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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Eat Real Food: Seeking Sustainable Meat

I have been keeping a low profile over the last couple weeks while finishing assignments and a term paper for a nutrition program I am doing. No time for blogging. I thought I'd post a handout on animal products I put together for my clients. One great thing about being a post-vegetarian: the prices of sustainable meat don't faze me because I'm new to meat buying altogether. I belong to the Clark Summit Farm meat CSA. The photos of their animals tell the whole story.

Animal products are an important part of a healthy diet for most people. Yet many of us have concerns about the safety, sustainability and source of animal foods. A basic rule of thumb when choosing animal products: “You are what you eat eats.” The better the diet and life of an animal, the more nutritious are its meat, milk or eggs. Let’s look at different types of farming and labels found on foods:

  • Animal Feedlot Operation/AFO: the fancy term for “feedlot,” this is how the vast majority of America’s beef and dairy cattle, pork and chickens are raised. They live in stalls and are fed grain, often supplemented with industrial by-products to cut costs, including processed municipal garbage, stale gum in the wrapper, malformed jelly beans, poultry litter, newspaper, and more. This diet is augmented by a steady stream of hormones and antibiotics used to treat and prevent the health problems caused by crowding and unnatural diets. In the U.S., just four companies produce 81 percent of cows, 73 percent of sheep, 57 percent of pigs and 50 percent of chickens. This type of "farming" plays a huge role in many of the crises of our day and I reccomend everyone avoid eating factory-farmed meat altogether.

  • Naturally raised, Natural: The technical definition of these has been under discussion at the USDA for years. At minimum, it means that the meat is free of hormones and antibiotics and that no animal byproducts were fed to the animals. This will reduce your chances of being affected by the hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals used in most industrial meat production. However, most meat with this label still comes from feedlots.

  • Cage free: Used by some chicken farmers. No legal meaning, but some farmers think the term is less misleading than "free range.” Ask your farmer for details.

  • Free range, free roaming: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this means: "Producers must demonstrate to the USDA that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside." This means there has to be a door, and it has to be open at least part of the time. However, this does not mean the chickens have to go outside and studies from the UK have shown that only about 15% of them ever do.

  • Organic: The label “organic” means that the food is free of pesticide residues, synthetic hormones, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) and many additives. However, most organic producers feed their animals grain, which is not an appropriate diet. Two recent studies showed that organic animal products had the same nutritional value as beef and eggs from CAFO’s. On the plus side, organic animal products are becoming more widely available in supermarkets.

  • Free Farmed, American Humane Certified: This is an independent certification by the American Humane Society. The AHC website explains that it means that the animals were raised under humane conditions, according to their website, including “freedom from unnecessary fear and distress, pain, injury and disease, hunger and thirst, have ready access to fresh water and a diet that maintains full health by enabling the expression of normal behaviors, and by providing sufficient space.” This is a far cry from the CFO experience. These products are not necessarily organic, but largely come from small family farms.

  • Grass-Fed: no legal definition has been agreed upon. This term implies that the animals have been fed grass, a more natural diet than grain; however, most cattle begin their lives on grass and are transferred to feedlots later in life. A better term to look for is “grass-fed and finished. Also, the terms grass-raised, range-fed, Argentine style or New Zealand style may indicate pasture feeding.

  • Pastured, grass-farmed: Not legally defined by the USDA, but the preferred term by advocates of sustainable farming. Means that animals are raised and finished on pasture, their natural diet, and allowed to graze freely, which greatly enhances the nutritional value of their products. Generally, pastured meats, eggs and dairy are lower in fat and higher in vitamins than their confined counterparts. They contain are rich in omega 3 fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory and protective against heart disease, cancer, diabetes, weight gain and depression, to name a just a few benefits. They also contain conjugated linoleic acids, or CLA’s, which have been found to be potent cancer fighters. Conscientious grass farming can actually fight global warming through carbon sequestration in healthy grasslands. Animals can be raised, and have been for most of the agricultural era, on land that is unsuited for raising crops because it is too steep or rocky. According to Michael Pollan, "Grass farming is the closest thing to a near zero sum form of agriculture in that it takes very little out of the earth"(April 2007). For much more on the health and environmental benefits of pastured animal products, visit or see one of the many books on the topic (see Further Reading, below).

In general, as with other animal food, the better a fish’s diet, the more nutritious it is. Currently, the world’s fish stocks are in imminent danger of collapse from overfishing and environmental destruction. Fish is a highly nutritious food, in part because all fish contains omega 3 fatty acids, but the exact amount of these and other nutrients it contains varies with the season, species and diet of the fish. Most fish also contain mercury, but it is particularly concentrated in the flesh of carnivorous and larger fish and those from more contaminated environments. Many farmed fish have been found to contain contaminants and industrial pollutants, and they are often fed a very poor diet. The conscientious fish eater should focus on fish from sustainable fisheries, and also be sure to seek omega 3 fatty acids from a diversity of sources, such as pastured meats and dairy products. An excellent resource on mercury in fish is The Blue Ocean institute publishes a regional, seasonal guide to sustainable fish. Download it at You can also text “FISH” and the species name to 30644 and they will text you right back with sustainability info.

Where to find it:

Dairy: Clover-Stornetta, Straus, Spring Hill, Organic Pastures and Cloverdale all pasture their cows and Redwood Hill Farms sells pastured goat products. Most supermarkets and health food stores carry these, and raw milk is available at Rainbow Grocery, Whole Foods and Bi-Rite market in SF, and at Monterey market and Berkeley Natural and Berkeley Bowl in the East Bay.

Eggs: Truly pastured eggs are sold by Marin Sun Farms, Clark Summit Farms, TLC Ranch (SF farmer’s markets, Rainbow and Bi-Rite) and by Kaki farms, Eatwell farms and others at the Berkeley and Oakland farmer’s markets and Monterey market and Magnani Poultry in the East Bay. You'll never want to go back to supermarket eggs after eating farm-fresh eggs.

Meats: Locally raised pastured meats are available at the Marin Sun farms and Prather Ranch stands at the SF farmer’s markets, and Bi-Rite grocery. In the East Bay, try Highland hills farm at Berkeley’s farmer’s markets and Prather ranch at Oakland’s. Organic meats are found at many markets, including Trader Joe’s. Niman Ranch meats are generally naturally raised on small farms and are found in many markets and restaurants around the Bay Area.

Fish: My favorite is Monterey Fish Market, owned by the guy who literally wrote the book on sustainable fish (Fish Forever), Paul Johnson. And Andronico's, Bi-Rite and Whole Foods are posting sustainability info at their fish counters. It's really fun to go to the Berkeley marina and buy crab at the bait shop there fresh off the boat. Get it while you can.

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