Updated 9/1/2019, Originally Writtten 1/15/2019
The conversations surrounding the topic of health, wellness, and what constitutes healthy eating is way past critical mass; what we eat, how we eat and what not to eat has to lead to the continual growth in the demand for organic and high-quality foods. That demand has also trickled into the meat people eat.
Today, people want to eat meat that can be called all-natural, but it’s also led them to ask about the welfare and the quality of the animals’ lives. The latest question as it relates to animal welfare isn’t just:
- “Was it raised humanely?,”
- and “What was it fed?,”
- they are also asking, “How did it die?”
We Need to Think of Humane in a Holistic Way
This year, I began raising my own meat. I’ve started with a Berkshire/Yorkshire pig that I plan on using for my own meat, as well as a protein source for my dogs. On the little farm I rent from a friend, we raise our animals in open environments, feed quality food (we like the word organish) avoid grain, corn and soy, and reuse whatever grows on our land (apples, figs) as an additional dietary supplement to feed these pigs.
The time to raise a pig isn’t a very long window and it’s been pretty rewarding in terms of learning about livestock. But as the end of her life draws near, it’s the butchering process that has me fascinated. For us, a butcher with a mobile unit comes to our farm, puts the animal down, and renders it on site in the cuts we want. The animal doesn’t leave the farm to go to a facility to be processed, it dies at home (it’s known as a farm kill).
Unfortunately, USDA regulations don’t currently allow for meat sold to the public to die in this manner; meat sold in stores is sent to USDA-approved facilities to die. The slaughterhouses are pretty disgusting; the process that an animal dies is somewhat terrifying given the level of stress it puts on the animal before death (no wonder people become vegetarians and adopt plant-based diets).
Before I get into the “end of life” topics, I think it’s important to take a look at and address what’s prevalent in society’s conversations around food and health. For people that are so health and wellness obsessed, I find myself wondering:
- If consumers are concerned about how an animal lived, why aren’t more of them asking how it died?
- Don’t they understand the question of death directly correlates to their questions quality, humane treatment, and health?
If people say they can taste the difference in grass-fed, organic meat, then you can taste the difference in an animal that didn’t die in fear. So how do we get more people asking about the end of life process of an animal? Well, I think it starts at what talking they currently know and what companies are marketing to them.
What Do Grass Fed, Grass Finished and Organic Actually Mean?
Our health consciousness has led to the demand for better meat choices. The marketing of our desire for better health has not been lost on the beef, poultry or pork industry. In the last few years, if you’ve bought meat in a store anywhere, shoppers seen organic chicken and beef as an option (you can’t label pork as organic, even though I’ve seen it done).
On that packaging, they’ve also most likely seen the words “grass-fed” and/or “grass finished” alongside the words “organic, no hormones and no antibiotics.” Meat labeled with these words, accompanied by beautifully designed packaging, usually carries a 25-33% price premium on it.
Most consumers think that grass-fed, all-natural, organic meat is automatically better quality; that the animal itself was treated better before it became that night’s dinner. What’s more, they automatically believe that the meat wasn’t raised by a commercial farming operation or in a feedlot situation. In most cases, this can be true, but it can also be partially true. The labeling of meat is dicey. Here’s a look at three most common labels:
- Grass Fed is supposed to mean that the animal was allowed to forage for its own food; meaning it lived in a wide open space where its neck was down and he was chowing down. In winter months when there is no grass to chomp on, the animal was given hay or grass (just like horses) to eat. The animal should not have been raised on grain, pellets or confined at any point. There are no current federal regulations on what can be label grass fed, therefore there’s no real way to ensure a standard is adhered (and the conversation around the very term isn’t an easy one to draw a conclusion), so I encourage you to do your own homework.
- Organic means the animal was raised on organic feed so that it’s less likely to chemically contaminated. Organic is a dicey term because USDA certifications on any that is organic are expensive (crops, meat, farmland that grows crops or pasture) and getting these certifications is challenging and take years to obtain. So when it comes to your meat, understand that it’s not 100% possible to say is completely organic.
- Grass Finished means that the animal spent the later part of his life on grass, it very well could have been started on grain, didn’t have open access to land, etc. The animal could have been purchased at auction and then added to a different herd at some point in its life. So does it do you any good to buy grass finished meat over conventional meat? It’s debatable.
As the cattlemen of Topline Farms put it, “Not every cow raised on the pasture is USDA Certified Organic, and not every organic cow is fed a 100% grass diet or allowed unlimited access to the range. If you have to choose between one or the other, it’s important to understand what each label means, and how they each impact the health of your family.” In general, organically raised cows have to be kept in open spaces and away from chemical contaminants.
While We’re Talking About Labeling — Let’s Talk About Hormones and Antibiotics
As I did my research on how to start raising pigs, I delved into the topics of antibiotics and hormones. What I found is that most of the information floating around out there is tied to marketing campaigns and the concept of labeling of “no antibiotics or hormones” has become a marketing tactic to drive sales and command premium pricing (much like grass-fed, organic and grass-finished).
The majority of sources on that critique the use of antibiotics and hormones in animals are op-ed pieces in publications that seem to carry a healthy disdain of anything related to the government (so citing them in any more academic style research is out). So that left me to do more digging, which is why I look at university studies and went to talk farmers as the data and politics around the use of antibiotics is murky. Here’s a brief synopsis of what I learned:
The USDA has been working on phasing out the overuse of antibiotics for the past several years, and even provides alternatives to their use in livestock management. That being said, if an animal is ill, they have to be treated for illness. If the animal is being raised to the standards of organic and grass fed, becomes ill, and is treated, it shouldn’t be put back into an organic lot.
It’s only been this year (2018) that conversation on the use of antibiotics as disease prevention method was bought up because of the Trump administration‘s resistance (of which he’s exerted heavy influence over the USDA) to the World Health Organization’s most recent guidelines on limiting the use of antibiotics in healthy, food producing animals in order to preserve drug effectiveness.
Farming, our food, and anything related to profit is extremely political. This includes how your food is raised, slaughtered, subsidized, distributed and sold. From my personal experiences and conversations, I feel confident in saying:
From Washington (Cherry Valley Dairy & Harlow Cattle Co.) to California (your beef is amazing as your wine and olive oil Hearst Ranch), almost no rancher I’ve spoken to uses hormones or antibiotics on their livestock. In the past few decades, they have learned about and documented the negative effects of the overuse of hormones and antibiotics in animals, so it’s not common practice and it’s discouraged.
Beyond vaccinations that are required for a healthy animals to develop, animals are treated only if they need it. What’s more, most ranches are against abuse or negligence of any kind. They take care of their animals, even if their purpose is food. The commercial farming model is looked down upon and the examples of cruelty on the Internet break their hearts as much as it breaks ours.
Ranchers Driving Humane Practices & Developing Business Models
Now that I’ve covered what certain terms mean, taken a tangent into politics and given you a crash course on how companies are using silly marketing tactics to sell better meat, let’s look as what ranching is looking like and what we should hope to grow. There are some amazing cattle and meat companies out there doing some great things in terms of bringing better quality meat to families regionally, nationally and internationally. Companies like:
- Crowd Cow (they work with independent operations to crowdsource meat sales),
- Mishima Reserve,
- Grassroot Coop,
- Thrive Market,
- Cottonwood Ranch,
- Double 8 Cattle Co.,
- Ranch Meat,
- Lostine Cattle Company,
- Morgan Ranch,
- The American Grassfed Association,
- Full Moon Cattle Co. (love your TV show),
- and Ranchly.
They serve a great examples for driving better industry business standards, focusing on animal welfare while giving consumers better choices in what to eat. Their business models are also examples for other ranchers looking for profitable ways to grow their businesses. But in this, I see one thing that’s missing — how they die (yes, I did reach out to several of these companies for commentary on this, but did not hear back).
Making A Case For More Humane Slaughter
As consumers worldwide de-commoditize the mass slaughter of animals killed for their consumption, we need to make the case for better slaughter practices. When animals are on a truck to go to a slaughterhouse, they are in cramped, tight spaces; they’re getting dehydrated the longer they’re on the truck. If you’ve ever driven past a slaughter plant, you can smell it, an animal can smell to. For them, their stress levels go up, the adrenaline and cortisol production increase with the smell of the blood. And once they get there, are unloaded, usually, they die in fear. In my opinion, all the humane treatment that are being sold as part of the business model died with that animal.
While I know, not everyone has the ability (or desire) to raise their own meat, there are farmers and businesses already exploring humane slaughter practices at scale that can serve as the foundation for better slaughter practices. For example:
- In UK, Crowdbuterching moves cows to an artisan butcher’s facility and let the animal rest for three days before it’s killed.
- In the US, Porter Road (located in Tennessee) opened their own processing facility in Kentucky for the meat they raise on their farms to ensure humane treatment even at the end of any animal’s life. Prather Ranch in Northern California follows a similar model too.
- In France, farmers are crowdfunding for a ‘humane’ abattoir, instead of sending cows to traditional slaughterhouses, farmers plan to use the small number of cows to supply quality meat for 600 families, through a subscription plan, as well as providing meat for local restaurants. A total of 30 families have already signed up, while others have left messages of support for the group on their fundraising website.
As Lewis Kahn and David Cottle said in Beef Cattle Production and Trade, “As consumer become more aware of conditions that animals are reared, and ultimately slaughtered, they are demanding to know those conditions [are].” As the demand for transparency continues to grow amongst consumers:
- How are we going to address in the case of the end of an animal’s life?
- As business owners, how will we explain to our customers how an animal died?
- As farmers and ranchers, how can we start to advocate more humane methods of slaughter?
- As consumers, can we accept that we view the death of an animal is something we consider inherently violent? But not be as severe as our minds lead us to believe?
- Can adopt a view that aligns to how life cycles in nature work, maybe accepting an animal’s death as part of that?
No matter what, we have to make the slaughter process more “humane” too. At scale, how can we make the end efficient, but less stressful? Ideas?