The move by East Lancashire Hospital Trust to serve patients venison culled by Forestry England a mere 13 miles away was certainly a bold one, especially in the current anti-meat climate. Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance wrote an initial opinion piece about it, challenging the views of PETA on the matter. Whilst an overall positive article, I feel my medical and scientific background gives me something extra to add to the conversation.
The year-long trial was hailed a grand success, and a further 20 NHS Trusts are expected to follow suit. The wild, sustainably harvested meat contains high levels of protein, zinc, and iron (amongst many other nutrients) and relatively low levels of fat compared to other meats. It’s needless to say that protein has a whole host of health benefits, from repairing and building tissues, to building enzymes that allow metabolic reactions to take place, to maintaining hormonal function, and many more. Venison contains a wide variety of amino acids (the building blocks of protein), meaning the body can use it for lots of different jobs. Zinc supports the growth and function of immune cells, whilst iron is a vital component of haemoglobin, a molecule in the blood that transports oxygen to tissues around the body.
According to the British Association of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition as many as 29% of patients admitted to hospital in the UK are at risk of malnutrition, costing the NHS £23.5 billion and making up a whopping 15% of total healthcare spending. It is therefore unsurprising that many dieticians, chefs, and a whole host of healthcare professionals, public health experts and government officials are in full support of the decision given the nutritional benefits of venison.
Despite all this, PETA have made a similarly bold counter move against the introduction of venison to our hospitals, claiming the NHS should ‘dump animal flesh’ in favour of ‘vegetables, pulses and tofu’. Now, there is little dispute that these are also healthy and nutritious foodstuffs to include in a balanced diet. But to claim they are a comparable direct replacement for venison is a falsehood entirely. Simply put, they do not contain the same, if any, concentration and variety of amino acids that venison does, nor the levels of zinc, iron, choline or Vitamin B12 (also known as folic acid). It would take a patient eating a remarkably unhealthy amount of PETA’s recommended diet to get the same amount of these nutrients that is readily available in venison. As always, it is great to see that PETA have a dedicated, nationwide team of dieticians and healthcare professionals working to deliver cutting-edge health advice that trumps the NHS’ expertise.
Not only is it beneficial to patient health, but patient wellbeing and mental health may also be impacted by the initiative. NHS Digital reported in 2015-16 that ‘baby boomers’ – those aged 65-69 – made up the single largest group of hospital admissions. Now I may be biased due to my background, but I have scarcely met an older person who hasn’t had game meat on the table at some point in their lives, particularly as part of their childhood. This is irrespective of upbringing, class and creed. I personally know of plenty who would be utterly delighted to see game on the menu in hospital should they ever (touch wood) find themselves there. In a time of not particularly high spirits, even the gentlest of morale boosters via nostalgia can make all the difference in a patients’ experience and recovery.
Patient health aside (I can get carried away I know), negative claims about the sustainability of meat production are inevitable. But alas, they are usually misinformed. The deer culled to produce the venison are wild and free roaming, thus requiring no feeding or watering. They were professionally and humanely dispatched and processed in accordance with all health & safety guidelines. It’s common knowledge that the UK is detrimentally overpopulated with deer, so managing their population does wonders for all sorts of flora and fauna (it’s such common knowledge that I’m not even going to reference it, just for dramatic effect. Take that PETA).
Now let’s take the example of tofu, which is made from soy and is commonly used as a meat substitute. Firstly, it has a significant carbon and emission footprint from the air miles and manufacturing processes. As much as 80% of soy is grown in the US, Brazil and Argentina (I’d reference this but if you Google it it’s everywhere and I can’t be arsed to find a specific source right now coz it’s 11:30pm so if you don’t believe me then that’s your problem), so there is some significant travel involved compared to the mere 13 miles for the venison. This intensity of farming naturally leads to alarming deforestation; loss of habitat for animals and Amazon tribes; and the use of morally questionable pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.
So, on the one hand we have a food source that we help our local environment by using and on the other we have a food source that we actively damage fragile environments worldwide by using. Again, it’s fantastic to see PETA have a crack team of ecologists and environmental experts to advise them. I guess for them it's out of sight, out of mind.
Anyway, I dare you to find me a sixty-five-year-old who would choose tofu over venison.
Photo: Reasort Estates. Order seasonal fresh venison boxes here.