04/24/2012 05:36 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2012

Let Them Eat Slime

"I am reintroducing meat into my diet," Marilyn nervously announced. Despite an almost perfect diet chock full of vegetables, legumes and whole grains, a well-known doctor convinced her she needed to adopt a low-grain Paleolithic diet. Marilyn had avoided meat for health reasons, but now she was adding the increasingly controversial food back.

Marilyn wanted to know if eating meat was a good idea and if so, what the healthiest meat was to buy. The only way to know if you will feel better is to adjust your intake and see, I replied. One of the jobs of a good nutritionist is to figure out what diet modifications suit the individual. A vegetarian diet is great in principle, but does not suit everyone. Toxins do concentrate up the food chain, so if you want to eat meat and be healthy, it pays to get the cleanest products possible.

I suggested she get her meat from a local biodynamic farm. Biodynamic farming produces lean, healthy animals without the use of drugs and pesticides. The philosophy stresses fostering social, ecological and economic sustainability via a diversified farm ecosystem.

Marilyn had heard of biodynamic farming but after a moment's hesitation objected to the suggestion, claiming the meat was too expensive. I bit my lip so my mouth would not gape open in the universally recognized expression for, "You cannot be serious." For what Marilyn had spent seeing the meat doctor, she could have kept a family of four in cutlets for a decade. Marilyn is firmly in the 1 percent income club, yet somehow she believes good meat is too expensive.

Safe, consciously-raised animals are not too expensive for Marilyn or most of the rest of us, but we all have to adjust to the real cost of producing healthy food. Unfortunately, we have been seduced by cheap, horrifyingly-produced food. Horrifyingly-produced because hamburger that costs $2.50 a pound is cheap because it does not reflect the environmental impact of the high-volume farming necessary for its production. Toxic farm waste is killing the Chesapeake Bay, for example, but the cost of the clean-up is not reflected in chicken or beef prices. Instead, it is pushed onto the government and into the abstract future.

Then there is the savings we derive by not paying agricultural workers a living wage. It is not much better for small farm owners themselves. A wheat farmer I spoke with at a conference yesterday told me she and her husband could not afford to run their 800-acre farm, and were forced to lease it to a corporate farm. "Without subsidies, there would be no money at all," she claimed. She is not alone. Small farms are increasingly failing. Dairy farming was recently rated as one of the 10 worst professions to pursue based on income and stability. Even notoriously underpaid enlisted soldiers and dishwashers were in better shape.

Finally, there are big savings to be had treating animals badly. Not having to provide much living space means more meat per acre. Yes, the animals get sick and are miserable, but that is what antibiotics are for.

Cutting corners to save money is old news but when it comes to food, we always seem to be shocked when we discover the details of those corners. When ABC News reported an estimated 70 percent of ground beef sold in this country contains filler made from ammonium hydroxide-treated beef scraps or pink slime, the public went nuts. Yet pink slime is a perfectly legal additive that has long been used by meat processors. It does not even have to be listed on the label. Manufacturers prefer the euphemism "lean, finely-textured beef" -- but whatever they call this particular dark reality of modern food processing it is just one of many outrages. There was so much negative publicity the slime that its manufacturers have gone bankrupt. However, if the same scrutiny were focused on all aspects of meat production, the whole industry would be in trouble.

You may not have voted for the conservative chuckleheads that now populate the Congress, but every time you buy corporately-farmed meat because it is the least expensive, you vote with your wallet for shortsighted environmental and social policies. You throw your lot in with the extremists who claim to want good roads and schools, a clean environment and better jobs for Americans as long as they don't have to pay for them.

If you want to eat meat from a cow that was treated decently by a person making a living wage while not polluting all the surrounding water and land, the reality is that sirloin is going to cost more. If the cost of well-produced meat is too high, eat less. Americans eat more than their fair share of meat anyway. A local vegan chef recently told me she can make healthy, all organic meals for less than $100 a week. That budget may not allow for many frappacinos or rib-eye steaks, but is evidence that one can eat well even on a modest budget.

So often, I feel overwhelmed by the number of problems facing this country. There does not seem to be much one regular person can do but dag gum it, I can invest in environmentally and socially responsible food. I can resist the "let them eat slime" policy inherent to a system where the cheapest price is the primary consideration.

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