Most people share at least the following traits: they want to be healthy; they like animals; and they value clean air and water. Yet relatively few Americans connect those concerns with their food. As more people start making the link (especially if they've seen graphic video footage of industrial animal operations), many decide it's time to stop eating foods from factory farms. This is a guide for doing just that.
I've been a vegetarian for more than twenty years. Unlike the fits and starts described in Jonathan Safran Foer's autobiographical book Eating Animals, the day I decided to quit eating meat was the last time I ever did. I remember that dinner well. It was my mother's tuna fish casserole, and actually quite tasty. But while I chose to stop eating meat, I never adopted the view that it was morally wrong, and, consequently, didn't become one of those vegetarians who spends her spare time plumbing the depths of meat industry literature looking for bits of information to shock my friends and family into giving up meat.
Nine years ago, I had just started working as an environmental lawyer for Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. when he approached me about leading a national campaign to reform the livestock and poultry sector. He said that industrialized animal production had become one of the nation's worst polluters of water and air, and he wanted to aggressively attack the problem.
Initially, realizing that Bobby was asking me to work full-time on poop, I hesitated. It was not the glamorous job I'd envisioned when moving to New York to work for him. But then I visited towns in Missouri and North Carolina that had been overrun by factory-style production of hogs, chickens and turkeys. I witnessed biblical-scale plagues of pollution and stench; I spoke with people whose lives had been ruined when an industrial hog or poultry operation was erected next door; and I heard the details of how the animals were raised. My reticence vanished and I jumped at the chance to work on cleansing the earth of the animal factory menace.
I loved the job and threw myself into it, body and soul. But there was one problem: I could no longer deny the shady past of my own food. Every day, I was putting stuff into my mouth that undeniably came from factory farms. I was a vegetarian, yes, but consumed plenty of eggs, milk, yogurt, butter and cheese. And much of the factory farm data and stories I was gathering from all over the country was about egg and dairy operations. My unease grew with each passing day.
To avoid the products of factory farms, I became something of a food detective. My groceries were the subjects of my investigations. Where were they coming from and how they were produced? I roamed grocery store aisles carefully reading product labels, but there was little to no information about the conditions in which the animals were raised. I wrote letters to food companies with questions about what they fed their animals, but the letters went unanswered. The food system's lack of transparency was frustrating. Eventually, I mostly gave up on supermarkets and began exploring new ways to get at the good food I was seeking. Although the task was daunting, my goal was simple: I wanted all my food to come from places I would enjoy visiting.
Three years later, I was still fighting factory farms but had moved across the country from New York to California. Surprising myself (and others), I had married a cattle rancher and meat company head, Bill Niman. Bill is no ordinary meat guy. He's spent his entire adult life slowly and painfully building a viable alternative to factory farms, the natural meat company Niman Ranch. Over the past six years, I've worked here on our ranch in Northern California and continued researching factory farming. And I'm still hunting down the foods of non-industrial, traditional farms.
My book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, released earlier this year, tells the tale of my journey through the meat system and from East Coast vegetarian lawyer to West Coast rancher. In a chapter called "Finding the Right Foods," I also share what I've learned about how to avoid food from factory farms and how to get the good stuff.
1. Be prepared to pay more. As the old saying goes, "you get what you pay for." Americans are used to the idea that a Cadillac is a better car than a Malibu and that you pay more for it. Yet somehow when it comes to food many of us look only at price. But getting good food could be one of the most important things we do to keep ourselves in good health. To paraphrase Michael Pollan, you pay your grocer now or pay your doctor later. And the methods for producing foods - especially animal based foods - vary radically, from farms that are excellent stewards of animals and the environment to the most industrialized, stinking, polluting facilities. Instead of just looking at price tags, think in terms of value. Remember that our government heavily subsidizes industrial agriculture, making its products artificially cheap. We should all be asking our elected officials why our government isn't supporting farming that produces food that's healthful for humans, environmentally benign and respectful to animals. Over the long term, that's the change we need to advocate for. If government policy made such a shift, wholesome traditionally produced foods could be as inexpensive as the junk coming out of factory farms. In the meantime, expect to pay more for good food. Think of it as an investment in good health, an unspoiled environment, fair treatment for animals, and of course, tasty eating.
2. Plan on reducing consumption. A typical American eats more than 200 pounds of meat per year and our consumption continues to rise. On top of that, over the twentieth century, average cheese consumption went from about three pounds annually to around 30 pounds, much of which is processed cheese in Big Macs and on pizzas. (And we wonder why we have an obesity epidemic). Meat and dairy products from traditional farms currently cost more than factory farm products. A good way to make this work in your budget is to cut back the quantities you buy (and the frequency and portion sizes when you eat animal based foods). Chances are, you're eating far more of it than you need anyway, so cutting back will probably be a good thing for your health as well. Consider adopting this as your new slogan: Eat less meat. Eat better meat. (The same goes for dairy products and eggs).
3. Seek food from a known source. The best way to ensure you're getting food from non-industrial farms is to buy from sources with full transparency, those where you can see how the animals are raised, and what they were fed, as well as learn from what farm or farms the food actually came. If I can't get the basic information about how the farm animals were raised, I just don't buy it.
4. Ask questions (even if it sometimes seems futile). Few people these days ask where the food comes from when at grocery stores or restaurants. Americans have become accustomed to the idea that there's some giant commodity trade of fungible meats, eggs, and dairy products. But there is real power in simply asking the questions: "Where is this from? How was it raised?" Get into the habit at meat counters and restaurants of asking where the meat is from. If they don't know the answer, suggest (in a friendly way, of course) they find out. When we eat out, Bill and I always ask servers where the meat comes from. If they don't know, we ask them to ask the chef. If the chef doesn't know, Bill doesn't order it. I believe the simple act of asking this question - if enough people begin to do it - has the potential to spark a massive change in our food system.
5. Know your labels (and their shortcomings). Food labels are helpful but imperfect. Knowing what they mean (and do not mean) is important. For example, the term "free range" has one connotation with eggs and another with poultry meat. Weird, huh? This is something you'd never know just by looking at the labels in the store. Most labeling is regulated by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), so they are fairly reliable sources of some information. (More on labels shortly).
6. Baby-steps are OK (as long as they're in the right direction). Factory farms are ubiquitous and so are their products. So avoiding them, admittedly, takes some effort. If you try to change everything in one fell swoop you're likely to feel so overwhelmed that you'll get paralyzed and give up. If, on the other hand, you allow yourself to move forward deliberately, one step at a time, chances are you will enjoy the transition and will stick with it.
7. Consider it an adventure. Going to the supermarket to pick up all your food is convenient, true, but it's also dreadfully boring. Good foods from real farms do not look and taste the same 365 days a year. They are less predictable, varying depending on the particular breeds of animal, the seasons, and the farmer who raised them. The diversity of the foods you'll get from real farms is just part of what makes eating more fun. It's also a pleasure to meet and talk with farmers, butchers and other purveyors of real foods. They can be tremendously helpful in providing cooking advice for the particular foods you are buying (such as a cut of meat you've never tried). Following the pathways that lead you to good foods - farmstands, CSAs, farmers markets, co-ops - will take you to interesting places you've never been and to people you'll enjoy meeting.
Where to look:
1. Stop being a supermarket zombie. Supermarkets' primary appeal is convenience, and there's no doubt that they are convenient. They are also offering more organic foods these days, which is a good thing. But because their business model is based on large volumes of uniform products, supermarkets rarely carry foods from real, traditional family farms. In my experience, places like Safeway, Albertsons, and Kroger are wastelands for those of us seeking animal products that don't come from factory farms. That's why (other than Trader Joes and Whole Foods, which are better than the rest) I have almost totally stopped frequenting them. The exception to this general rule is for those farms who've joined together to co-operatively process and distribute their products, thus they have sufficient volume to work with major supermarket chains (examples of such companies are Niman Ranch and Organic Valley).
2. Explore alternative stores (independent grocery stores and co-ops). Independently owned grocery stores tend to be more willing to work with traditional farmers, and their staffs are generally much more knowledgeable about the meats, eggs and dairy products they offer. It's worth the effort to seek them out and explore their offerings. Good examples of such stores are: Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco; Marczyk Fine Foods in Denver; Gateway Market in Des Moines; and Poppies Gourmet Farmers Market in Brevard, North Carolina. Co-ops also tend to source from local farmers and have member-employees who are interested and concerned about good food. Examples of some of the excellent co-ops I'm familiar with are: the co-ops in Boise, Idaho and Bozeman, Montana, and "The Wedge" in Minneapolis.
3. Frequent your local farmers markets. The popularity of farmers markets has exploded in recent past decades, going from about 350 in the late 1970s to more than 4,400 today. This is excellent news for those of us seeking non-factory farm foods. With a little effort, you can find a farmers market near you and begin learning what's offered there at what times of year. Many excellent farms and ranches sell their wares at farmers markets but remember not to assume anything about how the foods were produced. Ask the farmers you're buying from how the animals were raised and what they were fed. Locating a farmers market is easy: many states and localities have lists available, as does USDA.
4. Look for CSAs. An excellent way to know exactly where your food comes from is to join a CSA (community supported agriculture). You buy shares of what a farm produces. Generally, each "shareholder" (member) gets a box of farm products each week, which members pick up at a certain spot. Many CSAs encourage their shareholders to visit the farms for themselves, so they can really know where their food is coming from and how it was raised. When they first started, most CSAs were just doing produce. But in recent years, I've spoken with people from all over the country that are doing CSAs that include meat, dairy and eggs. Some farms and ranches are even doing CSAs that are exclusively animal-based foods. CSAs can be found by searching Eatwellguide.org and Localharvest.org/csa.
5. Look for farms online. Many smaller farms and ranches sell directly to consumers with a website. The other day, for example, I was speaking at a Sierra Club conference in Kentucky and met a local farmer who's raising Bourbon Red heritage turkeys. She told me she says most of her birds through her on-line store. Be sure that the website provides plenty of photos and information about how they raise their animals. If it's just showing photos of the food products, that's a bad sign.
6. Seek chefs committed to sustainable sourcing. It can be especially hard to trace the origins of your food when dining out. However, if you seek restaurants whose chefs are dedicated to sourcing from sustainable farms and ranches, they can do the work for you. Fortunately, the number of such restaurants is growing. Here are just a few of my favorites: Lumiere, near Boston; Savoy and Green Table in New York City; White Dog Café in Philadelphia; North Pond in Chicago; Zingermann's in Ann Arbor, MI; Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, AL; Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA; and Oliveto in Oakland, CA. An organization that promotes sustainable sourcing to chefs (and on whose board I sit), Chefs Collaborative, has a website listing of participating restaurants throughout the country which buy all or some of their ingredients from sustainable farms. Another good way to find such restaurants is Eatwellguide.org. Even fast food is possible: Chipotle Mexican Grills buy all their pork from traditional farms.
What to look for with all animal based foods:
1. Domestic, please. Whether you're worried about your food's carbon footprint or how much you can verify about its source, there are lots of good reasons to support farms close to home. I am generally skeptical about claims (like "organic") on food imported from foreign countries. US government authorities barely police imported food's safety nor the validity of its label claims. We always try to buy domestically because we want to feel confident about how it was produced. We also want to help build the demand for traditionally farmed foods so that more and more American farmland is occupied by real farms and ranches instead of factory farms. Of course, when you're shopping at a farmers market, this is generally not a concern. But lots of stores offer imported meats and fish. In particular, 90 percent of lamb comes from Australia and New Zealand and most seafood comes from Asia.
2. Pasture is the gold standard. All animals, not just grazing animals, benefit tremendously from being outdoors daily on natural vegetation (such as grass and clover). They exercise, lie in the sun, breath fresh air, and generally live much happier, healthier, more natural lives. For cattle, sheep, and goats, their ruminant digestive systems miraculously turn vegetation that is inedible to humans into digestible nourishment for themselves. The omnivorous animals -- pigs, chickens, and turkeys -- gain minerals and as fiber from their foraging. Winter weather makes year-round access to pasture difficult in some parts of the United States, but animals can and should have access to grass for most days of the year. They live healthier, better lives and the food humans take from them is safer, tastier and healthier. If you're buying directly from a farmer or rancher, ask if the animals were on pasture. If you're buying from a store, read the labels or ask. If it doesn't say the animals had pasture access, assume that they did not.
3. Grass fed is very good (but the label is weak). Certain animals, including cattle, goats and sheep, have evolved as grazing or browsing animals. Their bodies are designed to spend their waking hours slowly foraging and walking to gather their food over many hours. Bovines in the wild, for instance, spend most of their waking hours in a state of slow, ambulant grazing, walking an average of 2.5 miles a day, all the while taking 50 to 80 bites of forage per minute. In other words, cattle - both those raised for beef and those raised for milk - should live on grass. In 2007, USDA finally proposed a standard for "grass fed" meat. However, the standard has lots of problems, not the least of which is that it doesn't require animals to be on pasture and allows them to be fed lots of stuff that definitely ain't grass. That's why it's preferable to buy grass fed meat directly from the farmer or rancher rather than relying on a label.
2. Organic is very good, (but the label isn't perfect). USDA regulates the use of the term "organic" on food labels. If you see the official "Certified Organic" label on a food, that means that USDA is maintaining a certain degree of oversight and that the food item was (or at least should have been) produced in accordance with USDA's standards. In many ways, especially with respect to animal feeding, the standards are stringent. Animal based foods labeled organic must be fed only organic feeds (which has at least 80 percent organic ingredients and does not contain slaughterhouse wastes, antibiotics, or genetically modified grains). These are important distinctions from typical factory farm foods. The organic standards also provide some assurance about how the animals are housed and handled. They require that organic livestock and poultry be provided: "living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals," and specifically mandate that animals have some access to the outdoors, to exercise, and to bedding. These too are crucial differences from factory farms. The problem, however, is that the standards have not clearly mandated access to pasture. Thus, much organic milk (and other dairy products) comes from cows that are housed in enormous metal sheds and spend most of their days on cement floors, having no access to pastures. For this reason, I prefer to know precisely where and how the animals lived that produced my food and do not like to rely on the organic label.
3. Free range is okay (but the label is seriously flawed). The term "free range" is most commonly used for poultry. Strangely, it can mean different things depending on whether it's applied to poultry raised for meat versus egg-laying poultry. When "free range" is used on poultry meat, USDA requires that the birds have some access to the outdoors. However, there are no standards for what type of outdoor area it must be, and therefore might be a small cement patio. Even more problematic is "free range" when it's used for eggs. USDA has failed to create any definition of "free range" for egg laying hens. Arguably, then, companies could label their eggs "free range" even without providing any outdoor access (and I suspect that's what some companies are doing).
4. Antibiotic free doesn't mean much. Some poultry and red meats are labeled "antibiotic free." This is slightly better than your average factory farm product because the animals were not continually fed antibiotics. But there are several serious problems with this label. Most importantly, "antibiotic free" meat can be (and usually is) from a factory farm. Secondly, many companies are calling meat antibiotic free even though they used other anti-microbial drugs to raise the animals. In other words, it's largely a matter of semantics.
1. Beef: Beef has taken the most hits from journalistic exposes but when it comes to animal treatment issues, no one can deny that beef cattle have by far the best lives of all farm animals (much better than dairy cows, in particular). The problem with beef cattle raising is that most cattle are implanted with hormones and are fed a variety of drugs, including antibiotics. Moreover, large beef feedlots are a major environmental hazard because of the enormous amounts of air pollution they cause and the potential to cause serious water pollution. It's important to remember that cattle are grazing animals. The best beef is beef that allowed the cattle to graze for their entire lives. Unfortunately, USDA has created a "grass fed" label that has been criticized by the American Grassfed Association as not being nearly stringent enough. Look for beef that was raised entirely on grass (didn't go through a feedlot), was not implanted with hormones, and was feed only vegetarian feeds. If you can't find totally grass fed beef, opt for beef that was neither fed antibiotics nor implanted with hormones (which is the standard for "natural" beef). Remember that "organic" is not the best label here. The largest producer of "organic" beef in the United States finishes its cattle at a large feedlot.
2. Pork: More than 90 percent of US pork is produced in large, total confinement operations with liquefied manure systems. Most pigs are continually fed antibiotics and other suspect substances, including arsenic and slaughterhouse wastes. Look for pork that was raised on pasture or in deep straw bedding. (Both systems afford the pigs a high quality of life and are environmentally friendly). Make sure the feed was free of drugs, slaughterhouse byproducts, and arsenic. Ask whether the sows were confined to gestation crates or farrowing crates, which are cruel and unnecessary. Make sure the pigs were not raised in confinement buildings with liquefied manure. The liquefied manure system is the lynchpin to the public health, animal welfare, and environmental problems associated with industrial pork. This is one of the few places I will recommend a specific brand: Niman Ranch. (Note: my husband is the founder of the Niman Ranch company but we no longer have any association with it). All of the Niman farmers follow a stringent set of standards that forbid liquefied manure systems; forbid sow crates; forbid feeding drugs or meat byproducts and require humane animal handling.
3. Lamb: Most sheep, like most beef cattle, are raised outdoors. They are grazing animals and belong on grass. There is little factory farming of sheep at this time although many Colorado lambs are finished at feedlots. Recently, however, I learned of a large confinement operation for breeding ewes in Iowa. The facility was so disease ridden that it had to be shuttered. Look for lamb that is born and raised in the United States and make sure that all of the animals, including the breeding ewes, are living on pasture.
4. Goat: Goat is the most frequently consumed meat in the world but most Americans have never tried it. However, as the US population changes and as palates broaden, goat meat is gaining popularity here for the first time. One advantage to eating goat meat is that this is a non-industrialized part of the meat sector. There is no such thing as a goat factory farm. In fact, goat is probably the most environmentally friendly of all meats, because, when properly managed, goats do little damage to the landscape and consume naturally occurring undesirable vegetation, (like poison oak and coyote brush). Look for it at your local farmers market. The best goat meat is from animals raised specifically as meat goats, (rather than dairy goats), especially the Boer and Spanish breeds.
5. Chicken: Like pork, almost all chicken produced in the United States today is from enormous confinement buildings. Instead, look for chicken that was raised on pasture. If it does not specifically say that it was raised on pasture, assume that it was not. Factory farms all raise the same white chicken from a narrow genetic pool. Their bodies are unsound and would be unfit for life outdoors. Thus, even better than just pasture raised are heritage breed chickens raised on pasture, such as the Plymouth Barred Rock, Cornish, and Silver Laced Wyandotte . To the greatest extent possible - buy whole birds, which mean there's been less processing of the meat and it makes it more affordable. Remember that most "antibiotic free" comes from factory farms. Remember, too, that "free range" does not mean the birds were on pasture but it does mean the birds had outdoor access, (so it's somewhat better than non-free range).
6. Turkey: Almost all turkeys raised in the United States are of a single, over bred, white variety called the broad breasted white. They are raised in continual confinement in extremely crowded conditions and normally fed antibiotics for much or all of their lives. Their bodies are horribly unsound. They have trouble standing upright when they reach maturity and they are literally incapable of mating. The only way to get a physically sound turkey is to seek out heritage breed turkeys. Look for heritage turkeys that were raised on pasture. If you cannot find pasture raised birds, get ones that at least had access to the outdoors. Here again, buy whole birds for better safety and quality.
7. Eggs: Eggs from factory farms are particularly unappetizing. Hens are crammed into small cages (called "battery cages") which are stacked on top of one another. The hens are literally defecating on the hens below them. But avoiding them may seem tricky because egg labels are so vexing. There's cage free, free range, organic, vegetarian fed. Remember that "free range" has no meaning when put on an egg carton. Cage free is better than the factory farm norm (in which hens are crammed into crowded cages in which each one has less room than a sheet of paper) but the birds are still continually confined and terribly cramped. The only way to totally avoid the factory farm scenario is to look for eggs from hens that are on pasture. Other than a farmers market or CSA, the best place to find eggs from hens on pasture may be in your own backyard of your neighbor's. A growing number of Americans are keeping backyard flocks and many sell their excess eggs. These eggs are beautiful and taste so much better than supermarket eggs that once you've tried them, you'll never want to go back. Keep in mind that non-factory farming of eggs varies considerably by season because hens' naturally lay in harmony with nature's seasons. The number of eggs they lay corresponds with the amount of daylight. So be prepared for periods of shortage. You may have to go without eggs from time to time, but it will be well worth it.
7. Milk: Fluid milk is generally not transported very far because it cannot be done so economically. This means you need to find a good local source of milk. (If you live in New York, you may be lucky enough to have access to Ronnybrook Farms milk, which is excellent). Remember, you're looking for a dairy where the cows are on pasture as much of the time as possible. Some sell directly to the public. Organic milk, unless is says that the cows are on pasture, may come from confined cows. The local co-op is often a good place to find pasture based milk from a local farm. Remember with milk, if it doesn't indicate that the cows were on pasture, they almost certainly were not. It's always good to keep in mind, if you are unable to find pasture based or organic milk, at a minimum try to avoid milk with growth hormone (called rBST or rBGH). Generally, if the milk is free of growth hormone it will be labeled as such, so if it's unlabeled, it probably came from dairies using hormones.
8. Cheese: Cheeses made from cows on grass are incredibly tasty and are becoming easier to find. There is even a growing movement among traditional American dairies to make their own cheeses right on the farm (called farmstead cheeses). Check your farmers market, co-op and local cheese shop. An excellent source for good cheeses from traditional farms is Murray's Cheese in New York City, which has an exceptionally knowledgeable staff and an online store. Another outstanding source is Cowgirl Creamery, in Point Reyes Station, CA, which has an online store. There are also now many pasture based dairy farms that make and sell their own cheeses directly to consumers. (Always look carefully at the websites to make sure they actually show how their cows live). One particularly impressive pasture dairy I have visited several times is owned an operated by the Klessig family in Cleveland, Wisconsin. They now make and sell their own cheeses under the name Saxon Homestead Creamery.
9. Butter: The key is finding butter made from cows on grass. We like Straus Family Creamery, which is supplied by organic farms that graze their cows. It makes an excellent butter, available in California.
10. Yogurt: Yogurt from pasture based dairies can also be found. The Straus Family Creamery also makes an excellent organic yogurt from cows who live on grass. If you cannot find a good yogurt in your community, you can easily make your own from organic milk. (I have my own yogurt maker but haven't used in years because the Straus yogurt is so good).