By now, most folks who are tuned in to this blog are interested or at least aware of the environmental and health consequences of the North American system of producing the hamburger or chicken nugget that appears on your plate or in your 40% post-consumer recycled take-away container. Today, I'd like to put down some ink on where our supermarket meat comes from, why - exactly - it's scary, and what our alternatives are.
CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) are where the majority of your beef eventually comes from. These are the "feed lots" many of us in the west grew up with. I certainly did - one of my best friend's family ran one just outside of town. It was never pretty. And, now, the sad truth is, even beef labeled "grass-fed" and "all-natural" generally comes from cattle that spends their last weeks in a CAFO.
Why is this sad? Well, beyond the horrific environmental conditions, CAFOs are by definition unhealthy and unsanitary. While we North Americans routinely take our dose of lecture from our physician or local public service announcement on the grave consequences of neglecting to finish our next Amoxycillin prescription, the truth of the matter is that 70% of US antibiotics in production is given to cattle, not people. So, really, whether you complete 7 or 9 days of that sacred 10-day cycle has relatively miniscule impact on the grand antibiotic resistance horizon.
Take a minute: 7 out of 10 antibiotics in circulation are injected into or ingested by the food you eat...and this never shows up on any label.
Cattle in CAFOs stand around shoulder-to-shoulder, ankle-deep in their own waste. The prevalence of illness is why all animals are generally given routine medication for their duration there. When Michael Pollen wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma, only two industries would not allow him to witness their operations: CAFOs were uniformly one of them. I don't know about you, but all things being equal, I generally prefer a restaurant with cooks out in the open to one where the cooks are hidden behind solid walls.
Even if you have little empathy for livestock, eating store-bought meat can be disturbing. Once you understand the conditions of CAFOs, the news that only a tiny, tiny fraction of all "USDA-inspected" meat is, actually, inspected should trigger true alarm. In fact, just last year, a midwest meat processor was actually sued by the USDA for implementing a plan to test all its beef. Seems the USDA felt that if it allowed such wanton testing to go unchecked, why, consumers might demand it and that, alone, would constitute "undue burden" on the other meat packers.
No, I am not kidding. Google it.
Chickens fare little better in their well-documented factory housing. A layer "house" the size of my (very small) bathroom can hold over 70 hens according to the government and industry standards. They never see the light of day, never leave their cage, are slaughtered when their production begins to fall. "Free range" hens and their meat-destined counterparts are, mostly, raised by the same people who raise the mainstream versions. These businessfolk construct an additional building with a door on one end and a small patch of grass outside. They are allowed to keep the chickens indoors the first 5 weeks or so, by government guidelines...and by then the habits are formed. The door opens, but the patch of grass goes largely unused. They are factory eggs and factory breasts and thighs in all but name only. But you, dear consumer, pay premium prices to feel that your eggs come from a higher source and are healthier. Not, I'm sad to tell you, so.
So. Why bother? You might as well just forget the whole thing and go back to buying whatever's on sale, right? Well, you can't be blamed for feeling that way. But, here's a couple alternatives and ideas:
First: It's cliche (as will be most of what follows), but vote with your dollars. If all that's available to you is "grass-fed" beef and "free-range" eggs from the main brands, buy it. Yes, you are paying extra for something that at its heart is not that different, but you are still creating a market. You're sending a message. Every time a Safeway egg buyer or butcher has to take stock of what's selling and sees that it's the organic or free range or grass fed...the market opens up a little and space for that small, sustainable farm is born. You can help create the next truly grass-fed ranch, the next truly free-range chicken farm. So keep buying.
Second: Please find your farmers market. You are being bludgeoned on this site about the importance of frequenting your local market, but it's really no joke. We can't afford to sell at supermarket prices, we depend on you to find us and tell us you care that we hand-raise our animals, kill them ourselves humanely, and carry the meat in coolers to your neighborhood. Is it more expensive than United Grocers? Yup.
Third: Join a buyers club or find a local butcher that works with area sustainable farmers. They're out there. If you're in the NW, try www.thunderinghooves.net or www.meatshopoftacoma.com. You can buy hand-raised lamb, clumsily but carefully wrapped, from us or talk to farmers at your local market - they'll likely know someone.
We reached a milestone this week. We have a storage locker full of our own lamb, we have several cuts of grass-fed bison, raised in eastern Washington, and we've just contracted to share about a quarter of a Canadian-raised steer with friends of ours. We will basically buy no store-bought red meat during 2009. And we're aiming to begin meat chickens this summer. I swear, there is something amazing about going through the local supermarket and totally bypassing the meat section. It's empowering.
If you're not fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of the above, here's a couple suggestions: Ask for beef that has been, at a minimum, "pasture finished." This means it spent its last several weeks on grass and ensures an almost null ecoli risk. And if your "pasture-raised" beef isn't "pasture-finished," ask why. You might make your supermarket butcher a little uncomfortable (I did), but they'll probably investigate - and that will get back to the livestock producer. Believe it or not, a lot of those guys are still small operations.
Don't let labels that shout "all vegetarian diet" substitute for grass; this is a misnomer in the cattle and free-range chicken and egg front - cattle fed grain only must live on drugs because their systems can't tolerate grain; chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians. An "all-vegetarian diet" means either someone is lying or these chickens are not being allowed to live a natural life.
And, finally, allow yourself to become connected with your food once more. Growing veggies and herbs in pots on the porch is a great start - but there is something deeply perverse about pretending that your meat never lived. We are the only culture in the world to insist on this. Meat = animal. It has always been so. Loving animals doesn't mean you can't eat meat or that you have to fantasize that steaks grow on trees.
It does, however, demand that you respect the animal that helped create your dinner. Loving animals does, I think, mean that you want their journey into your life to mean something, that consuming them should be a healthful privilege and not a risky business. You don't have to be an animal rights activist to know instinctively that all beings have a right to enjoy their time on earth, no matter how brief - and that as omnivores, we have a responsibility to ensure that the animal's life justifies its end.
The good news? It's easier than you think, and you can email me here for advice or suggestions.