Do you find the idea of eating breast milk ice cream as repulsive as most people seem to? It is being served by an ice cream parlor in London.
Eww! Ice-cream made out of breast milk! Gross! There’s a good chance that was your first reaction to reading about the Baby Gaga ice-cream being served by the magnificently trend-baiting Icecreamists parlour in Covent Garden, and to be perfectly honest, even after thinking it through for long enough to write this piece, it’s still my reaction.
I struggle sometimes just thinking about my food having a face. The idea of my dessert coming from a milker with a name, the ability to speak and a business plan for her lactational products is simply too much. (The milk comes from the breast of Victoria Hilley, apparently, who receives £15 for every 10oz she supplies. Which makes me feel slightly sick in a different way, as I suddenly imagine every sodden breast pad I lobbed in the bin during my own nursing phase as a tenner in the landfill.)
But there’s a deep hypocrisy in this revulsion. Why does food become more disgusting the more willingly it’s given? I’m essentially like Arthur Dent, remonstrating with the bovine that wants to be eaten in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, disgusted at the idea of consuming something sufficiently sentient to agree to be eaten. After all, the milk I pour in my tea and on my children’s cereal comes from cows living in conditions far more unpleasant than a bit of dietary taboo-busting.
In the crowded field of farm-animals-I’d-least-like-to-be, industrially reared dairy cattle have a strong case for the number one slot. Food campaigner Elisabeth Winkler of the Real Food Lover blog says that “the way cows are currently treated is far more shocking”. They calve early to start lactation, have their young removed from them, are treated with hormones to promote milk production and are hooked up to milking machines to extract the contents of their swollen udders. The perpetual lactation means dairy cows are vulnerable to infections such as mastitis.
It’s incumbent on farmers to take the duty of care they have for their animals seriously, and do everything they can to minimise the stress and ill-health that a milk cow is likely to suffer – and being around a well-tended dairy herd can certainly be a supremely soothing experience, as the cows go through their quiet daily business of grass-grazing, cud-chewing and gentle lowing come milking hour.
Sadly, while there are many smaller dairies striving for this idyll, there are larger interests vested in pushing for ever more production. Plans to build a US-style mega dairy in Lincolnshire – which would have housed at least 4,000 cows in conditions described by Compassion In World Farming as a “disaster from an animal welfare point of view” – have recently been rejected, but Nocton Dairies, the company that made the proposal (which insists its plans will meet welfare standards and environmental responsibilities) seems to intend to come back with a revised application.
And in a recession, with demand for cheap food up and consumer concern over the manner of production potentially dampened, who’s to say it won’t get a more sympathetic hearing at the next attempt? Cows kept indoors for as long as they’re in milk, huge concerns about sewage, run-off and waste disposal, and animals treated as units to be squeezed for maximum productivity – eww, again! But on the other hand, cheap milk!
Ultimately, I suspect there’s a power relationship in eating that’s unsettled when we begin to think of our dietary resources as having agency: if this food is willingly given, how am I supposed to feel like the top of the food chain? It’s a power dynamic that probably feeds into the sexual connotations of adults consuming breast milk – yes there is a fetish market, and yes, I’m sure that some of the patrons at the Icecreamists are attracted by something other than the lure of the ultimate natural and free-range food.
But if human milk is a sex thing, where does that leave those of us who drink milk that comes from cow boobs? The comparison doesn’t bear thinking about – or rather, it demands some pretty radical adjustments in the way we see our relationship to food and farming. Still, there’s a pretty big “eww!” for us to get over first.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010