I’m all for keeping my food dollars in my community. What I am not for is paying three times more for local meat and getting the exact same thing as “conventionally-raised” (eg: high-volume production) meat.
When a farm advertises “Vermont Raised” meat, it seems logical to expect that its animals were born on that farm and spent their entire lives there. If the farmer buys cattle from somewhere else, brings them back to the farm for finishing and advertises the meat as “local”, is it really local? Or if the farmer is buying culled cattle from another state and feeding them for a few months, without knowing (or caring) how the animals were treated or fed before they got to him.
Don’t assume this doesn’t happen. It does, much more often than you’d believe. But more to the point – how would you know?
Local doesn’t mean healthy. It’s a claim meant to give people a sense of security about what they’re eating. The local movement is a great movement but increasingly I see the term prostituted by cheats trying to cash in on it.
Another practice that bothers me has to do with farm names. You’ll see a name like “Joe’s Black Angus Farm”, which implies that they only raise and sell true black angus beef cattle, when in fact it’s just a name. Picked on purpose.
Then there are claims like “grass fed." Well, was it grass fed and grass finished? Did it eat just grass all its life right to slaughter or did it graze on grass and spend the last few months of its life eating additive-laced feeds? How would you know?
I should also point out that all cattle are grass-fed for most of their lives; even those raised in the conventional feedlot system, in which cattle are “finished” for the last few months of their lives on a mix of grass and grain.
If the local movement is to survive and deliver high quality, healthy, humanely treated meat to local tables, then something needs to change. Honesty and integrity don’t automatically happen, because there will always be cheats waiting for an opportunity to jump on the band wagon of a good cause for their own gain.
North America has thousands of ethical farmers with integrity and passion about what they do. These farmers truly practice sustainable, humane and healthy farming. However, there are some other farmers out there who just see dollar signs in the local food movement and are only trying to make a buck. I know a few of them and don’t like what they stand for. I see everything from deceptive labeling to misrepresentation of their product. I see them doing everything that the local movement is trying to turn away from. I see it with individual farmers, with retailers and CSAs.
Keeping honesty and integrity in the local food movement will depend on the active participation of people who are prepared to defend best practices and speak out against deceptive ones. I believe it would be a good idea to create a set of guidelines to be monitored by of an organization similar to those which monitor and guarantee organic production. Until something like this happens, many consumers will continue to pay three times more for local meat with no guarantee that they’re getting anything essentially different from commercial meat.
Photo by Angelique Lee