Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 35, Issue 3, pp 569–580 | Cite as

On (not) knowing where your food comes from: meat, mothering and ethical eating

  • Kate Cairns
  • Josée Johnston


Knowledge is a presumed motivator for changed consumption practices in ethical eating discourse: the consumer learns more about where their food comes from and makes different consumption choices. Despite intuitive appeal, scholars are beginning to illuminate the limits of knowledge-focused praxis for ethical eating. In this paper, we draw from qualitative interviews and focus groups with Toronto mothers to explore the role of knowledge in conceptions of ethical foodwork. While the goal of educating children about their food has become central to Canadian and American discourses of “good” mothering, we identify a paradoxical maternal expectation surrounding meat consumption: (1) to raise informed child consumers who know where their food comes from, and (2) to protect children from the harsh realities of animal slaughter. Rather than revealing the story behind the meat on a child’s plate, mothers seek to shield children from knowledge of meat production. Our analysis of the child consumer contributes to ethical eating scholarship and illuminates a larger paradox surrounding knowledge of meat in an industrialized food system. In the practice of feeding children, mothers confront the visceral discomforts of meat consumption; their reactions speak to discordant feelings involved with eating meat in a setting far-removed from the lives and deaths of animals. Ultimately, the paper illustrates the limits of consumer-focused strategies for food-system change that call on individual mothers to educate young consumers and protect childhood innocence, all while getting ethically-sourced meals on the table.


Childhood Consumption Ethical eating Meat Mothering 



We would like to thank Shyon Baumann for his comments on a previous version of this paper. The research was supported by an Ontario Government Early Researcher Award.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Childhood StudiesRutgers University-CamdenCamdenUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

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