid near the Lahore Railway Station. There were suspicions that the meat was pork that might have been being sold as beef or mutton, though the man to whom the consignment belonged maintained otherwise.
The mixed-up meat problem is not limited to Lahore. On September 12, reports emerged from Karachi that 4,000kg of “unhygienic” meat had been seized. This latest report said that the deputy commissioner of Karachi South had led a raid in the Empress Market area, which is one of the oldest shopping areas in the city. The same day brought several more raids in Lahore, led by the livestock department district officer Dr Rahat Ali. Zeroing in on slaughterhouses, these raids also reported the seizure of several hundred kilogrammes of “unhygienic” meat.
While there hasn’t been much follow-up on the allegations, they have raised some alarm in Pakistan&’s meat-consuming public. The concern both on the part of consumers and authorities is belated. If regulatory authorities had been doing their jobs all along, of course, such raids — along with their allegations that people are eating donkey, horse or even pork — would not occur at all.
Regular inspections and enforced registration requirements for those selling meat products would mean that the deceptive sale of donkey as cow or horse as goat would not be happening in the first place. The lack of regulation enforcement and the ever-rising demand has instead created lucrative gaps that enable such fraudulent practices to flourish, with little detection. People like to eat meat, and sometimes it seems they like it so much that they would rather not ask too many questions.
The rising demand dimension of the problem is an important one; data collected by The Guardian on worldwide meat consumption shows that the per capita meat consumption in Pakistan in 1969 was about 7kg per person.
More recent data collected by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN showed that per capita meat consumption in 2009 was up to 14.7kg. Admittedly, Pakistan is hardly near the top of the list of meat consumption; like everything else, the world&’s wealthiest, most industrialised countries are the most carnivorous, consuming hundreds of kilos of meat per capita as their populations get ever more obese. A closer comparison would be with Bangladesh, once a part of Pakistan, where per capita consumption is only 4kg a person.
The fact that others consume more or less meat than Pakistan is unlikely to hold much weight in Pakistan. Morning and night, high-pitched recipe mavens on always-on cooking channels teach their homebound viewership to cook this or that recipe centrally featuring meat of some sort.
The media, however, is but a reflection of the culture to which it caters and Pakistan&’s is a culture in which meat also signifies class. Marriages where families regularly take on great mountains of debt to feed hundreds of eager mouths are incomplete without meat-laden biryanis and kormas laid out before guests.
Eid-ul-Azha brings meat-related challenges, a parade of soon-to-be sacrificed livestock, essential to signifying piety and prosperity. Religious rules mandate a large portion for the needy and poverty-struck, but what others don’t see doesn’t matter in Pakistan, and it can be safely assumed that most of the meat ends up in the country&’s deep freezers.
The problem of dubious meat, then, is not simply a problem of adulteration, of deceptive butchers selling dead animals. It is also the problem of a society that is not really interested in pausing to reflect on its cultural practices, particularly those related to class and consumption. The rich eat meat, and everyone wants to be rich. In a country where class mobility is inaccessible to most, dubious approximations of all sorts burgeon.
The poor of Pakistan are in this sense the consumers of many imitations: poor copies of education are doled out in dark-roomed schools, where students devote themselves to mindless memorisations; even worse, imitations of piety as hatred are doled out from the pulpits of mosques; and, just beyond their doors, worshippers can stop to buy adulterated milk or adulterated flour. In the emotional realm, they and others can feign artificial joy, artificial grief and just as artificial outrage and concern at the tragedies that surround them.
In this milieu of artifice, where the poor are sentenced to the mere semblance of a life, why should meat be any different? The meat of a dead animal, a horse or a donkey, is after all meat; and in a country where millions get only an approximate imitation of a life, facing the reality of the ruse will expose a lot more than just meat. It is, because of this, a truth they simply cannot afford.