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Conscientious Consumers

Tue Feb 19, 2008

Warning: The contents of this post, though about food, will likely make you lose your appetite.

Nearly 143 million pounds of raw and frozen beef were recalled from the nation’s food supply yesterday—meat served in school cafeterias and fast food chains—after the Humane Society released a video showing the inhumane treatment of cows destined for slaughter. I first heard the story on NPR, while crunching my homemade granola at breakfast. Needless to say, as the story progressed I ceased chewing. Even as the granola turned to mush in my mouth I couldn’t continue. Eating seemed inappropriate.

Sadly, I found nothing shocking about this story and nothing new. The horrible mistreatment of food animals and the safety of our meat bubbles to the top of the news chain every year or two. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, made a vegetarian out of almost all of those who read it in my high school (it was not required reading). The meatpacking and processing industry was a hot topic again following the release of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation in 2001 and again when Mad Cow Disease was discovered in Washington State back in 2003. Gourmet Magazine published a story last year about the inhumane treatment of chickens in poultry processing, which actually made some readers mad (saying, essentially, that a food magazine had no place to be discussing the politics of food). And it seems that every time the issue comes up, the USDA stuffs its claims of a safe food supply down our throats. Frankly, I’m finding it all a bit hard to swallow.

In this particular case, we’re supposed to be reassured by the USDA’s statements that the recall was voluntary and that no contaminated meat had been found—that it was extremely unlikely that the product would make anyone sick. Really? I was ill just thinking about the cows, too weak to walk, being dragged through feces to their death. And I’m not the only one. A colleague of mine was equally devastated by the news. A lapsed vegetarian like me, she briefly considered returning to the meatless mains of her past, but realized that even a simple bovine ban could jeopardize her marriage. But since I don’t think the American population will go vegetarian en masse, I’m not sure opting out would have much of an impact. I’d had this conversation before with my just-out-of-college, becoming-an-omnivore self, making food decisions for the first time with my un-subsidized funds. I realized then that if I really wanted animals to be treated better I’d have to put my money where my mouth is.

Buying From Humane Producers & Handlers
We all learned about the laws of supply and demand in high school economics and, I think, making significant changes to our food supply is really as simple as that. New USDA regulations and oversight could help, but they also might only serve to make all meat more expensive, whether because producers raise their prices to deal with new rules, or because our taxes go up to support regulation—that means less money in our pockets to buy food. No, I think that those of us who can need to make a choice to buy from growers and handlers who already treat their animals humanely. When we make the decision with our dollar to stay in the meat-eating game, but to buy from sustainable and humane producers, we send a strong signal to their competition. And the more people who support humane growers and handlers the less expensive their products will become, making them more accessible to a greater number of people. Simple right?

Finding humanely raised beef, pork, lamb and poultry isn’t necessarily easy, but there is help. Certifiedhumane.org publishes a list of certified humanely growers and producers and their websites. And, while the certification process is expensive, much like organics, there are also producers like California’s Niman Ranch that aren’t “certified” but still follow humane practices. Since the 1970s Niman Ranch has become a network of more than 600 independent American farmers and ranchers all committed to raising natural products without the use of hormones or antibiotics, and that are humanely raised on sustainable farms. Other notables include Prather Ranch, Mary’s Free Range Chickens and D’Artagnan.

Making these decisions for yourself and your family, like shopping at farmer’s markets, take work and a little extra cash, but they’re good for your heart as well your belly (and I do think they happen to taste better too). I hope the producers mentioned above, as well as their far-flung brethren, take this recent scandal as the publicity opportunity that is. Maybe they’ll finally launch the ad campaign I’ve been dreaming of for years (though recently co-opted by the California Milk Advisory Board)—Great Cheese Comes From Happy Cows? Well, I think happy cows make better ribeyes, too.

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6 Responses to “Conscientious Consumers”

  1. Foodwoolf Says:

    Here here! I, too, was thinking about stepping back to the Vegetarian side of things after seeing/hearing the report. It’s horrifying that such terrible conditions STILL exist after all these years since The Jungle.

    Thank you for such a well written, passionate and insightful piece.

  2. Jen (Modern Beet) Says:

    I’m (I guess) what one would call a flexitarian — I have no problems with consuming meat IF (and only IF)it’s been ethically produced. This means I buy from ranchers at farmer’s markets, ask the butcher 20 questions before I’ll buy meat, try to find things as locally as possible, etc.

    It can be hard to find ethical meat too — even some places that claim to be ‘natural’, aren’t all that different than factory farms (Judy’s Family Farm Eggs, anyone? http://www.ethicurean.com/2006/05/18/judys-eggs/)

    And on a side note, I recently picked up ‘The River Cottage Meat Book’ by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and it has one of the most thorough, thoughtful discussions about sourcing ethically raised meat — it basically boils down to to a statement I’m in full agreement with — if you can’t trace its origins or its origins aren’t humane/ethical, then you simply shouldn’t eat it. Also, it discusses eating ‘head to tail’ so that very little of the animal goes to waste

    And one final note — one thing I might suggest to people is to consider buying a 1/2 or 1/4 cow/pig/lamb etc direct from the rancher — it’s economical, the food chain is short, and it helps to ensure the future of ranchers with ethical practices

  3. Leah Greenstein Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Jen, and the link to the Ethicurian site, too. Change starts at home and continues with every forkful.

  4. Nik Basque Says:

    for the conscientious meat eaters among us, check out the Eat Well Guide for a fabulous directory of humane livestock producers. you can punch in your zip code (or area code for us Canadians) and find sources in your area! http://www.eatwellguide.org
    Happy eating!

  5. Leah Greenstein Says:

    Thanks for the link, Nik! I just plugged in my zip and it’s great to see a few places in my neighborhood that I hadn’t even known about!

  6. Daniel Says:

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article “Conscientious Consumers,” but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

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