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Spirit on the Job
Valleys of Idaho
||The Meat You Eat
Coming Face to Face with Our Food Choices
I am totally and completely not objective when it comes to a) the food we put in our bodies b) the care and treatment of animals that become part of our diets, c)and the fact that I am a vegetarian. On the plus side, you will not find in the following article on organic meat any self-justifications for any of my food choices.
By Tara Vata
As the organic food industry has grown it is often difficult to maneuver the varieties of codices and standards to determine just how and what “organic” means on a given package of food. The spectrum of definition has grown right along with the spectrum of choice. In the organic meat category, the differences can be very important to the consumer, depending on why they are choosing such foods. Being labeled “organic” does not necessarily mean that the animals themselves are receiving any better treatment than they would at a typical factory farm, given a better or more natural diet, or brought to slaughter in a more humane way.
In choosing to include this article, Spirit of the Valley felt that it was important to shed some light on just what people are eating, and to let them learn a little bit more about how the animals themselves have been treated. In doing so, I have come into contact with Daily Blessings Food, a company whose philosophy and way of operating fit into our belief that every sentient being (including cows, pigs and chickens) shouldn’t have to suffer as they make their way to our plates – especially given that we live in the richest country in the world.
Back on the Farm
To see animals as more than meat will be a stretch for many of us. Most Americans have never stepped foot on a farm, let alone come face to face with a cow, especially in the last 30 years or so when the beef industry largely switched from a family run to agribusiness. The choices in the meat department rarely equate with a half ton living, breathing, feeling, beast of burden who was killed and slaughtered, and is now part of our lunch. This is not in any way meant to make anyone feel bad about their choice to eat meat – we are after all omnivores – and the circle of life is the circle of life. There are also studies that have been done about blood type and body type and the need to have certain foods in the diet. This does not mean, however, that we don’t need to take a deeper look at what we are doing, at what our consumer demands are causing in the food industry, or of what our blindness is allowing to continue.
Daily Blessings Foods began farming organically and sustainably over 10 years ago, and were the first producer certified as such. Owners Diane and Marvin Hollan made the switch to completely organic and sustainable farming, after decades in the business, after attending a conference in Washington DC which highlighted some of the health and long term issues and dangers associated with the practices of agrifarming – namely feedlot farming in which cattle are raised inside, or spend a portion of thier lives, in structures in large numbers, fed a largely grain diet, and given chemicals, steroids and antibiotics to increase their size and to combat the results of living in this manner - disease, stress, and a depleted immune system caused by an unnatural diet.
Their philosophy is a lot like some of the other businesses highlighted in this issue – no compromise. No antibiotics, ever. Animals are grass fed and grass finished, in keeping with their natural diet. According to existing standards, beef can be labeled organic even if the diet is an unnatural one, and “grass fed” even if the last two or three months of its life are spent on a grain diet (which increases bulk faster than grass). The comfort and conditions that the animals find themselves in is also paramount. Through my conversations with Marvin I learned that not only does stress caused by inhumane living conditions effect the quality of the meat and its taste, for someone who has been around animals and farming his whole life, “cattle are not just our income, they’re also our friends.” There is a lot that happens in the meat industry that we might be unaware of. Here are just a few of the important concepts that surround where your beef comes from. Remember that, due to the limits of space and time we are only focusing on beef here, but there are similar issues for chicken, pork, and lamb products.
As with human beings, what an animal is fed becomes who they are. Daily Blessings Foods feed their stock a natural diet of greens in pastures that are planted without chemicals or fertilizers. It is organic down to the root, to the soil. They also rotate their cattle onto different pastures frequently in order to keep variety in their diets, to prevent overgrazing. What goes into the cattle ultimately end up in consumers. Marvin sees it as a chain of events, beginning with the conditions of the feed, which effect the health of the cattle, which in turn will effect the health of the product, which will ultimately effect the health of the consumer. While many would argue, particularly in the beef industry, that there is little evidence that their methods have had a negative impact on the health of the nation, there have been absolutely no long-term studies on these specifics.
On big feedlots, cows are most often given a vegetarian diet of corn and grains (which is not a natural diet for them, resulting in the need to supplement their diet with drugs), and in some cases, as witnessed in the Mad Cow Disease scares of the last few years, animal by products. Why are cattle given foods that are not natural to their herbivore diets? Besides cost, there is also the issue of getting them big as fast as possible. It also allows the animals to be kept in a smaller space, eliminates the need for huge grazing tracks, and drastically reduces the cost of the end product, even given the additional costs of hormones and drugs that are needed to make the whole arrangement viable. One can only imagine the suffering that these animals go through.*
On the typical feedlot, when the time for slaughter comes, animals are either shipped or moved to the slaughter facilities. We’ve all heard about the conditions at these places, and suffice it to say, it is a large operation that has been routinized, and made to produce a large amount of beef in a short amount of time. Most of us will cringe at the very thought of what goes on in these places. The end result on the beef is very interesting. Cattle taken to slaughter in stressful circumstances may result in less tender beef, given to the adrenaline present in the blood at the time of death. In addition, large scale producers “regularly use irradiation and chemical baths to compensate for breakneck processing speeds and unclean environments.”
At Daily Blessing foods, mass transportation to slaughter is considered to be inhumane. Animals are shipped with their comfort in mind, given a few days to relax and become accustomed to their new environment, and no electric cattle prods or mass slaughtering processes are employed. The packaging process is undertaken by skilled butchers, and the beef is vacuum packed. The end result is a very tender, flavorful piece of meat, the way it was intended to taste.
Antibiotics: The chemicals given to animals are the same, or almost same as those given to humans, to spur their growth, and to treat animals whose systems have been stressed by living in the conditions often present at animal. As we’re finding in human overuse of antibiotics, the results can often be strains of bacteria that are resistant to our drugs.
What many people might find shocking is that there is very little scientific evidence on the safety of these substances. The underlying premise seems to be the belief of safety until proven otherwise, with the added clause that hormones and other substances exist naturally in humans and therefore long range testing is not needed. Other issues include the intention that the drugs given, particularly antibiotic and steroid injections, have circulated out of the body before slaughter.
The Arguments of Industry
Most pro-feedlot/antibiotic organizations site the fact that these substances allow farmers to produce large amounts of meat on a relatively small space, with less feed, and in less time than what occurs in nature. In addition, they will often site the less land used = less environmental impact idea. According to several sources however, including the Organic Consumers Union (www.organicconsumers.org), this method of production has resulted in increased environmental damage (particularly to drinking water supplies as animal waste is usually held in pools that are subject to overflow with rain), and has led to the horrors of Mad Cow disease.
While the beef industry, and the trade associations that speak for the drug industries, promote the idea that these drugs made cattle healthier, that is largely an untested assertion, and in fact the truth might be just the exact opposite. In addition to the afore mentioned diseases now creeping into the US beef supply, there is also the assertion that we as humans will become susceptible to increased drug resistance. Friends of the Earth, an international environmental organization with headquarters in Washington, DC, believes that studies done on other animals exposed to high levels of substances that naturally occur in the body might shed some light on our own human case. In addition to the potential for increased rates of cancer, “the reproductive impacts observed in fish raise concerns that hormones used in beef and consumed by people might be a factor in rising incidence of premature development in girls and lower sperm counts in men.”
The Meat I Eat
“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” Gandhi
There are a lot of “ifs” in this area, a lot of scary ifs. The real questions is for each of us to address individually, are we content to believe the message of the beef industry, and the federal government for that matter, or do we need to take the next step towards an enlightened, empowered diet.
It’s not always easy to determine where and how the beef we eat is produced. Rather than extremes, there exists a spectrum of conditions, but the long and the short of it, according to Diane, is “if you bought your meet in the grocery store, it came from a feed lot.” According to Marvin, a piece of meat that is red had been raised on, or finished on, a grain diet. The beef of completely grass fed cattle will be more purple-ish – just like in wild game. If price is a determinant, one has to wonder if all of the costs are really being taken into consideration when we purchase meat, or any other products, at the grocery store.
Daily Blessings Food meats is available through mail order all over the West at www.organic-meat.com, or for delivery in many Idaho locations. See Lava Lake Lamb for information on another great Idaho company.
Animal Health Insitute: www.ahi.org.
Notes:*So, you might be thinking that I’m being a little too emotional here, that I’m not only not being objective, but am a complete stereotype of a bleeding heart liberal or hippie. While I’m not really a hippie, I would have to say the following: This idea that there is not room for emotions in business has largely placed us at the precipice that we now find ourselves on. Unwilling to let our hearts have a say, look what we have allowed to happen on the earth, to our fellow creatures, and ultimately to ourselves. How differently would the world look if we were looking at it with both sides of our brains, and measuring our success or failure with something besides our pocketbooks?