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Tips for Buying Sustainable, Ethical Meat

Posted by Julia Smith on

Seems like everyone is selling "local, sustainable, ethical" meat these days. It's big business and even companies like Walmart and McDonalds are cashing in on consumer demand for products that are produced using methods that take issues like animal welfare and the environment into consideration. There are all kinds of certification and labeling systems designed, in theory, to bridge the gap between production methods and consumer knowledge. But for all these efforts, the waters just seem to be getting muddier and muddier and increasingly, words like "local, sustainable and ethical" are being diluted to the point where they don't mean much any more.

One hopeful thing I've noticed is that, in general, farmers are quite forthcoming and trustworthy when it comes to communicating about their practices. The problem seems to be with the middle man and their inevitable team of sales people, marketers and spin doctors. So if you are a consumer who cares where your food comes from and wants to make responsible choices that reflect your values, here are a few tips:

Find the Farmer

I'm in a unique position being both a consumer and a farmer which has allowed me to realize that you simply cannot believe everything people tell you, especially if they are not the farmer. I see meat that I know was produced using conventional methods being marketed as "grass-fed, natural, organic, sustainable, ethical, etc" EVERY DAY. That's the bad news. The good news is that farmers will generally tell you the truth. So before you buy from a retailer, restaurant, etc., find out where they get their meat from. (A lot of places get their meat from a distributor so you may have to go through a second level of screening at this point before you can get the name of the actual farm. Most distributors source from a number of different farms that employ a wide range of standards and practices and it can be difficult or impossible to pin down which farm the meat you are interested in purchasing came from. In that case, you should assume that your meat is coming from the farm that has the lowest standards because in all likelihood, that will be the case as they tend to produce much higher quantities than the smaller farms with higher standards.) 

Ask the Farmer Questions

In this golden age of technology, getting the story straight from the horses mouth can be as easy as typing the name of the farm into your smart phone. Many farms have extensive web sites that can answer most of the questions you are interested in. If you can't find the answers you are looking for online, contact the farm directly. Here are some good questions to ask:

  1. Do the animals get to go outside? 
    If the answer is "yes," ask for more information about how and when and what the outdoor conditions are like. A tiny door in the end of a giant barn that is sometimes open and leads to a small concrete pad might not be what you had in mind.

  2. How much space do the animals have?
    This should be a fairly straightforward math problem. Take the size of the enclosure and divide it by the number of animals in the enclosure. 

  3. Are the animals physically altered in any way?
    Practices such as de-beaking & toe-clipping birds and tail-docking of pigs are often employed in situations where large numbers of animals are housed together in a small space. 

  4. What do they eat?
    "Grass-fed" doesn't mean that the animals didn't spend the last 4 months of their lives consuming huge quantities of grain in a feed lot. "Organic" doesn't mean local ( and remember that "local" is only useful as a geographic reference). Commercial feed comes with a huge footprint so as a general rule, the less commercial feed the animals eat, the better. 

  5. Any "Hidden" Confinement Systems? 
    Remember to look at ALL parts of the system. Are calves removed from their mothers shortly after birth and confined in tiny pens alone? Are mother pigs kept in gestation crates? How are the hens who laid the eggs that hatched into chickens that ultimately become meat or egg laying birds raised? Are the cattle pictured on the web site in open grassy meadows sent to a crowded feed lot for finishing? 

A Word About Third Party Certification

If the farm participates in any kind of certification process, research that certification. You might find that what passes for "animal welfare" in some of these systems, is not in line with your personal values.

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  • Excerpt from “Modern Farmer” publication (link below):

    Small agriculture has the same problems as big agriculture in terms of people being honest. From what I’ve seen in 12 years of doing farmers markets, there’s a ton of people misusing marketing terms. So you almost need somebody to come in to act as a clearinghouse and say, “okay these people are claiming organic, but let’s verify it.”

    It seems like with nine out of 10 farmers who allude to the fact that they’re organic it’s like, “well….except we don’t buy organic seed because it’s expensive.” Most of the farmers at the markets that I go to say “we don’t spray.” But they might tell you in a conversation later—”only if we have to… just last year we sprayed because there was late blight on our tomatoes.” They claim to be organic until they’re going to lose their crop. They might only use a pesticide or herbicide or fungicide once or twice a season, but it’s not fair to the people are actually doing it legit organically. So I struggle with it all the time.

    Part of me says it sucks that it is so hard to get certified organic, but I see all these people cheating and being dishonest and I think you need somebody to police that. Otherwise the consumers just get ripped off constantly.

    Buddy on

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