About a month ago, after reading a few too many exposes, I decided I was done eating any meat or eggs from animals that were not pastured and free range according to the true definitions of free range. As a number of different publications point out, the USDA label “free range” only signifies that the animals have access to the outdoors. Thus, supposedly free-range chickens could in fact be chickens born in a barn with 20,000 other chickens and trained to stay in that barn so even when the door is opened so they can be called “free range,” they have no inclination to go outdoors because they are unfamiliar with the concept of daylight. I have major ethical complaints about any sort of animal being raised in restricted conditions, and even bigger ethical issues with a government organization deciding that an animal is “free range” simply because it is not in a cage and has access to the outdoors. I like the term “pastured,” because there’s really no way of re-defining what pastured means. The word “pastured” brings up an image of an animal grazing at pasture, which is exactly what a healthy, happy animal should be doing.
The more I read about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), more commonly known as feedlots or factory farms, the less I ever want to eat, see, or do anything to support the manufacture of meat from CAFOs. In a feedlot, cattle (as well as other animals, but I am mostly thinking in beef terms for the moment) are not fed a natural diet (usually feed includes potatoes, grain, and lots and lots of corn- certainly no fresh grass) and are packed in with thousands of other cattle with little space to move. If you’ve ever seen a feedlot, you’ll see that the cattle have no grass in sight, and stand sometimes knee-deep in mud, manure, and rotting feed. If this is demoralizing to see, only imagine what it’s like to spend one’s short life confined to such an operation. In addition to a lack of natural diet, these animals are often injected with antibiotics to fight the infections they are exposed to in such crowded and dirty conditions, and hormones to stimulate growth or fight other effects of confinement. And if you don’t already know the original source of “Mad Cow Disease,” I’ll tell you: it came from feeding cows to other cows. Essentially, leftover meat and blood from slaughtering were mixed into feed and given to the cattle in the feedlots. I cannot describe to you on how many levels I am not ok with this. While this process is supposedly regulated now, the testing of feed happens on such a miniscule level that there is no way to tell which cows are eating what. Meat-packing and slaughtering and the health risks and ethical issues surrounding those processes is a whole ‘nother story that I just don’t have the time to get into now. But suffice it to say that studies have shown that animals that are stressed out during the moments leading up to their slaughter produce meat that is full of unhealthy stress hormones and other chemicals with negative effects on health.
Beyond my ethical complaints about the treatment of animals in CAFOs, the health benefits of eating pastured meat as compared to CAFO meat are staggering. When you eat CAFO beef, you eat corn. The American public eats several times as much corn in the form of beef than in the form of actual corn. While corn itself is certainly a healthy vegetable, here we are talking about genetically modified, bacteria-resistant corn in high doses, processed by the body of an animal that is not supposed to be eating large amounts of corn. In comparison, grass-fed beef is the result of a cow eating its natural diet, something its body can process and obtain high quantities of vitamins and nutrients from. In addition, a pastured cow actually gets to use its muscles instead of just standing still, cutting down on fat and creating healthy muscle tissue. Pastured beef is much leaner than CAFO beef and its contents are certainly much healthier. According to www.eatwild.com, “[Grass-fed meats] are richer in antioxidants; including vitamins E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. Furthermore, they do not contain traces of added hormones, antibiotics or other drugs.” The fats in grass-fed meat are the “healthy fats," Omega-3s. These are also found in avocados and eggs from pastured chickens.
Speaking of chickens and eggs: this is the one other mini-expose that I want to write. Most people are relatively aware of the conditions in commercial egg production facilities. These are another form of CAFO: barns crammed with cages crammed with chickens. Floors covered in chicken droppings and conveyer belts running below the cages to catch the eggs and carry them off to be sold to the public as healthy sources of protein. I know I’m ranting a little bit here, but the lack of awareness/care about these conditions really irks me. It’s certainly easier to not think about it, but seriously, I think everyone should make an informed decision: do you really want to eat eggs from these chickens? Chickens injected with hormones and antibiotics, unable to move and living solely as egg machines. Pure white eggs don’t come out pure white and clean—in most facilities, eggs are washed in chemical solutions or bleached to get their bright white shells. If you know all this and you still want to eat these eggs, that’s fine. But if you don’t, then try to find a better source of eggs. There are commercial “free range” egg manufacturers like Steibrs, which are free range in the most minimal sense (it’s difficult to find information about them, but from what I can discern, it simply means their chickens aren’t caged). Truly free range eggs usually come straight from the farmer, at $6/dozen, which is definitely spendy, but I’ve decided it’s worth it. I don’t eat eggs regularly, so a dozen usually lasts me 2 or 3 weeks. If you do want to buy free-range eggs but eat them regularly, maybe you can find a compromise and buy one dozen from the store and the next from a farmer. Switch it up, support your local farmers too, and at least get some of the health benefits of eggs from healthy chickens.
Rants aside, my decision comes down to this: I only want to eat healthy, happy animals. All lives must end anyway, and even if the cow I’m eating didn’t get a natural death, I feel good that it had a good life wandering Willamette Valley pastures with other cows, eating good Oregon grass and enjoying both the sun and rain. I want my eggs to come from chickens that get to happily peck around in fields and lay their eggs in comfortable nesting boxes that get cleaned regularly. I want my eggs to be washed only in water. I would like my pork to come from pigs that spend their lives running around with their friends, snuffling in all corners of their pasture and sleeping in a big happy pile in a dry barn when it rains. Luckily I live at the head of the Willamette Valley, where a free-range revolution is taking place. If you know where to look and are willing to spend a little extra money, you can find all of these things; I found them right at my doorstep.
My two primary sources of meat and eggs that meet all these specifications are Deck Family Farm (link) and Full of Life Farm (link). Deck Family Farm sells at multiple farmer’s markets in Portland, and have a huge variety of meat choices, sausages, and other products. Full of Life Farm (just down the road from Champoeg State Park near St. Paul) is only a year old, and as such is not solidly established yet. I have bought delicious eggs (in lots of colors) and pastured chicken from the stand at Irvington Farmer’s Market, and the farm also sells pastured beef from a neighboring farm until their own herd develops more.
I’ve found it to be strictly true that farmers who raise pastured meat are committed also to humane slaughtering practices. Bernard Smith at Full of Life Farm, which Matt and I visited a couple weeks ago, thoroughly researched his butchering options and uses a local small-scale butcher in Mount Angel and is taking measures to make sure his chickens do not have to be confined and transported before being processed. In his blog (link), he also mentions that he takes the cattle on practice runs through the head gate (used for slaughtering) so that they are familiar with it and won’t find it unusual or stressful when it’s time to make their final trip through it, thus making them calmer and preventing the creation of stress hormones in their meat. It was great to visit the farm on a very rainy Saturday, we got to meet the cows and the buck goats (SO stinky) and visit the rabbits, piglets, and the chickens foraging around their eggmobile. Bernard keeps some guinea hens with the chickens because they raise a ruckus anytime anything unusual shows up and serve as a good natural anti-predation system. The farm is beautiful, and we hung out with Bernard at the farm stand for an hour or so and learned the whole history of the farm and what his plans are for expansion of the enterprise. Eggs are cheaper to buy at the farm, so I bought a dozen for $5, and a freshly processed 4.5-lb broiler chicken (as opposed to the frozen ones at the farmer’s market stand) for $20. It was delicious beyond description and besides a roast chicken dinner for me and Matt, I got another 4 meals and 4 quarts of stock/broth out of it. I think that’s worth $20!
One caveat on my meat transition: I am still eating fish from the store. So far I haven’t found any major complaints about fishing or fish farming practices in the northwest (although it is an area of the food world that I am much less familiar with), and I have no desire to kick my taste for baked salmon or lose the health benefits of eating fish. I always buy fish from New Seasons or Whole Foods, as I feel far better about their practices and ethical guidelines in general than I do about those of more commercial chains like Safeway or Fred Meyer.
So there you have my stance on meat. I hope it is useful or at least interesting to you learn some of these facts and hear what I am choosing to do with them.