A couple years ago, Holly and I decided that as part of our approach to permaculture, we needed to take factory farming into account. The more we learned about “conventional” practices in the agricultural industries, the more we felt that in order to be true to our beliefs, we needed to make some changes; if not in the way we ate, then in the way we chose which foods to eat [is there a difference? -Ed].
We were already eating more organic food at that time. We were not vegetarian, and we still aren’t, though our meat consumption has decreased greatly over the past several years. But we decided, at some point, that we should stop purchasing and eating factory-farmed meat. It was an easy decision to make, and a hard one to put into practice especially for two intrepid culinary explorers who previously would eat anywhere and everywhere if it meant an interesting food experience. But we began to encounter question after question, or, rather, the same question at a lot of different places: Where did this meat come from?
We found ourselves thinking with surprising na?É¬ï¿½vet?É¬ï¿½. “That restaurant serves quality food! They must…um…get their meat from some…good…uh…place.”
We gradually realized that unless something specifically says Organic, Naturally Raised, Antibiotic/Growth-Hormone free, or something along those lines, we can assume the following:
–> Fruits and Vegetables: have been raised in a monoculture with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and worked and harvested by low-paid laborers. (Whether or not vegetables labeled “organic” have been grown in a monoculture is, sadly, another discussion entirely.)
–> Animals: Were fed (chemically-grown) corn and soy for most, if not all, of their lives; treated with antibiotics and growth hormones; kept in crowded conditions otherwise known as a factory farm; and slaughtered/processed by low-paid laborers.
And (unless it says otherwise) it has traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to reach you.
There are lots of healthier, more humanely raised, locally/regionally-grown foods available, of course. But they are always, in my experience, noted as such, and they are a lot more expensive. I can’t imagine a restaurant or grocery store going to the effort and expense of buying organic, local, or non-factory-farmed products, and not advertising that it was so it’d be economic suicide.
Here’s a fun exercise: Every time you go out to eat, ask your server or the person behind the counter, “Where do you get your meat?” You can choose whether to say “I’m trying to avoid factory-farmed meats” or not; sometimes it makes people defensive. However, as long as you’ve established yourself as a customer, they will usually be helpful and try to answer your questions honestly. The answers will astonish and, perhaps, terrify you. Most surprising to me was the fact that many people which is to say, many people who prepare meat and serve it to the public simply don’t know. Often people will tout its “quality” or “freshness,” both good things, but “It’s good stuff” (a popular response) doesn’t tell me what I want to know.
A couple of years ago, when we were beginning to avoid factory-farmed food, I made a practice of this inquiry. My favorite responses to my question “Where do you get your meat” were the following:
Meal Ticket (on San Pablo): “From the meat delivery truck.”
Simply Greek (on Piedmont Ave): “Oh, it’s not that crazy stuff from Canada! We get it from Chicago.”
But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself!
Postscript: We are visiting Portland, Oregon for a weeklong vacation. In exploring the Chowhound board there, and asking many questions, I have discovered that in Portland, local and naturally/humanely-raised food is easier to come by than here in the San Francisco Bay Area. California has a reputation for “natural products,” but, like so many things for which California is reputed, these vaunted delicacies are mostly expensive, hard to find, and limited to affluent buyers.
An interesting, lowest-common-denominator comparison can be made between the hamburgers of two regionally-owned, privately-held “fast food” restaurants: In-n-Out Burger, of California, and Burgerville, of Oregon.
–> In-n-Out Burger advertises “freshness” of ingredients, and, indeed, unlike most fast food restaurants, they never freeze their beef in the course of processing. The burgers are made from chosen cuts (listed on their web site) which are trimmed and ground at a company facility, and delivered in refrigerated trucks to the individual stores. In-n-Out also pride themselves on “hand-leafed” lettuce, and french fries which are prepared in-store from whole potatoes. (It should also be noted that their wage standards are much better than most large companies; starting wage for counter help is $8.50 per hour.) However, they do not indicate that their beef is humanely or naturally raised, so I have to assume that it comes from factory farms.
–> Burgerville, by contrast, has worked with a natural beef supplier, Oregon Country Beef, for the past four years, and in February 2004, they converted exclusively to that supplier. At the same time, Burgerville joined Food Alliance, a non-profit third-party certification organization that works with food producers to guarantee that their food is produced in a sustainable way. Burgerville also supports local agriculture and seasonal food consciousness by featuring seasonal milkshakes, such as spring’s Fresh Strawberry Shake (yum!). I could not, unfortunately, find any information on Burgerville’s site about their employee relations or wage standards. However, they are, like In-n-Out, privately owned by members of the family who founded the company.
Just a few weeks ago, I refused an invitation to go to In-n-Out, despite my curiosity (and a desire to be part of the group I was with). Knowing what I know now, I would no longer refuse to visit, though I would still not eat their meat. (They have a “wish burger” which consists of a burger without the patty.) Burgerville, meanwhile, will probably see a visit from us during our trip to Portland; I’d like to see what a fast-food friendly-farmed burger is like, and I am eager to try their Tillamook Ice cream/strawberry shake. We won’t seek out fast food on a regular basis, regardless of employment or sustainability practices, but I do think it is commendable that Burgerville is making this kind of food available and, as a result, raising awareness of local, sustainable food sources on a popular level.