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As I stated with my first post in this series, I fully recognize that some of you have very tight budgets or only have access to mega-marts due to your locations. Others will have the funds and availability to choose the best of the best. Either way, this post isn’t to condemn someone who can’t pick the best of every option, it is to help you make the best decision you can with what you have, where you are.
This week’s installment is on choosing meats. This post is to help you decide what is the best option for your budget. This posting is my opinion, and after research, you might reach a different conclusion. If you do, please comment and share what you found and your reasoning. I’m always open to changing my opinion and updating this post if new or different information comes along.
Best– Locally grown, 100% pastured, organic or ‘not-certified but organic practice’
Better– 100% pastured, organic or ‘not-certified but organic practice’
Good– Pastured with some grain supplements, organic
Acceptable– Organic but not pastured
Poor– Conventional, grain-fed or feed-lot fed, confinement operation meats
When you support a farmer directly, you both benefit by cutting out the middle man. The farmer receives more income and you receive a lower price than if you bought the meat from a store. The cost of transportation and storage is greatly lessened in a local purchase. But the most important part of buying local is that you can go to the farm, see the animals and access their health, and ask tons of questions. You can find a farmer with a heritage breed, you can pick the processor if there is more than one in the area that is USDA-certified, you can pick the cuts of the meat, the weights of the packages, how many pounds you want in each pack. The butcher can walk you through the process if you’re not familiar with the types of cuts.
I have found farmers on Craig’s List, the local classified papers, local e-mail loops, the farmer’s markets and word of mouth. Some areas of the country have foundations or projects specifically dedicated to helping people find and support their local farmer. You can also check Eat Wild, Eat Well, Local Harvest and similar websites. Contact your local Weston A Price Foundation chapter leader to see if they have any leads or have pre-screened the farmers within driving distance.
Questions to Ask Your Farmer
When I contact a farmer for the first time, I ask several questions. First, I ask if the animals receive any feed or grain as part of their food or any grain-based supplementation. If they receive any feed, I ask if it is organic or conventional, and if it contains corn or soy. Conventional corn and soy products are almost always genetically modified, and I strongly wish to avoid them. I ask if I can come out and visit the farm and see the animals. On the visit, I look closely at the animals. Do they have any discharge from the eyes or nose? Are their coats or feathers shiny? Are their eyes bright? Are they active? Are their pens dirty? Are they confined or do they get to free-range within a large area? Are they living in filth? Is their bedding clean?
Do they look happy and healthy to you?
Don’t be afraid to dialogue with a farmer and ask lots of questions about the operation and why they make the choices they do. I’ve never met a farmer who was unwilling to explain their choices to help me better understand the process and why they choose particular options.
Ideally, you want to find a farmer who is 100% grass, free-range pasture or forage fed, depending on the animal. In some areas of the country or times of the year, even farmers dedicated to grass-fed meats give limited amounts of grain supplementation to get the animals though winter without too drastic of a weight loss or to prevent severe declines in milk or egg production. We personally do supplement our chickens with some cracked grain during the winter, however we never confine our animals and they continue to free-range unless it’s below zero degrees or there is deep snow on the ground. It’s hard to find food when you can’t leave the coop or there’s no ground to scratch!
Supplementation is an issue some beef farmers face when they see the dwindling amounts of milk from 100% pastured animals drop to amounts that mean they must charge unrealistic prices for their products and thus endanger their entire operation. You will need to talk to your farmer about his practices and decide whether you are comfortable with this practice in exchange for a potentially lower price than a 100% grass-fed option. Most farmers slaughter their animals or sell them at market before they reach the point of needing to supplement, due to the costs involved. Plainly put, it is more expensive to keep an animal and supplement it over the winter than it is to sell it or slaughter it in most situations.
I have not personally dealt with this situation in cattle or pigs, therefore I am not educated enough on it to give an informed opinion. I am personally comfortable with the use of organic grain supplements through the bad weather days of winter for egg-laying chickens who are permanent members of our flock. Our chickens are back on a completely foraged diet long before we slaughter any of them for meat the following Spring.
Why Feed is Important
As explained in the Weston A Price Foundation article, Splendor in the Grass, giving cows a non-native diet alters their pH, gut flora and the nutritional profile of the meat. It allows bad bacteria to dominate in the gut in certain instances. As is the same with humans, they live longer and healthier lives on their native diet. The need for antibiotics and other drugs is greatly lessened or eliminated on a native diet. Pastured operations do not automatically give antibiotics and steroids to every animal as a matter of course. Animals that are not confined are much less likely to get sick as they are not left in their own filth.
Some cattle in the US is pastured until the last weeks their life when they go to a confinement operation before slaughter. Grain-feeding is done to cattle in the last weeks of their lives to bulk up their weight and make their slaughter more profitable. This period of grain feeding alters the nutritional content of their meat in an unfavorable way. Do be aware this exists if you run into this situation when talking to a farmer.
Can Meat Be Grain-Fed AND Organic or Free-Range?
This is a common question I receive. ‘Organic’ refers to how the food that goes into the animal’s mouth was grown, whether or not that food is species specific. So as long as the feed the animal is given is organic and the other organic guidelines are met, the meat is labeled as organic. In fact, most of the organic meat on the market is grain-fed in some form of a confinement operation or grain-finished.
The organic label will not tell you if the animal has been truly pastured and whether they receive a species-appropriate diet. Most health food stores will label their grass-fed meat as pastured or 100% grass-fed in addition to the organic label. If you’re confused, don’t be afraid to ask the person at the meat counter and clarify that you wish to find something that is both organic and 100% pastured.
Free-Range is a reference to the environment and doesn’t have to do with their diet. For example, free-range meat chickens are only required to have some access to the outdoors, not necessarily be on pasture. This often means they are raised cage-free in huge barns and have access to a few feet of fenced-in pavement or gravel so they can see a little sunshine if they can climb over everyone else and manage to get out there. The majority of those chickens will never see the outdoors and very few will ever stand on grass in their lives. Hardly the mental image that most people get when they see the ‘free-range’ label, is it? Cage-Free means that they are not packed into cages, but they can still be tightly confined to the floor of a barn.
The government only requires the term ‘free-range’ mean that a meat bird have access to some outdoors, which can be dirt, pavement or gravel. It is not necessarily grass, and it doesn’t have to be a large patch or easy to access from the barn. The term free-range is not regulated by the government when it comes to egg production.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go outside and hug a few of my fully pastured, back yard chickens. Looking at those pictures makes me so sad.
What If They Aren’t Certified?
In dealing with local farmers, I get organic-practice meats that are high quality at prices that beat the (reasonably priced) local health food stores to pieces. The farms I deal with are very small, so they choose not to pursue the expensive certification process for organic. These farmers run their operation with the strictest care and within the guidelines that would define an organic practice. Don’t immediately dismiss a small family farm because they haven’t invested the thousands of dollars necessary to obtain the organic certification. You’ll be getting the same quality of meat as if they are certified organic, but the price will probably be lower than a farm that has chosen to certify organic due to the expense of being involved in the program.
When You Must Choose
If your money is tight, higher quality meat is more important that organic grain, fruit and vegetables because toxins are stored in fat. If I had to choose between a higher quality meat and organic grains, the meat would win hands down. Same with produce and coconut oil. But when it comes to animal products and particularly products that contain animal fats, I consider the best options to be paramount to the best options in other categories that only contain trace to small amounts of fat.
Do the best you can, with what you have, where you are. When you do to the best of your abilities and availabilities, you can place the rest is in God’s hands and sleep well, knowing you are a good steward of what you have been given. And that’s all anyone can do. Carpe Diem.