Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Meet your Meat...

 Life is busy. It's 5:30, the store is crowded, people are shoving, lines are long and you need to get home to start on dinner. You grab the first cut of meat you see. If your lucky, it may even be on sale. Score! It's nothing new, men (and women too) have been killing animals for food for a long time. Yet, it's not a process many of us often think about.Coming from a small town in northeastern Montana, this wasn't such a bad thing. We had local cattle and butchers and usually knew exactly who raised it.  BUT...what about the frozen chicken breasts in the freezer or the meat on your frozen pizza?  I mean honestly, when was the last time you thought about where that came from?  Many of us like to assume it comes from the spacious, green farms we see in the movies.  You know, where happy cows come from.

Don't get me wrong, that can happen (rainbows and all) .... just not when it comes to factory farming. Going to college opened up a whole new world of meat (yes, I'm still talking livestock). Being in a degree where I learn a lot about food probably had a little something to do with it. Come to think of it,  I also met my first real vegetarian in college. Our conversation went a lot like the ones I hear today, "WHAT?!?! You don't eat meat, not even a big juicy steak....or what about burgers?!?!? No bacon either?!? You are CRAZY!" Ok, well not exactly like that, but I remember thinking the same things while talking to my vegetarian friends. I threw around the idea a few times but never thought I could commit to it. The thing is, you don't have to. You can start by making small changes.  

 Anyone who knows me, knows that I'm a bit of an animal lover. I just can't help it!  It started with a cute kitten in a pet shop and naturally he had to have a buddy, so one became two. Today, Tiger and Taji will soon be 7 years old. After that I was banned from pet stores. Well,  not really but the hubby found ways to distract me when they came into sight. However, I soon began volunteering at a shelter. Seeing these abandoned pets really tugged on my heart strings and that is how we ended up with Bea Dog. A year later, I snuck into another pet shop and laid my eyes on the cutest pup I had ever seen, Lola. I'm not much for blaming my issues on my parents, but this is one of those times that I feel is completely appropriate to blame my mother for my behavior. She was always so compassionate and cared a lot about animals. She's nursed many suffering animals back to health and always had a new creative way for us to talk our dad into keeping yet another stray. Yep, it's safe to say this is all her fault. (Love you Mom)

But all fun aside, I believe all animals deserve to live a life free of abuse. I could go on and on about how my heart breaks when I see puppy mills and dog fighters but today I'm going to focus on the treatment of our "food" animals. Food was the topic of many of my research projects through college but for my sustainability class I decided to look at the differences in animal welfare between large factory farms verses smaller, local farms. This is an important topic to me and one that is actually quite hard for me to write about.  I'm not doing it to "gross" you out nor am I asking you to never eat meat again. I'm simply sharing knowledge about what happens inside this industry that you may not be aware of. 

Factory farm

The Dirty Facts:

In just about one hour in the United States, more than a million farm animals are killed for food. Before slaughter, most of these animals live in terrible conditions often enduring abuse. After sitting through many undercover videos, I couldn't help but wonder why there were not any laws against this kind of treatment.  See the video below for snippets from many different undercover videos. While tough to watch, I think it does a great job showing the different circumstances each type of animal endures. Of course it pushes vegetarianism but please take a few minutes to watch so you are aware of what happens inside the dirty business of factory farming.

Your Health: 

In order to boost productivity and lower costs, many animals are sent to feed lots where they are fattened on grain, corn and other supplements. Genetically modified grain and soy are cheap due to the government's subsidies. Additionally, feeds often contain "by-product feedstuff" which can include municipal garbage, stale pastry, chicken feathers and candy. Up until 1997, this even included meat trimmings from cattle but we wound up with Mad Cow Disease, so they put a stop to that. Ruminants (cows, goats, bison and sheep) naturally eat rich fiber-containing grass, plants and shrubs. When they are forced to eat grain, it can cause many painful conditions, one being "subacute acidosis." This causes them to kick at their bellies, go off their feeds and eat dirt. To prevent serious and sometimes fatal infections, these animals are given high doses of chemical additives in addition to constant doses of antibiotics. Some of these are the same ones used in humans. Overuse of antibiotics can cause severe problems. Think about it. In feedlots, overuse can lead to bacteria becoming resistant. When people become infected with these new, disease-resistant bacteria it is going to be harder to treat them.

Total fat
According to The Journal of Animal Science, grass-fed animals are lower in saturated (the bad kind) fats. They are also richer in antioxidants such as vitamin E, beta carotene and vitamin C. Most do not contain added hormones, antibiotics or other drugs but if I've learned anything, there's always exceptions so be sure to check. Just being "local" sometimes isn't enough. Some of the farms I researched around Bozeman, MT  used therapeutic antibiotics, growth hormones and sent their cattle to feed lots for "finishing." A little digging will help you find the best option for your family.

Data from: J Animal Sci (1993) 71(8):2079-88. 
  Omega-3 fatty acids are known as the "healthy fats." They are most prevalent in seafood and certain nuts and seeds but grass-fed animals do have higher concentrations than their feedlot counterparts. This is because sixty percent of the fatty acids in grass are omega-3s. Each day a cow spends in a feedlot, these stores are diminished. This goes for chickens too! When chickens spend everyday stuffed inside buildings, their meat and eggs become very low in omega-3s. Eggs from pastured hens can contain as much as 10 times more omega-3s.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant
Overall, balanced meals are most important. Try increasing your consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables (farmer's markets & CSAs are great options), replace processed white flours with whole grain options and limit your meat consumption by replacing a few meals each week with healthy vegetarian options. For more information on the impact of raising meat on our environment check EatWildFood & Agriculture Organization or  Journal of Animal Science.

Meat Labels?

So you are out shopping, how do you make better choices? You see a variety of labels when you go to the grocery store but are there actually regulations around the claims of natural, cage-free or humanely raised? Humane Farm Animal Care released a new report that breaks down the standards for five commonly used labels. 'Animal Welfare Approved' is the only label that saves animals from feedlots. It also states that farmers can only use antibiotics if the animal is sick and the length of transport to the slaughter house can be no more than 8 hours. You can find the nearest AWA-certified farms through their website.

Making Better Choices:

 Eat Wild   is a great site for finding farms that support raising grass-fed, humanely raised animals from birth to market. Use the map to find local farms near you. When you choose to eat meat, eggs and dairy products from animals raised on pastures, you are not only improving the welfare of these animals but also helping small-scale ranchers and farmers make a living from the land, helping to sustain rural communities and giving your family a much healthier product.

Countries around the world are joining Meatless Monday, a movement that has quietly been growing since 2003.  Schools, restaurants and even some hospitals are taking the leap. The movement simply asks people to cut meat out one day a week. Take a few moments to check out the website. They have great articles and recipes such as pumpkin spice pancakes, "you'll never know" chiliautumn pasta carbonara or apple strudel with warm cinnamon sauce.

Give it a try!

Additional Resources:

Farm Sanctuary: Rescue-Education-Advocacy

Humane Society: Protect Farm Animals

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