It’s indisputable that there’s a growing focus on the connection between the over-consumption of meat and the negative impact of factory farming practices on the health of both consumers and the Earth. Yet there’s a lot of debate over the solutions to this problem. So now more than ever, it’s important to be aware of the distinct differences between the moderate consumption of beef and poultry from small, sustainable farms, and grabbing burgers and fried chicken four to five times a week at fast-food restaurants – and it’s more than just the huge difference in taste and your personal health.
We already know that factory farming breeds less flavorful and less nutritious meats, and the negative impacts of factory farming practices on the environment are well-documented. Increased pollution, land degradation, climate change, water shortages, and loss of biodiversity, are all proven results of large-scale, unsustainable farming.
It’s not surprising this has given rise to some aggressive calls for people to change their diet to eliminate meat all together. But why jump to this extreme? Taking extreme action is not the only, or even the best, answer. For eco-conscious consumers considering a vegetarian diet, there’s a better alternative: moderate consumption of wholesome, sustainably-raised meats that are good for you and the Earth, which has the added benefit of supporting small farmers who work hard to do what’s best for the animals and the environment.
While choosing meat and poultry that’s sustainably and humanely raised on small, mostly family-run farms is good for the environment, nobody is going out of their way to make it easy for chefs and consumers to make that choice. The aggressive food marketing of big agriculture, unclear labeling practices, and ever evolving USDA guidelines are enough to make everyone lose their appetite. Chefs, consumers and responsible animal farmers alike need clarity if they are to make the right choices about raising, serving, and consuming meat and poultry that doesn’t destroy the environment.
Every day I see chefs searching for the best products to serve their customers, and as the purveyor of meat products myself, I know first-hand that consumers are also looking more and more for better, healthier alternatives. Yet, the majority of people significantly lack knowledge about how to read a food label or how to truly understand the origins of their food.
For example, if you see “grass fed” on a beef product label, you likely assume that it signifies the cattle grazed freely in green pastures and therefore is the better choice for you and the environment. However, you might be surprised to learn that in January of 2016, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service responsible for these labeling standards actually withdrew the standards for “grass-fed” claims, so today this label is basically meaningless. In fact, the “grass-fed” cattle could have fed mostly on hay while being corralled in crowded feedlots all year-round.
Another example is the “free range” and “free roaming” label. When a chicken is labeled “free range” or “free roaming,” according to the USDA, this only means that “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” The USDA does not say the chickens must be outside roaming freely all the time, only that they are “allowed access”, while in reality the chickens may never actually go outside.
Even a term like “organic,” which has become ubiquitous across the grocery store, means a lot less than it did ten years ago. Today “organic,” by USDA standards, means the animal was fed only organic certified grains, given no anti-biotics or growth hormones, bred in ‘sufficient’ space and ‘allowed access’ to the outdoors. What’s confusing to consumers is not whether or not the meat is organic, but the fact that the defining standards have been diluted by the USDA to the point where it is possible today to factory farm “organic” chicken or “organic” cows in feed-lots where the practices are anything but humane or sustainable. For that reason, consumer perception of what the term organic signifies is often vastly different than the reality of what took place on the farm and can vary significantly from brand to brand.
As chefs and consumers continue to celebrate the farm-to-table movement and take responsibility for the health of the environment, they should know about the vast differences between small farms and factory farms, and the truth behind words on a label. Whether at a restaurant, butcher, deli counter or grocery store, consumers should feel empowered to ask questions that will provide them with a better understanding of where the product came from and how it was raised. This means that chefs, butchers, servers and market staff alike need to be knowledgeable so they can answer consumers’ questions.
If everyone digs deeper to understand where and how their beef and poultry are sourced, they will learn that multiple groups of responsible small farmers and ranchers raise their animals through respectful breeding and caring practices. These responsible ranchers offer sustainable, flavorful alternatives to factory farm meats, enabling chefs to responsibly source the meat on their menus, and allowing consumers to responsibly enjoy meat, both of which ensure biodiversity and a healthy environment. So, rather than just boycotting meat completely, we can change the industry for the better by cutting back on consumption, demanding stricter USDA standards and clear labeling, and buying only delicious, sustainable, humanely raised meat and poultry.
In my own work I see the great pride taken in raising meats on sustainable farms throughout the country. Unlike factory farms, which focus on maximizing profits at the expense of the animal’s welfare and the impact on the environment, small sustainable farms struggle and work tirelessly to use production methods that won’t generate pollution and that yield the best-tasting meat, and this includes providing ample space for the animals to roam freely and live naturally. Failing to recognize that this approach differs greatly from factory farms and feed lots by giving up meat completely should leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
Ariane Daguin is the founder, owner and CEO of D’Artagnan, the renowned gourmet food purveyor, famous for providing humanely-raised meats, from game and foie gras to organic chicken and prepared charcuterie.