Decline of the Carnivore: American consumers are losing their appetite for meat

MeatconsumptionAlmost everyone that's not selling meat agrees that it would be a good thing for Americans to eat less meat. Nutritionists tell us it would be good for our health. Environmentalists tell us it would be good for the environment and one of the most helpful ways to combat global warming. Animal welfare advocates tell us that reducing meat consumption is one of the most helpful ways we can address the horrors of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). As we're learning in our Tables of Plenty journey, most religious traditions teach that constraining the consumption of meat through fasting is helpful on the journey of spiritual formation. 

Apparently the message is starting to sink in because, as Mark Bittman reported earlier in the week, American consumers are putting less meat in their shopping carts and that trend is likely to continue into the future. (See chart taken from this Daily Livestock Report)

The rising price of meat is probably the single biggest contributor to these trends but Bittman attributes part of the decline to a shift in consumer conscience:

Some are choosing to eat less meat for all the right reasons. The Values Institute at DGWB Advertising and Communications just named the rise of “flexitarianism” — an eating style that reduces the amount of meat without “going vegetarian” — as one of its top five consumer health trends for 2012. In an Allrecipes.com survey of 1,400 members, more than one-third of home cooks said they ate less meat in 2011 than in 2010. Back in June, a survey found that 50 percent of American adults said they were aware of the Meatless Monday campaign, with 27 percent of those aware reporting that they were actively reducing their meat consumption.

The livestock industry in their report on the trend attributes the change to growing exports which reduced the amount of available meat in the market, higher costs due to the growth of the ethanol industry that diverts corn to the production of fuel and increases the costs of those inputs for animal feed, and finally they attribute the decline to "the fruition of 30-40 years of government policy." 

Bittman, along with many others, have expressed shock at the dubious nature of this last statement. One feature of the American food scene over the last 40 years are the generous farm subisidies that have fueled the industrialization of meat production. Instead of dealing with the reality that consumers are choosing to eat less meat, they are stuck on the idea of a government conspiracy against them. 

I guess I'm not surprised that the livestock industry doesn't mention changing consumer values but, as I've written in the past, the industry ignores this reality at their peril.

World Trade Organization Tells U.S. Consumers They Aren't Allowed to Know Food's Country of Origin

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2sgaO44_1c]

A recent ruling from the World Trade Organization has got me feeling like I need to initiate an "Occupy Your Grocery Store" movement. The WTO has declared that current U.S. food country-of-origin labeling laws for meat and produce are "illegal." Bloomberg News reports:

Canada and Mexico said the provisions impose unfair costs on their exports, reducing their competitiveness. Judges agreed that the policies meant beef and pork from Canada and Mexico were treated less favorably than the same U.S. products.

The article goes on the share the perspectives of farmers and industry insiders who lament that the program is "costly and cumbersome," and that the costs "far outweigh any benefits."

This may seem like an obscure, niche debate but I think it goes to the heart of the current crisis in food systems around the world. Industrialists insist that food is nothing more than a commodity that can be reduced to a product with nutritional content, a hunk of chemicals and proteins with a profit margin. In their ideal world a food item is not connected to anything--no farmer, no land, no community, no country, no watershed, no carbon footprint, no pesticide, no herbicide, no low-wage farm worker, nothing. The industrial food system is most efficient when the journey from farm to table is an undiscernable mystery, and the champions of this industry will keep pushing for more efficiency, as if it hasn't already been pushed too far.

I'm reminded of the John Muir quote from My First Summer in the Sierra where he observes: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

The problem with the industrial vision of storyless food is that it defies the truth that it is, in fact, "hitched to everything else." It's hitched to the endangered thin-brown line of topsoil that covers the earth. It's often connected to lies and deception (See "Most honey you buy at the store isn't honey"). It's part of huge debates about water wars and environmental destruction (see California water wars). Beef often has a sordid web of connections to things like heavy metals, antibiotic residues, clandestine cloning, ammonia soaking, and even fatalities

Food is more "hitched" than most things which is why the move to further separate consumers from the origin of foods is so disturbing. 

Wendell Berry sums up the current conundrum of consumers when he writes about our troubling ignorance about the ways our consumer items are "hitched":

...the first thought may be a recognition of one’s ignorance and vulnerability as a consumer in the total economy. As such a consumer, one does not know the history of the products that one uses. Where, exactly, did they come from? Who produced them? What toxins were used in their production? What were the human and ecological costs of producing them and then of disposing of them? One sees that such questions cannot be answered easily, and perhaps not at all. Though one is shopping amid an astonishing variety of products, one is denied certain significant choices. In such a state of economic ignorance it is not possible to choose products that were produced locally or with reasonable kindness toward people and toward nature. Nor is it possible for such consumers to influence production for the better. Consumers who feel a prompting toward land stewardship find that in this economy they can have no stewardly practice. To be a consumer in the total economy, one must agree to be totally ignorant, totally passive, and totally dependent on distant supplies and self-interested suppliers.

Berry concludes, and I tend to agree, that the best way to respond to this situation is to nurture "prosperous local economies." According to Berry, "Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice." In other words, buying from local farmers and producers is the best way to know the story of the items we buy. Instead of relying on a beauracracy of labeling rules, he says we need to take things into our own hands and develop relationships with people. If enough consumers start moving in this direction, demanding meaningful knowledge about the items we buy, then maybe industry representative will take note and respond.

Supporting local farmers like Rocky Ridge Ranch that was featured in the Spokesman Review this weekend is a great way to take a step in this direction. The Spokane Public Market and the Millwood Winter Farmers' Market, 3-6pm on Wednesdays at the Crossing Youth Center are other options worth considering. Consider making local farmers and producers a part of this year' Christmas shopping plans. 

New Report: 1 in 4 Packages of Meat at the Grocery Contain Multi-Drug Resistant Staph

A few weeks ago I wrote a post highlighting the book, Superbug by Maryn Mckenna. The book tracks the emergence of antibiotic-resistant MRSA and claims that the heavy use of antibiotics in industrial animal agriculture has contributed to the rise of these resistant strains of bacteria.

Mckenna has an article at Wired.com today that reports on a new scientific study on the presence of drug-resistant bacteria in meat for sale in stores. She reports:

A team of researchers from Arizona bought meat and poultry in five cities across the United States, tested them for bacteria, and found this: 47 percent of the samples contained the very common pathogen Staphylococcus aureus, and 96 percent of those isolates were resistant to at least one antibiotic. Of more concern: 52 percent of those staph isolates were resistant to at least three antibiotics that are commonly used in both veterinary and human medicine.

That is: Roughly one in four packages of meat and poultry from across the US contained multi-drug resistant staph.

Here's the breakdown of how different types of meat compared:

Among the types of meat tested, turkey carried the most resistance, with 77 percent of the meat samples showing at least some; that was followed by pork (42 percent), chicken (41 percent) and beef (37 percent). Interestingly, it wasn’t all the same staph. Though there was a great diversity of staph types, each animal species seemed to carry mostly one sequence type or strain of staph: ST1 in pigs, ST5 in chickens and ST398 in turkey.

Perhaps the most important finding in the study is that the source of the bacteria was not human contamination, rather the bacteria came from the animals themselves. Mckenna quotes study team member Lance Price:

“There’s an important second point: We found that each of the meat and poultry types had their own distinctive staph on them. That provides strong evidence that food animals were the primary source of the resistant staph. The source wasn’t human contamination of the meat at slaughter, or when it was packaged for retail sale.”

This is an important data point in the debate about the impact of antibiotic use in raising farm animals. The Ag. community has argued for years that no one has been able to prove a link between such use and the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria that is harmful to humans. The evidence is mounting that concentrated animal operations are not only bad for animals, but they are bad for humans as well.

Go here for a previous post on safety issues with America's meat supply.

Amazing New Google Books Ngram Search Tool - Foodie Index, Fast Food Index and More

The geniuses at Google have put together a search tool that allows you to search through a good portion of the books they've scanned into Google Books. Here is how it works:

The service draws on the absolutely massive Google Books corpus. Google estimates they've scanned and OCR'd more than 10 percent of all the books ever published, and they use about a third of the total books in the tool.

Language and book publishing trends are tricky things to nail down. For example, just because a word comes into more frequent use does not necessarily mean that the concrete realities we attach to those words in today's language have become more important or popular. But they do provide fascinating data points to consider when assessing cultural trends.

I did a few searches related to the content of this blog:

Below is the meat index comparing usage of the words chicken, beef, pork, and turkey (1900-2008):

Screen shot 2010-12-18 at 9.09.08 AM

 

Here's an "industrial agriculture" vs. "organic agriculture" throwdown (1940-2008):

Industrial ag vs organic ag

 

Below is the fast food index showing the rise of pizza, hamburger, and fast food (1940-2008):

Screen shot 2010-12-18 at 9.22.13 AM

 

Here's what I'll call the foodie index showing community garden, farmers market, and csa (1900-2008):

Screen shot 2010-12-18 at 9.56.33 AM

Below is the vintage food index showing use of victory garden, pickling, and canning (1900-2000):

Screen shot 2010-12-18 at 10.18.00 AM

 Finally the ag index showing frequency of farm, farmer, and agriculture (1900-2008):

Screen shot 2010-12-18 at 9.48.56 AM

Sante Restaurant in Downtown Spokane Offers Healthy Mix of Local Food

Sante1 Sante is the French word for health. Jeremy Hansen, owner and chef of Sante Restaurant and Charcuterie exemplifies a holistic health in the way he runs his pioneering establishment next to Auntie's Bookstore in Downtown Spokane.

Jeremy grew up in Spokane and has been in the restaurant business since he was a young teenager, cutting his teeth at the Mustard Seed and other area kitchens. He eventually attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland where he not only honed his skills as a chef, but formed a philosophy of food and community that eventually gave birth to Sante.

Sante is remarkable for the way it sources foods locally. Hansen is pictured above processing the half of a steer that was just delivered that morning by Gary Angel of Rocky Ridge Ranch. Most of the beef and other meat at Sante comes from this nearby farm. Jeremy points out that not only is Gary's beef superior in quality because of the feed and care Gary provides, processing beef in this way also makes good business sense. By cutting out the middle-men he makes a good profit, Gary get's a good price and a reliable market for his beef, and the consumer gets a choice meal at a reasonable price. This is a great example of Jeremy's uncompromising pursuit of holistic health. Everyone wins, including his employees who apparently are paid well above average for Spokane area restaurants.

Sante2 Sante is not only a restaurant, it is a Charcuterie, which is the area of cooking that involves preparing meats like the sausages, bacon, and prosciutto ham pictured to the left in the restaurant's display case. Jeremy was telling me that he really had trouble making good prosciutto with the pork that was available through commercial channels. He said, "When I used Gary's Berkshire pigs it came out comparable to the finest hams available in Europe. The quality really is dependent on what the animals eat. When we eat animals we're really eating what they ate." All of the items in the displays case are not only used in meals for diners, they are available for bulk purchase. They even make their own mustard which I saw being prepared in the kitchen. I imagine the steady stream of income from these items is the envy of every restaurant in Spokane.

There is one other unique aspect to Sante that was a great surprise to me. While it is in many respects a fine-dining establishment, the space they've created is warm and welcoming, even to a guy like me who wants to plug in a computer and do some work while he eats. They have a counter with outlets and stools that connects the restaurant with the book store and free wifi. I had the toasted-cheese sandwhich that included an egg and a couple of slices of their house bacon. It was fantastic and was in the Red Robin range of prices.

Needless to say I'm impressed. While many talk about the virtues of local and sustainable food, Jeremy and his wife took their life savings and are turning those virtues into a sustainable business. Spokane is a healthier city because of their efforts. If you're giving a gift certificate for Christmas this year, Sante should be high on your list of candidates. They are open for breakfast and lunch, 8am to 5pm, 7 days a week. They are open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday till 9pm.

 

The Secret of Cloned Cattle In the U.S. Food Supply

As if we need one more reason to be worried about the supply of beef and milk in the US food chain, this article from BBC News explains that not only are cattle being cloned to maximize production, but some of the cattle are cloned from the cells of dead animals.

The aim of livestock cloning is to clone the best animals to produce the best beef. But some cattle farmers believe it is impossible to pick the best quality animals until their meat has been properly analysed. That is why there are cloned bulls here that have been produced from the cells taken from the carcasses of dead animals.

Brady Hicks of the JR Simplot company in Idaho said his organisation was among many that had tried out the technique successfully. "The animals are hanging on a rail ready to go to the meat counter," he told BBC News. "We identify carcasses that have certain carcass characteristics that we want, but it's too late to reproduce the genetics of the animal. But through cloning we can resurrect that animal."

These "resurrected" animals are then bred with naturally born cows. The next step is to see if their offspring - whose meat can be sold to consumers in the US - have the same qualities as the grandparent from which the cells were originally taken.

As the article goes on to point out, most people in the U.S. are unaware that cloning has been adopted as an acceptable practice in the production of beef and milk cows.This is certainly the first I've heard of it and I'm pretty dialed into issues around beef production.

According to the BBC;

It is early days for cloning in US agriculture. There are only a thousand clones in the one hundred million-strong American cattle herd.

This may be safe. They claim to have done a few studies that show the practice is safe but it is way too early, in my opinion, to be introducing cloned cattle into the supply chain. It just sounds crazy. Are they really unable to determine the best cattle for breeding without cloning them? The beef industry is so hell bent on increasing productivity, but don't they realize that the loss of consumers of beef is an important part of the equation. They lost me a long time ago.

I buy all my beef from the local farmers' market that is grass fed at a small sale nearby farm. Rocky Ridge Ranch and Susie David Beef are good sources in the Spokane area.

I've found that local beef also tastes better. Gary from Rocky Ridge recently gave me some of his top of the line steaks and they were amazing! And the steers that produced the steaks were selected for breeding the way farmers' have done if for thousands of years.

Like I said, cloning may be safe. I don't know otherwise. But consumer beware - cloned cattle are in the US beef supply.

How the Movie "Food Inc." is Changing the Food Landscape

Foodinc I was chatting with Gary Angel from Rocky Ridge Ranch last night and he explained that his meat sales have skyrocketed this year. What took him 3 months to sell last year is being snatched up in 2 weeks - whole chickens, steaks, hamburger, bacon, pork, you name it it's selling.

Reflecting on possible causes for the uptick in sales he speculated that the movie "Food Inc." has something to do with it. He's heard a lot of people mention that seeing the movie has led them to seek out alternative sources of meat. I hadn't given it much thought, but I also have heard a chorus of people saying they saw the movie and it has sufficiently freaked them out to seek out non-industrial chicken and beef alternatives.

These are just anecdotal observations, but I do think that Food Inc. may be a game changer in popularizing local small scale beef and chicken, and that along with that we may be on the cusp of seeing ordinary grocery stores get on the band wagon.

The mainstreaming of organic produce is a good example of how this works. Along with mentioning that meat sales are way up, Gary said that their organic produce offerings don't sell like they did five years ago. Another farmer chimed in that organic produce is now available everywhere, "even Walmart has organic produce," he lamented. Organic produce was seen, until very recently, as a fringe food movement, but in the last five to ten years it has moved into the mainstream. You can argue about the effectiveness of organic standards that many say are not strict enough, but there is no doubt that organic produce has arrived.

I'm wondering if we might be on the cusp of a similar transition in what is available at local grocery stores in the meat department. There are currently some half-hearted efforts to provide locally raised beef in grocery stores, but as this recent KREM story highlights, the industry hasn't really made offering meat alternatives a priority because they haven't had to. But Food Inc. may be a game changer. Seeing graphic images of "beef product" soaking in ammonia tends to mess with your head in a way that makes it difficult to turn a blind eye to the source of your meat.

This Diffusion of Innovation chart shows the process of how change is innovated and adopted, with the blue line indicating when various percentages of the population adopt an innovation and the brown line indicating the market share of a product. The blue line is helpful in understanding the various food movements. For my purposes I'll ignore the brown line.

Diffusion of innovation I would put organic produce in the early majority stage of development, with organic produce available everywhere and a growing percentage of people making choices to buy organic. I think the movie Food Inc. signals the transition of local, naturally raised meat from the innovators stage to the early adopters and as the market responds to rising interest I think within the next couple of years smaller scale grass fed beef and more naturally raised chicken will find its way into grocery stores. I think the chorus for change in the meat industry may be reaching a critical mass that shifts markets and moves things like grass-fed beef into the mainstream.

Another way to look at the chart above is that industrial beef and chicken have ridden the wave of innovation over the last 60 years and now take up 100% of the market. What used to be a radical innovation is now the only way we do it. If I had a couple million dollars I sure wouldn't be investing it in a traditional CAFO. I'd be thinking about how to innovate a series of smaller scale, more local, more natural feed lots that have enough capacity to supply Costco. New innovations will rise up in response to the market and I'd want to be on the front end, not the back end of the innovation cycle.

These are just my anecdotal observations so take them for what they're worth.

USDA Audit Finds Veterinary Drugs, Pesticides and Heavy Metals in US Beef Supply

A recent report on efforts to control harmful "residues" in the US Beef supply has got me even more freaked out about eating a hamburger than I already was. Go here for one of my previous posts on problems with beef.

The audit report assesses the effectiveness of current monitoring for veterinary drugs, pesticides and heavy metals in beef and concludes that our current system is not doing the job.

Here are some choice quotes;

We found, however, that tolerances have not been set for many potentially harmful substances, which can impair FSIS’ enforcement activities. For example, in 2008, when Mexican authorities rejected a shipment of U.S. beef because it contained copper in excess of Mexico’s tolerances, FSIS had no basis to stop distribution of this meat in the United States since FDA has set no tolerance for copper.

Just to be clear, Mexico has a more thorough monitoring system for beef when it comes to heavy metals than we do in the US. The beef that had high levels of copper was rejected by Mexico and then, without a hitch, was slipped into the US food supply, probably ending up in school lunches or fast food hamburgers.

We also found that FSIS does not recall meat adulterated with harmful residue, even when it is aware that the meat has failed its laboratory tests. Between July 12, 2007, and March 11, 2008, FSIS found that four carcasses were adulterated with violative levels of veterinary drugs and that the plants involved had released the meat into the food supply. Although the drugs involved could result in stomach, nerve, or skin problems for consumers, FSIS requested no recall.

Heavy metal, drugs - this is starting to sound like a Metallica concert.

The report explains how some of these residues make their way into the food supply;

Residues are introduced into meat intended for human consumption for a variety of reasons. Some producers provide antibiotics to dairy cows in order to eliminate an infection after a calf is born. If the producer perceives that the cow is not improving, he may sell the animal to a slaughter facility so that he can recoup some of his investment in the animal before it dies. If the producer does not wait long enough for the antibiotic to clear the animal’s system, some of this residue will be retained in the meat that is sold to consumers.

The low grade meat from these death bed dairy cows is usually turned into cheap hamburger.

Meat from bob veal calves also frequently contains residue which may enter their system through medicated feed or from waste milk from cows that are going through a drug withdrawal period. Farmers are prohibited from selling milk for human consumption from cows that have been medicated with antibiotics (as well as other drugs) until the withdrawal period is over; so instead of just disposing of this tainted milk, producers feed it to their calves. When the calves are slaughtered, the drug residue from the feed or milk remains in their meat, which is then sold to consumers.

This is getting too gross for me so I'm going to have to stop here. Go to the link above and read the whole report if you like. Alternet has a nice summary of the report findings here. I'll just say what I've said before; I will gladly pay twice as much for grass fed beef at the farmers' market that is produced by farmers that I know and trust. This also means that I eat less beef, which is probably a good thing.

New Eastern Washington Feedlot to Potentially Draw a Million Gallons of Water a Day from Aquifer

There is a water battle brewing in Eastern Washington north of Pasco and it looks like the feedlots are winning. As E&E publishing reports it;

At issue is a proposal by Easterday Ranches Inc. to build a feedlot for30,000 head of cattle that would withdraw a shade under 1 million gallons a day from the ancient Grande Ronde Aquifer during the driest months of the year. The proposal has touched off a wave of concern among local farmers, prompting Collins and about 20 of his neighbors to form the nonprofit Five Corners Family Farmers to fight the feedlot project and others that might come along behind it.

The new feedlot is taking advantage of an outdated state statute that allows ranchers and feedlots to draw an unlimited amount of water for livestock. The owner, Cody Easterday, has estimated that the ranch will draw 300,000 gallons of water a day. I called Cody Easterday this morning to clarify if indeed during the hot summer months they will draw close to a million gallons of water per day, but he had not comment.

The lawsuit brought by other farmers in the area was thrown out by a Franklin county judge last week based on the "clear and unambigous" nature of the statute. It was originally written to accomodate the water needs of small family farms, not big feedlot operations.

E& E reports;

The groundwater problems in eastern Washington are among the most serious in the country, in part because the region is among the driest in the country, averaging about 7 inches of rainfall a year.

In Franklin County, the aquifer is receding about a foot a year, while groundwater levels in neighboring Whitman County groundwater are declining at an even faster rate of 1.5 feet per year.

A state-funded study released in January found that the deep aquifer in eastern Washington -- especially Franklin, Adams, Grant and Lincoln counties -- are in serious trouble because "a significant percentage" of the area's wells are tapping into the deepest part of the aquifer, where the water is 10,000 years old and is not recharged by surface water, said Paul Stoker, executive director of the four-county Columbia Basin Groundwater Management Area, which conducted the study...

The Easterday Ranch's feedlot is proposed near the southern boundary of the Odessa Aquifer, which Slattery described in his November letter as perhaps "the most critical water supply shortage in the state."

Wendell Berry: A Cows Contentment Flavors the Steak

Cows2web
Berry's comments from the Art of the Commonplace, are helpful in describing the benefits of growing your own vegetables and knowing the origins of the meat we eat.

The pleasure of eating should be an extensive pleasure, not that of the mere gourmet. People who know the garden in which their vegetables have grown and known that the garden is healthy will remember the beauty of the growing plants, perhaps in the dewy first light of morning when gardens are at their best. Such a memory involves itself with the food and is one of the pleasures of eating. The knowledge of good health of the garden relieves and frees and comforts the eater.

The same goes for eating meat. The thought of the good pasture and of the calf contentedly grazing flavors the steak. Some, I know, will think this bloodthirsty or worse to eat a fellow creature you have known all its life. On the contrary, I think it means that you eat with understanding and with gratitude. A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one's accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.

I hear people getting into debates about whether organic vegetables are, from the perspective of chemistry, more nutritious. Others debate the financial advantage of growing your own vegetables. Some take a pragmatic view of the politics and say things like, "the corporate agriculture industry would like nothing better than to see us spend all of our free time in our gardens and not in political dissent." And of course we love to debate the mathematics of carbon footprints.

While these perspectives are all important and need to be debated and discussed, none are quite as compelling to me as the one Berry makes in the quote above. Instead of breaking things down to their component parts, which is what our scientific approaches do, Berry is putting the food we eat in context, using words like beauty, memory and contentment. He says that simply knowing the source and conditions of the land and animals that provide our food makes the food taste better (and I would add, in many cases worse.) I can't prove it with a scientific study but I know it to be true from my experience.

www.good.is - "Cowpooling is hot right now"

I continue to enjoy the www.good.is website. This post about an upcoming edition of the magazine on neighborhoods is full of interesting links including one about cowpooling, which according to the magazine is "hot right now." That's the funniest quote I've heard in awhile. I was also fascinated by the story about Orange County, in China. Definitely worth a read.

Michael Pollan's WSU Visit Debrief

Pollan
It worked out for me to attend the Michael Pollan event at Washington State University last night. It was well attended with a couple thousand people in the stands of WSU's basketball arena. He acknowledged the controversy of the visit at the beginning of his remarks but didn't go into detail. In a moment of diminished inhibitions I actually emailed him last week to see if I could interview him over the phone and get his perspective on the hubbub. His assistant was very kind in the way she told me that he was too busy.

I hate to say it but his presentation was kind of boring, at least for me. I was familiar with most of the material he covered. The advantage of an in-person presentation, just like a live music concert, is that you get something more raw and unfiltered, more improvised and personal. It felt like less of a live performance and more like a synopsis of his writings on food. Oh well.

The crowd was subdued for most of the talk with occasional applause for certain parts of his presentation. The largest applause related to his comments about private corporations having a stranglehold on the research going on at institutions like WSU. I guess that comment hit close to home.

The most fascinating part of the evening for me was that on the way out there were students lined up handing out brochures from the National Cattleman's Beef Association. I confirmed today that it was the Washington State Beef Board that provided the brochures and organized the distribution. I did a little poking around and discovered that both the national and the Washington organization are funded by a $1 per head of cattle sold fee ($79 million in 2007). This "checkoff" program is overseen by the USDA. Assuming those costs are passed on to the consumer, not only are we buying industrial beef, we are paying for the industrial beef interests to market that beef to us and tell us it's not as bad as Michael Pollan would have you think. I have a call into the state board and the office explained that they were traveling back from Pullman today. If I hear back from them I'll let you know what their perspective is on the event.

USA Today Reports: Chicken Used For School Lunches Not Good Enough For Colonel Sanders

Given the recent posts on the school lunch boycott in Medford Mass. this new report from the USA Today is very timely.

McDonald’s, Burger King and Costco, for instance, are far more rigorous in checking for bacteria and dangerous pathogens. They test the ground beef they buy five to 10 times more often than the USDA tests beef made for schools during a typical production day.

And the limits Jack in the Box and other big retailers set for certain bacteria in their burgers are up to 10 times more stringent than what the USDA sets for school beef.

For chicken, the USDA has supplied schools with thousands of tons of meat from old birds that might otherwise go to compost or pet food. Called “spent hens” because they’re past their egg-laying prime, the chickens don’t pass muster with Colonel Sanders— KFC won’t buy them — and they don’t pass the soup test, either. The Campbell Soup Company says it stopped using them a decade ago based on “quality considerations.”

The gist of the article is that because school lunch standards are less than most fast food chains, the lesser quality or rejected product gets dumped into the Federal system of purchasing food for school lunches. It should be noted that they are talking specifically about the Federally provided food to local schools which makes up about 15-20% of the food in public school cafeterias.

I’m not sure if the takeaway is that fast foods are actually really responsible with food safety or that the federal purchasing program is negligent.

Is Vegan the New Locavore?

As the great debate about food and the environment has evolved in recent years the argument that eating local is a good way to cut down on carbon emissions has lost its luster. If food is being shipped on average over 1500 miles to the store, it would seem to reason that eating local would take a big bite out of our carbon footprint. This is true to a certain extent but in the whole food chain it turns out that it's other variables like the kinds of food and the agricultural/livestock practices that are a much larger piece of the carbon pie. Some have even debated the math of multiple farmers driving to market vs. one big truck driving to the grocery store. There are plenty of other reasons to eat local, so I haven't gotten too worked up about this, but it is interesting to see the carbon debate shifting from transportation of food to the issue of eating meat. The UN reports that livestock emissions account for 18% of worldwide carbon emissions, more than that caused by transportation.

Some have proposed Meatless Mondays, others choose to cut way back on meat consumption, and some see it as an opportunity to promote a vegan lifestyle where not only do you avoid eating animals and animal products, you also shun the use of leather, silk, wool and any other animal byproduct.

There's an article in Sundays NY Times promoting veganism. It's a little bit overbearing. Here's a sampling of comments from the article;

Even if it is raised “free range,” it still lives a life of pain and confinement that ends with the butcher’s knife...

These uses of animals are so institutionalized, so normalized, in oursociety that it is difficult to find the critical distance needed to see them as the horrors that they are: so many forms of subjection, servitude and — in the case of killing animals for human consumption and other purposes — outright murder...

Think about that when you’re picking out your free-range turkey, which has absolutely nothing to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. All it ever had was a short and miserable life, thanks to us intelligent, compassionate humans.

I'm all for a more thoughtful approach to meat and have cut back quite a bit but I can't say this little sermon has me convinced. And I'm a preacher. I'm not afraid of a good sermon.

The clincher for me was his statement;

Let me be candid: By and large, meat-eaters are a self-righteous bunch.

A little pot and kettle action there.

Maybe it would be helpful to hear from Spovegan or someone else who could better explain the vegan lifestyle. I have a feeling we're going to be hearing a lot more about it in the coming months.

The Horrifying Truth of What Makes a Burger Patty (NSFFFH)

(NSFFFH stands for Not Safe for Fast Food Habits.)

The New York Times has a must-read articleprofiling a woman who was paralyzed by a nasty burger induced e-coli infection. While the woman’s story is compelling, the reporting on the burger making business is what makes the article a must read. I’ve read Fast Food Nation and all the other books of that genre but for some reason this article is what may have finally cured me of the ubiquitous American burger patty.

Key quote:

The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.

Read on if you dare.

Cargill’s final source was a supplier that turns fatty trimmings into what it calls “fine lean textured beef.” The company, Beef Products Inc., said it bought meat that averages between 50 percent and 70 percent fat, including “any small pieces of fat derived from the normal breakdown of the beef carcass.” It warms the trimmings, removes the fat in a centrifuge and treats the remaining product with ammonia to kill E. coli.

With seven million pounds produced each week, the company’s product is widely used in hamburger meat sold by grocers and fast-food restaurants and served in the federal school lunch program. Ten percent of Ms. Smith’s burger came from Beef Products

Go here for a handy chart of the sources for the burger.

I will gladly pay $5/lb for ground beef from locally raised grass fed cows that are naturally low in saturated fat and free of Ammonia and “Beef Product”. We get ours from Susie David’s Beef and Rocky Ridge Ranch. Both are available at the Millwood Farmers’ Market which goes indoors this week right next to the usual location from noon to 5pm.

Four Categories of Beef: 120 Off, Never Never, Regular, Australian Bull

Beef One of the lessons from our year long experiment is that it is very difficult to find out where most of the food in a grocery store comes from. One example is that Western Family products, many of which are locally sourced, are identified by the headquarters of the Western Family corporation in Portland. This doesn't mean the food comes from Portland, and there is no other identification of origin. New laws now require a country of origin labeling, but that may even make products more anonymous. This means that it's that much harder to sort out the safety and quality, i.e. did the pork on the shelf in Spokane come from the the industrial pig farm in Perote Mexico where the recent outbreak of swine flu is believed by some to have originated?

I had a fascinating conversation today with a new friend who helps manage a local meat wholesaler in Spokane. He confirmed that when they get the meat from Kansas, Pasco, Australia or elsewhere, they process it, package it, and from that point on there is no way to track where it is from. Go here for my previous rundown on beef industry practices.

My friend went on to explain that the beef comes to them in several different varieties. They get it "regular", which means that it is grain fed and it is likely there is some remnant of growth hormones and antibiotics in the beef. I already knew about that beef. What I didn't know is that they also get beef he called, "120 off" which he explained has been intentionally kept free of hormones and antibiotics for 120 days. There is no trace of the chemicals in this beef. This is often marketed as "natural". They also receive beef he called, "never, never" which means that it has never had antibiotics or growth hormone. What's fascinating to me about this information is that it is not readily available to consumers. Did you know that beef comes in these categories? Why not? Shouldn't consumers know that information and shouldn't they be empowered to make those choices.

He also described Wal Mart's practices of asking the supplier for the cheapest beef that they then inject with saline and chemicals to keep the meat red for up to a year. Beefalicious.

Another surprise is that the bull meat they get from Australia is grass fed and is made into hamburger. Your hamburger meat may be the only non grain-stuffed meat at the market.

Rustling Cattle and Animal Dignity Revisted

CowWe have been at a Colorado dude ranch on vacation this week. Lots of fun riding horses every morning and afternoon. The highlight was spending a day off the trail, rounding up around a 100 yearling cows who were grazing the National Forest surrounding the ranch. This high mountain forest was recently ravaged by a fire, leaving behind a maze of lifeless Ponderosas. The wrangler explained that the Forest Service has been expanding the permitted number of cattle. Studies show that managed grazing is benefical to the regeneration of the land. Given our lessons this year on industrial cattle practices here and here, it was especially meaningful to participate in a more sustainable model.

One of our values this year has been making field trips to the producers and growers of the food and items we consume. The emphasis has been spending time with people with the intent of becoming more atturned to their hopes, dreams and challenges. Based on my experience with the cows, I can also see the benefit of spending time with the animals we consume as well.

I found that spending time with the year old cows gave me a new respect for them as animals. I will remember their wild eyes, their stubborn disposition, and their desperate sense of being lost when separated from the herd. There are a lot of barriers that keep us from associating the meat we consume from the animals that are parted out on our behalf, especially cows. (There is a reason we don't ask the butcher for a cut of cow. We ask for beef or hamburger.) That night at dinner when I ordered the prime rib, it felt like a statement of respect, knowing that I was actually ordering prime cow, not some some trivial piece of meat.

The other benefit of spending time rustling cows was a surprise. When I started the day I had a mostly pastoral vision for what it is like to rustle cattle. A couple hours walking behind a group of smelly, poop covered, not too bright animals that had a tendency to mount and hump their fellow travelers was enough to cure me of my idyllic visions. They are worthy of cow dignity, but it's probably helpful to understand that they are not pets or people. On one end we have a tendency, probably a greater tendency, to commodify and devalue cows, but an absence of experiencing real cows in real places can also lead us to mis-value them. For an example see this article that describes PETA's latest ad:

The animal rights group PETA has tried unsuccessfully to run a newspaper ad comparing the beheading and cannibalizing of a passenger on a Greyhound bus in Canada last week to the treatment of animals by the meat industry.    

For more on this see my post here where I cite the following quote from a farmer who is rich in real experiences of real animals.

The Bible says that God created every animal 'after its own kind.' Chickens aren't people, but neither are they nothing but hunks of meat. Chickens are chickens, and they deserve to be treated like chickens!  

Pew Study Concludes Industrial Farm Animal Production Needs to Change

Cow_nose_webA task force sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trust has just released their findings in a thorough and balanced analysis of the current state of industrial animal production. The summary of the report can be found here.

The introduction of the report states:

Over the last 50 years, the method of producing food animals in the United States has changed from the extensive system of small and medium-sized farms owned by a single family to a system of large, intensive operations where the animals are housed in large numbers in enclosed structures that resemble industrial buildings more than they do a traditional barn. That change has happened primarily out of view of consumers but has come at a cost to the environment and a negative impact on public health, rural communities, and the health and well-being of the animals themselves.

Reading something like that makes me feel pretty good about spending a little extra for locally raised grass fed beef.