Let’s play a little bit of “I Spy”. In my last post there was one ingredient in my taco soup that I’d like to talk about. See anything in this picture that looks unusual?
I’ll give you a hint…
Doesn’t look like the ground beef you’d pick up at Meijer, does it? That’s because it’s not. It’s 100% grass-fed beef from a local farmer, processed at a local meat processing facility. It doesn’t really taste any better than regular ground beef, and it is in fact more expensive, so why do I buy it? Let me tell you.
About a year ago I taught a course on food, and this semester I taught a revised version of the same course. One of the silly things I do as a teacher is sometimes I assign a book for the course that I’ve never read. So, when I assigned The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, I wasn’t aware of what I was getting myself into. I, like so many others who’ve read this book, was shocked, horrified and disgusted when I read what Pollan had discovered about the food industry, especially the meat industry. I followed the book up by watching a documentary, Food Inc. which opened my eyes even further. After that I decided I had to change what I was eating… I was never going to eat a fast food burger again… I was going to only eat 100% grass-fed beef from now on… and I was going to buy all my meat locally.
So what did I learn that got me so motivated to make these changes? I learned that the cheap beef products that we purchase in grocery stores come from cattle that are not only raised in disgusting conditions, but are literally being made sick by what they are fed. Cows naturally eat grass, their stomachs are biologically designed to do so. BUT in most cases the cows that make up the beef we eat are not being fed grass, they are not being pastured. They are being fed corn. Because corn is a cheap commodity that is a source of high energy, cows are being fed corn to get bigger faster and cheaper. Why’s that a problem? Because cows aren’t meant to eat corn they can get sick from it. And guess what? They can pass their ailments on to us. When cows are fed corn they are more likely to develop the E Coli bacteria, which can be FATAL to humans and has in fact killed scores of children who have eaten beef that was contaminated with it. Well, because we live in such a resourceful civilization, some genius decided to start giving cattle antibiotics in their feed so they could kill bacteria like E Coli. The problem with this is that this means we consume traces of these antibiotics too, and that, in turn, is what is making our antibiotics less effective in fighting off disease. The overuse of antibiotics has led some bacteria to adapt and learn to tolerate the antibiotics we’ve traditionally treated them with. These are the super-bugs you’ve heard about on the news. So, instead of fixing the REAL problem by not feeding cattle the corn that is making them sick in the first place, we’ve just created another problem by giving them these antibiotics.
This is just one problem in the meat industry. Our livestock animals are also being fed other animal by-products. Mad Cow Disease became a problem when cattle was being fed beef by-products like blood, bone, connective tissue… anything that humans wouldn’t consume. Another problem is that our livestock animals are being grown on huge mass-production farms, called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. These enormous feedlots cause all sorts of problems. Cattle on a CAFO can live 100 cattle to a pen where they literally live out their lives standing knee-deep in their own shit. And because our slaughterhouses are so obsessed with churning out as much product as fast as possible, the feces that stick to the cattle can contaminate the meat. That’s right, there could be SHIT in the meat you are eating. There probably is. Yet another problem with the CAFOs and cattle manure arises when it has to be moved. Normally, on a pasture-style farm, cow manure is used as fertilizer. But, because at a CAFO cattle are fed not only antibiotics, but also growth hormones, their manure is so toxic that if it were used on a crop it would kill the crop. So, huge manure lagoons are created where all the manure is stored on a CAFO. Problem with this is that these lagoons are so huge the run-off can contaminate the water supply or even nearby crops. So, a farmer growing spinach down the way might unknowingly have a contaminated crop.
I could go on and on about the meat industry and CAFOs. I haven’t even said anything about how laying hens are treated or fed, or how the workers at places like slaughterhouses and processing plants are mistreated as well. Don’t get me started on the FDA, USDA, Monsanto, genetic engineering, fast food regulation, etc. etc. The simple fact is that the way of growing and processing our meat that has become conventional in the industry is so fraught with problems that it is out of control.
So, that’s why I decided to buy grass-fed beef and other pastured meats like chicken, pork and lamb. I feel it’s better in so many ways… healthier, safer, better for the environment, it supports small, local farms. When I cook with it I don’t worry about whether my meat is contaminated with E Coli. I also feel good knowing I’m eating meat from an animal that is being raised humanely, in better conditions than on a CAFO and being fed food it was actually biologically meant to eat. So many times the decisions we make about what food we buy comes down to price, marketing and convenience. Well, those things are well and good, but they can lead us into trouble too. So my decision to buy locally pastured meats from sustainable farms is an ethical, ideological, and political decision. I think it’s worth it to pay more for this meat.
So I buy my meat from an alliance, called This Old Farm, which sells meat grown by several local farmers. I have to travel about 40 minutes to a farmer’s market that is held twice a week to get it. This might seem like a long drive, but considering that the food on the average American meal plate travels 1,500 miles to get there, 20-30 miles doesn’t sound so bad. The Green Market is held at Trader’s Point Creamery in Zionsville, IN once a week year-round. I don’t every week, I usually stock up about once a month. I love going to the market and interacting with all the like-minded consumers and talking to the farmers about what they’re selling. That’s one of the really cool things about buying local and small-scale- you can actually talk to the person who is growing the product you are buying! I like that when I call to place an order I know I’ll probably be speaking to Stacy, and when I go to the Market I know that it’s probably Jessica who will be filling my bag. I like that Jessica recognizes me and has talked to me about the class that I teach. I like that when I go I can also buy other local and/or organic products. Brian and I swear that grass-fed milk tastes more MILKY that anything else out there.
So that’s it. That’s the story behind the beef in the picture. Or, at least, part of it. It has been a compromise since I’ve made this meat resolution. There are some products that are simply too expensive to buy at the market… like steak and bacon. So while that means that Brian and I have grilled up about ONE steak in the last year, it means that I’ve broken down and bought bacon from the grocery. And we drink so much milk we couldn’t possibly buy all grass-fed milk. So I’ve made some basic rules for myself. I, myself, won’t ever purchase any ground beef (a particularly troubled meat product) except grass-fed. I will make exceptions to buy special meat products that I can’t get at the market like polish sausage, and ground turkey. If I throw a party I’ll buy meat from the store so the bill isn’t outrageous. I can order whatever I want at a restaurant (although I haven’t ordered a burger anywhere in over a year), and I’ll eat whatever I’m served (within reason, of course) when visiting friends and family. I can live with these compromises because I know I’m making an effort, doing what I can. But the most important and golden rule I have decided to live by is to always, always make sure I can feel good about what I’m eating.