Six Steps to a More Sustainable Animal Diet

How can a conscientious but cash-strapped omnivore avoid cheap, animal factory food? Try these suggestions from the author of the book “Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment.”
By David Kirby
April 7, 2010
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In “Animal Factory,” investigative journalist David Kirby exposes the powerful business and political interests behind large-scale factory farms, and tracks the far-reaching fallout that contaminates our air, land, water and food.

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The most common question I get about my new book, Animal Factory, 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, even if 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 make an overnight switch 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 that emits noxious gases into the air, may 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.

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 crossover, 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 this database of farms and where to find AWA products.

Pick a protein. Begin your path toward 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 versus 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 may 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, which is home to the nation’s oldest co-op, 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 percent 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. 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.

David Kirby is a Huffington Post contributor and author of the New York Times bestseller Evidence of Harm, winner of the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for Best Book, and finalist for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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Post a comment below.


Coalition for Cancer Prevention
6/7/2010 8:01:54 AM
There is no evidence I have seen that makes one form of meat,fish,eggs,or dairy products healthier than others. All animal products raise cancer risk because we are eating young animals and reproductive secretions that still have growth hormones (naturally, not just the added ones) in them. Growth hormones allow cancer growth and spread because they stifle the immune system's ability to get rid of cancer cells. The immune system sees cancer cells as old cells that it wants to eliminate, but growth hormones suppress the message, because growth cannot occur unless some old cells are kept around for the new ones to grow on top of. Eat plant-based as much as possible.

Tommy Lee _1
4/29/2010 12:25:33 AM
Wow this is a great article! Just found a food co-op in my area as well as a few farmers markets!

t brandt
4/27/2010 6:19:50 AM
It all gets back to over-population. Ever stop to think how many hens it takes to produce all those eggs you see piled in your supermarket? (Ans: about 20 hens per dozen eggs per day) How many chickens to keep Popeye's, Brown's & KFC in business? (millions) That can't be done in a "free-range" or "organic" way-- takes too much space we no longer have thanks to over-population & continuing land development. Try raising your own hens: they cost little to feed, take up little space, eat pesty insects and provide hours of entertainment as they covort around the garden.

jennifer juniper
4/22/2010 5:50:02 PM
I went ahead and purchased this book and am in the middle of it now. It appears to me to be destined to become a standard in the way that Fast Food Nation and others became. I really think that time will show it to be an important book. It is well written and interesting. It has a lot of examples and is screaming- in print of course- for us to take a look at this issue. And really- this issue is a ticking time bomb. This guy had a lot of guts to write this-I am sure he made people angry with it- but it needed to be done. Have a look at it even if you don't really want to and would rather look the other way. The threats from this issue to public health are truly serious. A good read.

4/9/2010 12:27:23 PM
The book is on my list but having a few things I can do right now until I get around to reading it is great. Thanks for the informative article

4/9/2010 10:58:51 AM
We have been eating "sustainable animal protein" for a long time. We raise a couple dozen Cornish Cross broilers every year, keep a dozen Buff Orpington layers, and raise New Zealand rabbits. Last year I dammed up the creek on my property and created a 1 acre fish pond which I will be stocking with bass and catfish, migratory ducks and geese and a few swans like it too (I'm thinking of installing a mini-hydro generator in the overflow). I also take a few deer every year. I can't remember the last time we bought meat.

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