(Deut. 14:3, KJV)
I now renew my vows: I shall eat Meat Of Known Origin, and I shall shun mystery meat.
(I worry less about other types of animals, because they are not raised on the same scale or in quite such awful ways.)
My guidelines may sound vague—they are a bit. And we each have different priorities, depending on what value we put on our health and the health of our families, the continued success (and existence) of our farmers, the relative happiness of the animals, environmental impact, our limited household budgets, etc.
When considering a potential source of meat, I may have just a few words to go on to start. "Grass-fed" is a good sign (for cows!). "Organic" can be good, but means less and less as time goes on. "Pastured" and "free-range" can mean more or less, depending who's saying them. "Vegetarian-fed" is not something to brag about for most animals. Finally, "natural" means nothing in the US (although in some countries it may have a specific legal meaning).
Farms' websites often provide further clues. Here are some things I've seen. These are all bad signs, to me:
- pictures of tractor-trailers;
- pictures of people in haz-mat suits or wearing shower caps;
- pictures of meat in retail packaging;
- pictures of massive, barracks-like chicken coops;
- absence of pictures of live animals outdoors;
- the words "food service";
- the words "Tyson", "Cargill", or "Sysco";
- bragging about how large they are;
- excessive talk about USDA standards and "food safety"; and
- talk about how they don't feed hormones to their chickens. (It is illegal to feed hormones to chickens anyway, so this is nothing to brag about.)
Beyond that, if you have questions about a farm's practices not answered by their website, call them.
And be aware that a farm is often not a farm. When it's not a farm, it can be a coop or aggregator (Niman Ranch, for instance), or it can simply be a brand—empty words ("White Marble Farms"). I will repeat: just because meat is said to come from "Such and Such Farms" doesn't mean that the meat comes from one particular place, or that a place by that name actually exists. If you haven't heard of a particular "ranch" or "farm", or even if you have, some due diligence may be in order. The more information you have about the origin of the meat, the better. The Internet makes this easier than it might have been in the past.
Why does it matter where your meat is from? I've said lots about it before. Here are some new tidbits:
- Russia has recently banned imports of US beef and pork because of certain agricultural drugs (link, link). The same agricultural drugs are banned in Europe, Taiwan, and China. So while the Russian ban may have been politically-motivated, it was not capricious. Let me highlight this: Russia and China are ahead of the US on consumer protection in this case. OK, so if you are in the US, how can you find out about whether or not your meat has been treated with these drugs? Ask the meat producer.
- You buy some steak of unknown origin, you cook it medium rare. It's reasonably safe, right, because the nasties are on the outside, you've cooked the outside, and the inside is sealed off from the world? Wrong. Much meat in the US is "mechanically tenderized", which means that they poke it with long needles before they package it, pushing the outside nasties inside, and leaving them to sit for days or longer. Meat that has been "mechanically tenderized" is not labeled as such. How can you know? Again, the best way to know is to ask the producer.
Finally, in the Good News department, "Factory Farming's Days May Be Numbered" in Australia.
Shall we try to make this happen in the US?