Have you ever gone to a potluck and wondered if your co-worker’s kitchen was as dirty as their desk? How about restaurants or street vendors? If their establishment looks dirty, are you going to trust their food? Probably not.
Every day we all make decisions about our food and what’s safe to eat. Sometimes we labor over the options, while at other times it just involves a split second of judgment. No matter how smart we may feel about a given choice, my guess is that our food intuition has dulled significantly over the past fifty years. You see, there was a time when quality food wasn’t just about the cleanliness of where your food was prepared. Rather, people knew their butcher and grocer. And if you go back even further, they knew the farmers and ranchers. People talked about the quality of a farm’s crops or livestock. In short, they knew where their food came from.
For the past several generations, much of that insight has been lost. That’s especially true when it comes to the meat aisle of the grocery store. Packages of beef, pork, and poultry magically appear in neatly wrapped containers with “best sale” dates that make everything seem equal. The truth has become invisible because we assume it’s all good. But documentaries like Food, Inc. and books like Michael Pollan‘s The Omnivore’s Dilemma have helped increase awareness that all meat isn’t the same, and we still have the choice to buy responsibly-raised food. During this food reawakening, many of the big meat producers did their best to stay hidden and out of the crosshairs. They refused interviews and restricted access to their farms or plants, essentially battening down the hatches for the storm. After all, the current system WAS working for them.
But as the food movement has gained steam, that has started to change. As a recent Civil Eats article reports, the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) is now hosting “Food Dialogues” in order “to amplify the voice of farmers and ranchers and help consumers know more about ‘how their food is grown and raised.'” Well, isn’t that nice of them. After years of refusing to go on camera, now they and their members want to have a dialogue. Really?
As Civil Eats points out, perhaps we shouldn’t trust the altruistic intentions of USFRA. After all, they are a trade association funded by some of the most powerful U.S. food corporations and advocacy groups including Dupont, Monsanto, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. And much like other Big Food Company lobbyists, they are painting a pure, idealistic picture of the status quo. Here, take a look at the video from USFRA’s website:
Looks pretty nice, huh? But if you strip away the niceties of this public relations piece and take an honest look at what USFRA’s membership stands for on key issues, it isn’t a pretty picture anymore. In fact, they’ve taken a decidedly aggressive stance against each of the following sensible, forward-looking policies:
- Regulating antibiotic usage and abuse in livestock production
- Reducing hormone usage
- Tighter rules on the application of pesticides
- EPA regulations impacting farms to ensure clean water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Now while some may argue these positions are more about anti big government sentiments, interestingly some members of USFRA support increased whistle-blower regulations–laws that would criminalize the use of undercover video to expose atrocities and mistreatment of animals at livestock operations, hatcheries, and research facilities. So let me get this straight. They are anti-regulation that would improve food safety and pro-legislation that reduces the threat of watchdogs. Hmmm…. sounds like a pretty self-serving agenda to me, and one that I just don’t trust. And isn’t that the reality in today’s food world? We shouldn’t just trust the food that’s out there. We need to ask questions and do our homework.
So what are the questions we need to ask? Here’s the list I try to remember when I’m shopping for beef, chicken or pork:
- What were the animals fed? Look for USDA organic certification as your best bet. This ensures the animals were fed 100% organically produced ingredients, no growth hormones or antibiotics, no GMOs, and no animal by-products of any form.
- How were they raised? Look for free-range and ranch raised. These are indications that the animals were raised more humanely and that their diet was more well-rounded then penned up/confined factory farm operations. But it’s important to know the farm since both these terms can be abused by unscrupulous corporate marketing interests. Finally, ignore the term cage-free since it is basically meaningless. Chickens can still be raised in factory farm warehouses and be designated as cage-free birds.
- Does the farm use sustainable, environmentally friendly practices? USDA organic certification can help here as well since it restricts the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.
- Were the animals treated humanely? This is probably the toughest question on the list to answer. While there are some certifications out there, it really comes down to knowing your farmer or butcher, and trusting them.
How can you go about finding a farmer near you that may meet your criteria? The Organic Consumer Association (www.organicconsumers.org) has a great directory of green and organic businesses for a variety of products and services. If you can’t find a farmer near you, there are farms that will ship frozen meat, poultry and pork products to you. Rocky Mountain Organic Meats is one that I’m familiar with, but I know there are many options out there. Just make sure and do your homework to find a farmer you can trust.
Now some may balk at the higher price of responsibly-raised meat, but as 11 year-old Birke Baehr rather eloquently said in a recent TEDx event: “We can all make different choices by buying our foods from organic farmers… Some people say that organic or local food is more expensive. With all of the things that I have been learning about the food system, we could either pay the organic farmer or the hospital.” Check Birke out here:
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