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Do You Trust Where Your Meat Comes From?

Choosing the right beef chicken or pork for your family is important for their safety

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:

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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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13 comments… add one

  • A L D September 29, 2011, 8:00 pm

    With there being so much corruption within the legislation regulating the meat industry, it’s amazing that more people aren’t vegetarian/vegan!

    I also enjoyed the clip with Birke Baehr. I did an opinion paper very early in college stating the very same view. I followed some research on a man who did a study over 10 years on eating GM foods and organic/local foods. He ate GM foods for 5 years, and organic/local for 5 years. Spending was tracked on his foods, medicines, doctor visits, money lost from sick days etc… In the end, the GM foods cost so much more, plus he still felt awful. I wish I could find this research and my paper I wrote on it because it is still so relevant after 8+years.

    Reply
    • Bruce Bradley September 29, 2011, 8:06 pm

      Thank you for your comments. You’re right, with all the meat recalls, it is surprising more people aren’t considering vegan/vegetarian lifestyles. That said, I believe the percent of people choosing to not eat meat is slowly, but steadily increasing. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned from the cantaloupe listeria contamination, food borne illnesses aren’t limited to meat.

      Yes, I think the Birke clip is great. I love to see kids get passionate about this topic. If we can make eating healthy, responsibly-raised food cool with kids, we will have come a long way to turning the tide on the obesity epidemic and taking better care of Mother Earth!

      Reply
  • Tracy November 2, 2011, 10:34 pm

    After watching Food Inc, I went a year and a half without eating ground beef. I finally found a great farmer and all is well now. I made sliders for our family last week. Mmmmm. About your post, your questions to consider are spot-on. Our family farmer can answer all of these questions without hesisation. He’s at http://www.raisedonpasture.com.

    Reply
    • Bruce Bradley November 3, 2011, 12:02 am

      Thanks for your post Tracy, and I’m glad you’ve found a great farmer. What if we lived in a world where it was just as important to have a great farmer as it is to have a doctor your trust? Takes that whole idea of investing in you body now by eating healthy even a step further.

      Reply
  • Susan November 8, 2011, 8:38 am

    I don’t think it’s so much about organic if you know your farmer. If you can see how the animals are raised you should have faith in the quality of the meat, organic or not. LOTS of non-organic farmers raise healthy, high-quality meat!

    Reply
  • Kathy Schultz November 8, 2011, 2:12 pm

    The movie “Food Inc” really opened my eyes to the way our food is being produced these days. Glad I followed a link from them to your blog. One of the things that concerns me most is the use of GMO feed. I’ve found cage-free chicken being sold at supermarkets here in northeast Ohio. However, they are still being fed GMO corn. I wish what Susan said is true, that we could trust local farmers. More and more, though, I am buying organic meat and chicken. Now if I could only find some good fish! Wild caught fish is full of mercury and farm-raised is full of antibiotics. Pick your poison, I guess. Truly, I am considering becoming vegan!

    Reply
    • Bruce Bradley November 8, 2011, 4:02 pm

      Thanks for your comment Kathy, and I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog. GMO ingredients are ALL over the place and in animal feed. We need to speak up and let our voices be heard. I’m convinced once enough people know what’s in their food (like GMOs) the food industry will have to back down—at least on that issue.

      Reply
    • Jackie @Auburn Meadow Farm September 28, 2012, 6:52 am

      I find it hard to understand that you can trust the government more than you can trust people Kathy. The Organic certification has come to represent Big Agriculture and the standards are constantly being challenged and reduced to enable decidedly non-organic ingredients.

      Delegating the work of understanding where your food comes from is how we got in this mess in the first place. Don’t rely on the government or marketing campaigns to tell you what’s good and what’s bad – you need to stay informed – it’s a constantly changing issue.

      http://www.cornucopia.org/2012/05/the-organic-watergate-advocates-condemn-corruption-and-usdas-cozy-relationship-with-corporate-agribusinesses-in-organics-2/

      Reply
  • WordVixen November 14, 2011, 7:33 pm

    I’m lucky enough to live in Amish country- even better, in a section where many Amish are in favor of real food. Many have banded together to form a co-op, so I can easily get quality pastured beef and chicken at several locations (prices may vary) and pastured, heritage pork nearby, as well as fresh milk and pastured eggs. It’s more expensive than conventional meat, but, because of where I live, the chicken and ground beef are actually cheaper than the merely antibiotic free meats that I can get at the grocery store (no certified organic where I live- so odd, I can buy organic pastured meat straight off the farm, but not organic in the store).

    I just want to add two more sites that your visitors can check out- http://USWellnessMeats.com and http://LocalHarvest.org The first sells meat and dairy directly (grassfed and organic), and the second helps you to find near by farms.

    Reply
  • Bob Jones November 22, 2011, 1:16 pm

    Thanks for the great post, Bruce. I just recently discovered much of what you’ve covered in your post and switched to a local farm for our meat and eggs. We’ve been amazed at the difference (ie BETTER) in the products we get from Creswick Farms, plus we know the animals are treated properly. Here’s a link to their website http://www.creswickfarms.com/

    Reply
  • Charlie Pie December 1, 2011, 10:13 am

    I love that kid, I’m thirteen and I am always trying to convince people to by local or organic, the excuses range from “it’s too expensive” or “there’s none near here” or to the ignorant “organic food doesn’t taste good!”, I wish more kids could speak out like me and Birke Baehr.

    Reply
    • Bruce Bradley December 2, 2011, 5:55 pm

      Go Charlie Go! Great to hear from young men like yourself who care about their food and where it comes from! It may no be “cool” to talk about with your friends, but by leading by example, you can make a huge difference!

      Reply
  • Jackie @Auburn Meadow Farm September 28, 2012, 6:43 am

    The USDA organic label is NOT a reliable indicator of well raised meat. It is increasingly dictated by corporate interests and most often represents Big Agriculture rather than sustainable operations. It also makes feeding livestock local ingredients more difficult and makes farmers reliant on large agricultural suppliers for feed. The only way to evaluate how your food is raised is to get out there and get to know some actual farmers.

    Reply

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Commenting Policy: Following the advice of a popular blogger, I’m running my blog conversation like it’s my living room. Just so you know, I won’t tolerate bad behavior in my living room, and I won’t tolerate it on here. Critical is fine and differing opinions are encouraged. But if you’re rude … bye bye. And when commenting, please use your PERSONAL name or initials and NOT your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. The bottom line is, be cool, keep it clean, and have fun! Thanks in advance for adding to the conversation!

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  • About Me:

    Bruce Bradley

    Bruce Bradley

    I'm a father, food advocate, consultant, and author.

    Bruce is a former processed food exec turned food advocate, blogger, and author.

    Before his food advocacy work, Bruce worked for over fifteen years as a marketer at companies like General Mills, Pillsbury, and Nabisco. As one of the only former processed food marketers actively speaking out about concerns over the food we eat, the media often seeks Bruce out for his honest perspective. His 2011 interview, Confessions of a former Big Food Executive, was one of Grist online's Top 10 clicked stories for 2011.

    Bruce now writes, performs speaking engagements, and provides business strategy and marketing consultant services to help ethical, sustainable businesses reach their potential.

    Bruce graduated with an MBA from Duke University and a B.A. from Davidson College. Born and raised in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, he now lives in Minneapolis, MN with his son and their dog, Katie.

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