Buy This Not That: Meat

Most people don’t want to think too much about where their meat comes from beyond the meat department in the grocery store. As a society, we spend a lot of time anthropomorphizing animals, which makes it hard to think about slaughtering and eating them. Who among us would eat Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web or the cows from Click, Clack, Moo?

Not That: Conventionally raised meat and poultry from conventional grocery stores.

But we do need to think about where our meat comes from, how it’s treated, and what it’s fed. When we don’t, we give the meat industry implicit permission to do, well, pretty much whatever they can get away with – according to law, of course, but sometimes unnatural just the same – when it comes to feeding, housing, and modifying the animals we eat.

For example, feeding dairy cows waste from industrial bakeries and candy factories, something that the USDA allows and even brags about (PDF).

Or feeding cows parts of other cows because “protein is protein,” a practice which led to mad cow disease and which the FDA prohibited in 1997. But even today the FDA regulations on feeding don’t ban all products from ruminants in feed for other ruminants. So beef tallow, if it meets the standard for impurities, can be fed back to cows (PDF). (This document also clears up the question about whether “recovered cooking oils from restaurants and food processors” can be fed to cows. Yes, they can.)

In a bizarre circle of life, products from poultry and pigs can be fed to cows (question 6) and parts of cows can then be fed back to chickens and pigs. Let’s face it folks, feeding meat to herbivores like cows is just plain wrong and unnatural.

Or pumping animals full of medications. Because of the way the animals are bred, raised, fed, and/or housed, they need to be given antibiotics, 80% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. as a matter of fact. These antibiotics stay in the meat and milk and they are consumed by us. This small but consistent dose of antibiotics we consume in our food has been linked to antibiotic resistant “super-bugs.”

Or any of the multitude of physical alterations and poor housing conditions that are allowed by the FDA and USDA: chickens stacked in battery cages inside artificially lit “barns,” pigs with clipped tails, beak trimming, or chickens bred with breasts so large they can’t walk or breath properly.

When we don’t think too much about it, we end up eating meat that isn’t as healthy as it could be and compromising our own health. Just like reading the ingredients labels on the other food we eat, we need to know the ingredients that went into our meat and poultry.

Which leads to:

Buy This: Meat and poultry from stores and sources that demand standards and provide transparency with regard to animal feeding and welfare.

What does this mean? It means buying meat from a place where the employees can tell you where the meat came from, how it was cared for, and what it was fed. It means buying meat from a place that has published and public standards about the quality and welfare of the meat they sell.

Doing so not only provides healthier and tastier meat, but is much more ethical. And we do have an ethical responsibility to treat the animals we are going to eat with respect.

One such place to buy meat is direct from the farm. If you are able, this is a great option because you can visit and see the animals. You can talk to the farm workers about what the animals are fed, how they are raised, and where they are slaughtered. Direct, first-hand knowledge of your food is empowering and delicious.

Not everyone can go to a farm to buy meat and luckily, we don’t have to. We can go to a grocery store like Whole Foods Market (WFM). ‘m going to talk a lot about Whole Foods right now, but I’m not paid by them nor am I saying everyone should only shop there. But I am holding them up as an example of a grocery store that is trying to do meat right. Here’s why:

1. Whole Foods publishes their meat standards on their web site. The company is transparent about what it sells in the stores and set the bar high for farms and suppliers. WFM won’t sell any meat that doesn’t meet their standards.

2. Recently, WFM launched a 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating system in its stores. The system was developed by The Global Animal Partnership rates how pigs, chickens and cattle are raised. Ratings for other species (turkeys, lamb, and others) are in development.

The ranking system goes from 1 to 5+. At Step 1 “farmers and ranchers must focus intently on the welfare of their animals and meet specific standards, including no antibiotics, no animal by-products in their feed, and no added growth hormones… [and] most physical alterations widely used in animal production are prohibited.”  The grass-fed beef I buy is a 5. The organic chicken I buy (either Rosie’s or WFM) is a 2. A chicken from Tyson or Purdue wouldn’t even make it onto the scale as a 1.

The web site gives a only brief overview of the system and I encourage everyone to download the PDF or pick up a brochure in the store to find out the details.

3. The WFM butchers are highly knowledgeable about where the meat comes from and are given the opportunity to visit the farms where the meat comes from. When asked if he bought into the meat standards of the company, one butcher told me “Absolutely. We visit the farms and see how the animals are treated and processed. It’s eye-opening.”

I’d like to think there are other grocery stores doing similar things, so please, if you know of one, talk about it in the comments below.

The Bottom Line:

Know about your food, even if it’s tough to think about. Buy your meat from a knowledgeable source that promotes transparency and has high quality standards. Animals that are well fed, housed, and treated provide the healthiest, tastiest, and most ethical meat.

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