The most common question I get about my new book Animal Factory, which comes out Tuesday, March 2, is, "Am I going to have to become a vegetarian after reading this?"
My answer usually throws people off.
"No," I say, "You're going to want to eat even MORE meat, eggs and dairy!" Then, as a bemused brow breaks over their face, I add: "But by that, I mean more that is raised humanely and sustainably, without harm to human health or the environment."
Most people I speak with inherently sense that their meat and dairy should be raised as "humanely and sustainably" as possible, but don't really know what those terms mean. The whole new morality of shopping the supermarket meat aisle can seem so daunting, especially while trying to sort through the various "cage-free" "humane" and "organic" labels.
Meanwhile, the painful ordeal of shelling out big chunks of one's paycheck for pricey protein from boutique sources other than CAFOs - (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or factory farms), is just too onerous for some to ponder. And if even they were to make the sacrifice to "go sustainable," they ask, how are they going to find such vaunted foodstuffs, both at home and on the road?
Still others beg off the subject entirely with a wince, a wave, and an "I don't want to know!"
But some of my friends really do make every last effort to eat only sustainable animal protein and, when not available, to go without. But I also understand that, for most Americans, it is exceedingly difficult and prohibitively expensive to switch overnight to a 100 percent CAFO-free diet, unless they are planning to go completely vegan.
I do not believe in telling others what to eat or, more importantly, what not to eat. It's a deeply personal choice. But I do believe that we all have a responsibility - even a solemn duty - to inform ourselves about the origins of our food, and the impact it had on people, places and animals.
Just remember, that pork chop may have been raised in a crowded North Carolina CAFO, whose liquefied manure emits noxious gases into the air, might leak pathogens and nutrients into state waters, and has been known to coat neighboring homes, cars and people with the greasy, misty detritus of a massive manure "sprayfield," Carolina style.
So what's a conscientious but somewhat underpaid omnivore to do? What follows are just a few suggestions - some baby steps to reduce your reliance on cheap animal factory food, whence most American meat, egg and dairy "outputs" are now derived.
Be Label Conscious - You have rights as a consumer, but you also have responsibilities, in my opinion, and that includes self-education and being savvy about labeling. In "Animal Factory," I describe some of the competing food labels (organic, humane, cage free, etc.) and the different criteria they require to earn their endorsement. There's a lot of cross-over, and a lot of confusion. Some consumers are now looking for what is widely considered to be the most stringent label of all, "Animal Welfare Approved." AWA requires all animals to have pasture-based certification, prohibits the use of liquefied manure, and only certifies farms "whose owners own the animals, are engaged in the day to day management of the farm, and derive a share of their livelihood from the farm." You can search a database of farms and where to find AWA products at www.AnimalWelfareApproved.org.
Pick A Protein - Begin your path towards being a more sustainable epicure one food at a time. Pound-for-pound and dollar-for-dollar, eggs, cheese, or butter are good starter products. For example, I only buy humanely raised, certified organic eggs at my local supermarket. They cost $3.99 a dozen vs. the $1.99 a dozen for factory farmed eggs - a difference of about 16.5 cents an egg. And while I have the admitted luxury of not having to support a family, I am more than happy to double my costs and expend an extra 33 cents in the morning for my omelet. Organic (pasture-fed) cheese and butter also have manageable price point ratios to their commercial counterparts, so you might want to pick one of those as one of your switchover foods as well.
Become Cooperative - A few national chain stores, and of course your local farmers market (the ones in New York are a marvel) are usually excellent and reliable sources of sustainably raised protein. But the prices can sometimes make you laugh out of sheer exasperation - I have seen $27 chickens, which for most families is too extravagant. On the other hand, I have seen $2.70 chickens in my supermarket, which to me at least seems too cheap for the life of a bird. Another alternative is to seek out a food coop in your area that specializes in local, sustainable meat and produce. I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, home to the nation's oldest coop, which offers deep discounts on delicious, fresh, local meat, dairy and eggs. Unfortunately for me, the place is so popular that I have not yet been able to get a slot in the mandatory orientation for new membership, but I keep trying.
Go Red-Tag Shopping - I have noticed that the meat department at my local place tends to get rid of its older stuff on Mondays and Tuesdays, slapping a bright red, easy-to-spot sticker with the words "Manager's Special" onto the cellophane. I make it a point to shop on those days or, sometimes if I am just passing by, I might pop in and make a quick run down the aisle, eyes peeled for those exciting red tags as I scan the row. The discounts are usually about 30% off the normal price, and sometimes more. Whole organic chickens are often reduced from $3.99 to $1.99 a pound. If you don't eat it that day, freeze it.
Go Online - Another great resource for finding local, sustainably and humanely raised animal products is Sustainable Table, and its Eat Well Guide - with a Zip-code based searchable database for farms, markets and restaurants in your area that offer food that did not take a toll on humans, animals or the environment before landing in your mouth.
Eat Less Meat - This is a suggestion, not an order, and it doesn't come from me, it comes from the "Meatless Monday" campaign. But reducing your animal protein even a little bit each week will contribute to easing worldwide animal demand from any source. Check out the Meatless Monday virtual online support group for temporary withdrawals of the flesh. Think of it this way: for billions of people in the world, it's going to be "Meatless 2010," so a 52-day sacrifice is not that hard to make.
"Animal Factory - The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment," is being released on March 2 by St. Martin's Press. Kirby will appear on Imus in the Morning on March 2 at 7:30AM EST, and will hold a reading and book signing at Borders Bookstore, Time Warner Center, Columbus Circle, NYC on Thursday, March 4 at 7:00PM. For more information, please visit www.animalfactorybook.com