Next week I’ll be featuring an interview with our own Walter Bates of Hoe Hop Farms. This week, I wanted to talk a bit about what sets apart the locally raised meat and poultry you can find at the Main Street Farmer’s Market from what you may find in a conventional grocery store.
In many grocery store butcher’s cases and refrigerator shelves, you’re likely to see a number of labels on meat packages: natural, free-range, cage-free, all natural environment, etc. Sounds good, right? Those words conjure images of happy livestock in safe, humane conditions–chickens in spacious coops and cattle with expansive green pastures to graze in. Unfortunately, these terms can be quite misleading. For example, the USDA defines “natural” as:
A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).
This really doesn’t tell us very much about the health of an animal or the environment it was raised in.
Other terms, such as “cage-free” and “free-range” can be similarly misleading. A laying hen raised in a cage-free environment simply refers to a hen that is not confined to a “battery cage”–which is a very small cage that restricts nearly all movement. This does not, however, mean the hen has access to a healthy environment, and in some cases a hen’s “cage free” living space may only be slightly larger than a standard battery cage. “Free-range” refers to an environment where the animal has access to an outside area–but does not indicate a specific number of hours in a day, or the kind of outside area to which the animal has access. A confined, indoor area with a small door granting access to a dirt enclosure that is left unlocked for a short time each day satisfies the requirements for a “free-range” environment for poultry.
In addition to providing little concrete information about an animal’s environment, these labels also tell us little if anything about the sort of diet livestock receive. Chickens, for example, are omnivores, and naturally subsist on a diet that includes bugs and seeds. A chicken raised exclusively on corn, which is standard for many battery farms, is not receiving the well-rounded diet it requires to be healthy. Animals raised “naturally” may be fed GMO feed, treated with antibiotics or given artificial growth hormones. In addition to the unsettling effect that this has on the animal’s life, these practices can be harmful to the consumer as well as our environment. The term “organic” is better regulated and limits a number of dangerous practices, such as the use of sewage fertilizer on pasture land. This label does not necessarily ensure that animals are treated humanely, but does restrict the use of growth hormones, antibiotics and GMO feed.
Researching animal agricultural practices can be overwhelming and disconcerting. There are many factors that contribute toward the health and safety of the final product, and lots of grey area in terms of humane treatment of livestock. For this reason I have found that the best way to ensure that I bring healthy, humanely raised meat into my home is to have a relationship with the person who raises it. Last year, wanting to have a better idea of where my food was coming from, I emailed a few area farms and asked if I could see the living conditions of their animals. Some of our Main Street Farmer’s Market farmers were among them, and I found it extremely reassuring to see their livestock roaming freely through lush pastures, receiving the nutrition they need and the careful handling they deserve.
For meat eaters, choosing pasture raised meat and poultry from a farm that you have a relationship with is an excellent way to take charge of your diet and to support those committed to safe and humane animal agricultural practices. I encourage you to get to know the farmers at the Main Street Farmer’s Market to learn more about the care they invest in their livestock.
For more information visit animalwelfareapproved.org.