The Ethical Meat Handbook (New Society Publishers, 2015), by Meredith Leigh, seeks a middle ground, arguing that by assuming full responsibility for the food on our fork, and more importantly, the route by which it gets there, animals can be an optimal source of food, fiber, and environmental management.
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Ethical Meat Handbook.
What is ethical meat?
• Ethical meat comes from an animal that enjoyed a good life. The animal acted out its natural tendencies, in a way that did not over-deplete resources but contributed to healthy natural cycles. It was cared for and not neglected. It endured little stress.
• Ethical meat comes from an animal that was afforded a good death. The animal endured little stress in handling on its way to slaughter. It did not suffer long, but was slaughtered in a way that rendered it unconscious instantly, and then humanely relieved of its blood.
• Ethical meat is butchered properly, making full use of the carcass out of thriftiness, efficiency and respect for the life that was given as food.
• Ethical meat is cooked or preserved properly, maximizing nutritional benefit and paying homage to the important rituals of deliciousness.
I was a vegetarian for nine years, and a vegan for two. I watched a grueling video in high school about the horrors of an industrial slaughterhouse. I did some light reading in environmental philosophy, and made a decision. I was largely ignorant. I was not making a huge difference in the lives and deaths of animals, was not looking at the bigger picture of global human health and environmental restoration, was not actively changing mass wrongdoing. I was motivated by deep empathy and justified political aggravation, but my solution, sadly, mostly helped only me.
I spent my college career learning what I could about the scientific, political and cultural intricacies of agriculture. I traveled to different countries, learned about drastically different attitudes toward food and land, and saw the ways that people have shaped their corners of the earth in the quest for nutrition. In Vietnam it is a gesture of friendship to place food in another’s bowl. When, in 2004 in a rural Hai Duong village in northern Vietnam, a small woman named Loi placed a stringy piece of water buffalo into my dish at dinner, I began my journey into the meaningful consumption of animals.
Before that moment, my diet had been one of luxury, and a desire to escape a system I felt I could not affect. When I ate the piece of flesh as an act of communion, I checked in to another way of thinking. Eating gained new meaning, as I was very aware that Loi herself had milked and cared for, and eventually slaughtered, that animal for our meal. I started to look for the bigger picture, and solidified my decision to devote my life to food. I have spent the decade since as an omnivore, working with food from almost every angle, with the belief that we can make a difference in the well-being of plants, animals and the earth, while still loving all food and seeking good health.
Time and again in North America, we’re handed myriad reasons to question our food supply. Between climactic pressures, environmental resource limitations, food safety scares, political maneuvering, media hullabaloo, corporate mergers, impending energy crises, trade deals, population woes, consumption rates, worldwide hunger and poverty, and dominion over the very seed required to create the next generation of food and fiber, we’re constantly vacillating, with our big national voice, between justification and condemnation of a globalized food system. Within this passion play, consumers, with their tiny individual voices, have both ultimate power and very little power at all. We drive the machine with our buying dollars, but we are simultaneously so hoodwinked by marketing ploys, dietary “rules” and nutrition trends that we become overwhelmed, dependent and easily duped.
Within this maelstrom, the meat and dairy sector are continually at the eye of the storm. Meat has been demonized since the 1960s, when our nation became afraid of fat and cholesterol. Since then, depending on what research we favor, meat and dairy are either entirely responsible or completely forgiven for all our health woes. Regardless of the trending attitude toward saturated fat, animal protein and cholesterol, we find it easy to banish animal products from our diet when we hear about inhumane treatment of animals, confined animal feed operations (CAFOs), pink slime in ground beef and the effects of added hormones and antibiotics on our meat. Yet I haven’t set out to write a book revealing the horrors of the industrial food system or the meat industry within it, and I certainly do not aim to defend either. Others have done plenty of this work already, on both sides. Instead, this book seeks to offer alternatives to the status quo. It seeks to educate buyers and homesteaders about their role within the whole. In other words, you are not a victim; you are not helpless; and you are not merely the last link in a long chain of missteps, bloodlust and greed.
I join eaters everywhere in their opposition to genetically modified organisms, overuse of antibiotics and inhumane living conditions for all beings. I also seek to understand the vast lattice of past and current political, social, economic and environmental factors that make the question of what to put in your mouth three to six times a day very perplexing and outrageous indeed, whether you choose to eat meat or not. Our oppositions can be simple and absolute. Our options are not so easy. This book asks a number of “how” questions, and offers deeply pondered possible answers. How can we work from within a fantastically flawed food system to create real food? How can we work in accessible ways, without alienating any food citizen or farmer? How is it possible to create models that drive an economy, social synergy and environmental restoration that work for the world as we know it now, and the world we want later?
I urge you to come by your food more honestly by exploring the ideas presented in this book, because I believe there is a lot more the everyday food citizens can change — and that we can eat a lot better in the process, too. May we endeavor to source and consume meat with more of an understanding of the issues across the supply chain; checking out is not our only option. I’d argue, too, that it’s not the best option. Nor is it viable to make more and more demands of farmers, regardless of the size and type of their farms. If you come away from this book with nothing but a sausage recipe and one fun fact, let that fact be this: Across the meat supply chain, the farmer makes the least amount of money, and has possibly the most difficult and sacred job in the journey. It’s time to kick it up another notch and realize that truly ethical meat is going to take community effort. If we are to be ethical meat eaters, or good eaters at all, we will buy differently, cook differently and eat different things.
We cannot expect ethical meat, or any other truly better food, to simply arise in some pure form from the food system we currently have. If we don’t change the system, we will constantly be required to compromise what we know is right, and euphemize what we know is happening. Our behemoth of a food industry, which supports suffering and whole system degradation of epic proportions, is often justified by asserting that it is our job to feed the world. This goes with an unspoken assumption that there is only one way to feed the world, and it must be the way that we’ve found, and we must be doing it now. I’ll not surprise you by saying that we are not, in fact, “feeding the world” — and there is another way. Whenever possible, food and necessity should happen in a sphere close to home, in an economy of body and household that I call the “first economy.” After that, food should happen on the community level, in systems I call “middle economies.” It is possible to foster agriculture on every soil that can feed communities, and so for basic needs, and that vital sovereignty for all, functioning middle economies are a more hopeful way to feed the world. Instead, a whole range of factors, mostly driven by money, have led us askew, into a dependency on “external economy,” a vast system that takes place far away from us and involves too many players and too many resources.
I have been involved in movements for nearly fifteen years that address this fundamental issue: how to create middle systems within the current status quo, to produce food, and more. Many days, I wonder if it is working, and it is difficult to imagine us ever entirely abandoning external economy, because it now stretches across the globe. But I have seen small farms, conscious eaters and effective activism grow exponentially over the years, which leads me to think that we must keep trying. And like it or not, the huge and dysfunctional external system is what we are working with right now. We cannot avoid it, and we are both contributors to it and victims of it, both farmers and non-farmers. Within this reality, we need to promote first and middle systems as much as possible, because they are smaller, more synergistic, and include plants, humans and non-human animals, from which arise more conscious economies and trade. We also need to try to apply the positive aspects of synergy and diversity to larger systems, to see if that works as well.
As a result of the system in place today, even if your meat has been fed organic grain, it may not have lived well. Even if your meat has suffered less in life, it may not have died a just and clean death. Some of the opportunities you have toward truly good meat come from extremely enterprising, well-meaning, expensive and risky capital investments in good farming; these efforts deserve our every praise, even if we are still struggling to see them grow to accommodate our needs.
But other opportunities toward good meat come from extremely enterprising efforts to capitalize only on your desire for good meat; these efforts deserve our every skepticism. Unfortunately, the honest food citizen, with troubles of her own, living her amazing and busy life, is hard pressed to know if she is facing a praiseworthy effort toward good food, or a backward and greedy one. This is the catch-22 of our attempt to repair whole-scale food-think, figuring it out as we go. This book does not pretend to have answers. Instead, it simply seeks to honestly air the conundrums, show us that we have more in common than we think, and assert that it is worth it to keep trying different agriculture, different economy and different philosophy to improve all life.
I believe that, right now, the best way to access good food and good meat is by raising it ourselves, or by buying it directly from a fellow community member who has done so. And for those of us not able or willing to produce our own animals for meat, I assert that exceptional, good meat, right now, for all who endeavor to support it, will require us to pay more money, stimulating a “middle market.” This is not an obvious activism for most people, because our current system supports tricky, big, global economics, whether we are buying meat by the carcass or by the cut-and-ready steak. As a result, we constantly buy meat from local farms like it is meat from industrial farms, and it is not the same thing.
Meat costs more than you realize. So does all food. If you’re purchasing from the supermarket, you’re buying meat that is heavily subsidized by the government (via your tax dollars), a process that removes much of the risk and cost of its production and allows the industry to drive a competitive price at the point of sale. Additionally, much of the meat from larger farms comes from vertically integrated food businesses, meaning that the business owns more than one piece of the supply chain, and thus decreases its cost.
Let’s take chicken, for example. A vertically integrated poultry business owns the hatchery (baby chick farm), the chickens (via contracts with farmers), the slaughterhouse and the entire packaging and distribution infrastructure. The corporation owns the whole process, from egg to table. This benefits the company because as the product changes it becomes more valuable, and the ensuing profits stay within the company. The costs of taking the product through all these changes are decreased, because there are not three or four different companies along the way trying to make profit out of their rung on the ladder. And waste and cost can be controlled and even offset by the company anywhere along the way.
In his book Meatonomics, David Robinson Simon cites the many issues within the meat economy, especially the role of farm subsidies. He claims that industrial hog farmers pay an average of eight dollars more than they make on each animal to raise it, and that corporate beef producers spend twenty to ninety dollars more than each animal is worth to raise cattle. While Simon ignores a few complexities within the meat industry, lumping players together and branding all producers as conspirators against the hungry but innocent taxpayer, I find his number crunching on production costs and consumer price perceptions valuable.
How is this backward economy possible? Due to subsidies, which incentivize the growers to continue producing; due to vertical integration, which allows the meat businesses to make that money back as the product moves up the supply chain; and finally, due to the sheer size of the operations. The more chicken our sample corporation offers the market, from whole birds to bone-in thighs to emulsified cartilage and string meat for nuggets, the less the company needs to charge on each product before breaking even.
Paying for Meat Piece-By-Piece
Instead of paying the true cost for your food at the point of sale, you’re currently paying for it in pieces. And the more corners that are cut in its production, the more you pay later, in higher healthcare costs and in degradation of your environment. If we can begin to see, as Simon asserts, that a Big Mac, which normally retails for about four dollars, should really be selling for about eleven, we can begin to see how strapped a small, family farmer must be. I know from experience. I began my journey into what would amount to a decade of farming in 2003, growing organic vegetables, cut flowers and meat. We raised a diversity of crops and livestock on our farm, to increase our marketing appeal, maximize nutrient cycling on our land and feed our family. We were doing what many small farmers feel called to do: creating a middle market for meat and other food that people could trust, and that could stimulate the local economy.
We had mixed results making money as community-supported farmers. Both my husband and I worked off-farm jobs full-time, while raising a family and trying to build, manage and market a farm on a big enough economic scale to support ourselves. We faced many problems in all of our enterprises, headlined by production inefficiencies and economy-of-scale issues. We had neither large enough numbers of animals on the ground, nor the systems in place to raise animals in large enough numbers. When it came to the production of animals, we faced these main obstacles:
1. The high cost of feed inputs, largely not customizable by us in relation to the price we could charge at the point of sale.
2. The high cost of slaughter and processing, largely not customizable by us due to regulatory obstacles, and in relation to the price we could charge at the point of sale.
3. The growing demand for gourmet and niche meat products such as heritage breed, certified-organic/non-GMO and further-processed foods that we were inconsistent in our ability to profitably produce, due to reasons #1 & #2 above, as well as the price and volume competition we faced from vertically integrated industrial agribusiness.
Note the threads in these issues, which one might call roots. One is the lack of control, resulting in the need to outsource parts of the operation, which always costs money and always limits quality options. The other is the disconnect at the point of sale. Our middle business, operating within and alongside the huge, external system madness that our customers also patronized, made it very difficult for us to garner middle market prices. Community-level middle economies face these deeply rooted issues every minute of every day.
Finding a Niche
Our solution to the problems we faced was an attempt to specialize. We dropped commercial production of vegetables completely, drastically downsized commercial cut flowers, and focused on meat. We scaled up the number of animals, paid closer attention to feed and breeds, and sought to educate our customers and our processor about the difficulties within the supply chain that put limitations on the end product. We began carrying specialty products such as rubs and dry-cured salamis, produced by others with niche meat business ventures. At the end of 2012, when we saw that we were paying 52 percent of our gross profits to processing and packaging, we developed plans for our own kind of middle-system vertical integration: a butcher shop.
The butcher shop would allow us to pay the processor only a kill fee, to slaughter and dress (remove the innards from) the animals. Then we could butcher the animals further at our own facility, turning them into retail muscle cuts, specialty fresh sausages, cured and smoked meats and other items. This would vastly increase the diversity and number of products available to our customers, and put processing revenues into our pockets, rather than someone else’s. Granted, we would have additional labor and overhead costs establishing the shop, but our projections showed potential.
The shop opened in October of 2013, and improved our processing costs and product availability to our customers almost immediately. But the farm still faced the issue of feeding animals on a large scale. Even with the shop buying animals at a reasonable price per pound on carcass weight (the weight once the animal is killed and dressed), the farm remained financially stressed. Then our marriage very suddenly collapsed. The farm shut down. All the animals were sold. The shop remains open, and maintains tight margins as it tries to offer only local meat to the communities in and around Asheville, NC.
Growing a Middle Economy
I firmly believe that a farm such as ours, with a sister business like our shop, can become a viable model for food entrepreneurs in the growing middle food economy. But it will take community effort. It will take increased mindfulness and ingenuity among both farmers and consumers. The fact remains that farmers are still facing the same problems mentioned above, while trying to create new paradigms within the current framework. To boot, not every meat farmer can open a butcher shop, and in many ways, farmers are in the same boat as consumers, in terms of what type of food and agriculture they can afford to throw their weight behind. Ultimately, the consumer faces these problems as well, as he or she asks for reasonable prices on the finished product and seeks the cleanest product possible. More often than not, the consumer is unaware of the premium he or she is asking for, and what business, profitable or not, is behind each premium applied as the meat travels along the supply chain.
So next time you see that sign for boneless pork chops at $6.99/lb at the local grocery, ask yourself where that meat came from, and what systems are in place on a massive scale to drive that price. And then please, do not proceed to the farmers’ market and ask why the boneless chops there cost $8.99/lb when you can get them at the local grocery for $6.99. When you make this argument, you are basically asking a farmer why you can’t pay commodity prices for a homegrown pork chop — raised by a non-vertically integrated family business, who received no subsidies and produces a small volume of pork under a completely different production system. These days, a pork chop is not a pork chop is not a pork chop. These are different systems, different products, different markets, different standards. Different prices.
Not everyone can pay more, right now, and not every farmer can happily embrace pastured, poison-free animals. I am well aware of this perplexing issue, and the fact that what we face is a giant, stinking problem. We may have the intention to create new systems, but the inability to do so. Many of us are stuck. Farmers can’t pay more; most of the hungry, well-intentioned shoppers cannot pay more either; and so we- go, around and around, asking more of each other, blaming each other and begging forgiveness from each other, our refrigerators and frying pans all the while full of filth. This is a ghastly problem, but don’t stop reading. I believe enough of us can pay more and enough of us are industrious — and to some of us, both apply. Luckily, eating animals is most rewarding to the industrious soul. And I believe that any person, farmer or not, regardless his resources or intent, could take something from this book to build better first- and middle-meat economies.
I remember speaking with a friend of mine who had opened two natural food stores in the foodie town of Asheville, NC, and asking him what department in the stores had the highest sales. His answer? Prepared foods. Of course, I thought; in our nation of convenience, in our culture of busy people seeking quick comfort. But if we’re seeking truly good and honest food, we know we must cook more. We must be thriftier. We must learn to depend on ourselves again.
We not only need to cook more often, but we need to eat everything we’re provided. The whole plant. The whole animal. Our selective use of food resources in America is so appalling that I lack an adequate adjective for it. And the ripple effects are endless, in the economy of the home, in our collective health problems, in our growing hunger problems, in our frenzied food production (more, more, more) and in our food waste management. A new approach to honest eating requires that we change this trend. Restaurants shall face this challenge, too. If there is only one hanger steak per beef carcass, it should not be a regular on the menu. Let’s have better training in whole-animal butchery, so that we can feel comfortable seeing something like herbed broccoli raab + date & sassafras sabayon + lamb on a menu, and not need to know what the cut is, because the cut doesn’t matter. The cut is whatever the chef needed to cook to make best use of the lamb’s carcass. The fact of the matter is that poor land management and lack of attention to animal welfare has been bred in part by gross, disproportionate demand for rare muscle commodity. The industry and business of the external economy are built to respond in a language of brute efficiency, not complex consciousness. It takes people to manage business consciously, all across the supply chain.
In your home kitchen, learning to deal with a whole animal, or larger cuts of meat than retail-size ones, will necessitate ingenuity. You’ll end up with rich stocks and meat that is best used for seasoning other foods. As you explore new ways to cook familiar cuts and adventure into unfamiliar creations, your mind will begin to unfold with ideas about pairing the meat with fresh vegetables, what fruit you may add to your porchetta or what herbs to try in the next sausage. You’ll also find that meat is not always the main focus. Yes, you’ll have some meat-centric, traditional American meals with those hunky ribeyes and roasts, but sometimes you’ll get as much if not more nutrition and satisfaction if you let meat take back stage, using it to flavor, nuance and support the other food groups. If you can change your mind set about how to cook meat and what a meal looks like, you’ll make excellent use of the whole animal.
Hopefully, in this journey, you’ll begin to seek food that is more fresh and whole all around, and discover deliciousness without a lot of fuss. I have found that the confidence I have in the food at home and the joy I experience in the kitchen far outstrips the uncertainties of many experiences dining on the go. I have also found that it is easier to help people make full use of animal trimmings than it is to assist them in not wasting vegetable trimmings. Our collective allowance for vegetable waste is as appalling as our skepticism of animal offal.
Taking it further still, your ability to work with animal foods more competently will also change your desires about working with animal foods, which is a winning situation all around. For example, the muscles in a beef carcass you may not be aware of are now generally being processed into ground beef, a product we can all understand and afford. But if you learn to use the animal differently, you may find a way to eat those muscles differently, pay the same average price per pound of beef, but endure one less repetitive meal. And your farmer may have a greater chance of profiting off of one animal. This is just one example of how your cooking bone is connected to your buying bone, which is connected to the way your community looks, feels and functions.
Lastly, I want to talk about time, often cited as a reason we don’t cook or preserve or really even taste anything we eat. I teach classes every so often about cooking from scratch and whole animal utilization. To do it, truly, is to save time and money. The meat trimmings or the braise liquid or the cut herbs from tonight may become a third of tomorrow’s meal. Or you might throw them all into a jar with nutmeg and brine and use them in a soup next month. Although it will not come naturally to everyone to think like a chef, saving almost everything, your brain working as you go to determine what will happen with each remnant, it can be learned. Further, it can be enjoyed. This is the adventure of cooking. As your habits of ingenuity develop, you will discover creativity that you never knew. And as you expand your good food horizons, you will see that most good cooking can either be done ahead of time or done quickly.
I can’t tell you how many times people have come over to visit and been astonished at “how quickly you got such a fresh meal on the table.” To be astonished at the ease and simplicity of something like roasted pork tenderloin rubbed briefly with balsamic and herbs, flash cooked brussels sprouts with pecans and buttered sweet potatoes, shows me that people have either had a) too much wine or b) are accustomed to spending only five minutes on dinner. I couldn’t disagree more with the thinking that our food should be our last priority as we schedule our day or budget our resources. No matter where you go, food is the common denominator. And people’s food is either killing them slowly or bringing them great joy, flavor and experience.
My good friends and close colleagues will attest that I have been guilty of a cynicism that often finds me saying things like, “The only thing that will cause us to realize good food again in this country is peak oil.” It would be embarrassing to admit how much time I have spent pondering how big the natural or resource cataclysm will have to be to shake us into our senses. Even still, there is a tiny voice saying, “What if?” What if we could realize deliciousness, and honest living, out of our love for food and our desire for the journey and the experience it provides, rather than out of desperation? What if everyone just knew that the pursuit of better eating would make us better, happier people?
Cooking, and eating in general, should be one of the best things about our everyday existence. If it is a truly just a chore, a necessity, then we have surely sold our souls.
Eating Different Things
I am not a meat-crazed woman. I do not wear bacon T-shirts (although I think many of them are amusing), insist on meat at every meal or argue that meat is essential to every person’s diet. I largely believe that each one of us is the proper authority on our own best nutrition. I detest dietary dogma, am extremely suspicious of mass nutritional trends, roll my eyes at the demonization or lionization of individual compounds or food groups and tend to laugh at diets that have names. I argue that the more diverse a diet, the better, as long as it is based on real, whole foods. Many people are surprised to discover that I can offer a class on vegan cooking.
I very much enjoyed Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, particularly because of his exploration of what, for years, I’ve been calling “the food Gestalt” — the assertion that food is more than the sum of its constituent nutrients, diets are more than the sum of their constituent foods and our health is more than the sum of our dietary parameters.
In my classes, I talk constantly about the importance of diversity, and often struggle to succinctly cover all the empirical evidence that seems to support a diverse diet.
Let’s look at nature, which most people can agree tends to work, even if it is beyond our ability to understand. Everything in nature is connected, and no one thing supports or destroys the whole. In fact, I charge you to close your eyes and imagine something that exists in isolation. You won’t be able to do it. The entire world is comprised of wholes within wholes, all hitched together in an infinite feedback loop of diversity and synergy.
Enterprising in Agriculture
If you are the investing type, I urge you to invest in farmers. Land may be a place where people put their money, but land-based business is generally hard up. From my own experience as a grower, I know what obscene risks and stresses I undertook in order to try better farming practices, especially on a scale that could function alongside and within our current food system. While researching this book, I caught up with Jamie and Amy Ager, the owners of Hickory Nut Gap Farm (HNG), in my community. The Agers started their meat enterprise on Jamie’s family land in 2000, inspired by Joel Salatin and others in the alternative agriculture movement, and began promoting grass-fed beef. Now you can find their meat at Whole Foods.
In Asheville, HNG is probably the best known effort to scale up sustainably raised meat. “I was young when we started, and a different brand of idealistic than I am now,” Jamie says. Since they started HNG, the Agers have taken many steps to market their grassfed beef, pastured pork, lamb and poultry, including experimental production models and, in recent years, contracting with other growers to produce animals for their brand. These efforts to scale their local products to meet their customers’ demands have been extremely stressful, exciting and full of opportunity as well as trial. The Agers goal is to create a brand that allows farmers to make money in a production paradigm that promotes high welfare, environmentally healthy livestock production systems. “I am still idealistic, to a degree,” Jamie says. “I believe we have to change things in our food system.”
The difference in the idealism lies in the knowledge Jamie and Amy have gained about the complexities of agriculture, and the flexibility and risk needed to face them head on. Not everyone can do it. “I’ve learned what an incredible amount of money, time and emotion it requires to move the needle on good meat,” Jamie shares. This has bred in him a peculiar moderation, and an almost insatiable internal questioning about what to do and whether these systems are scalable. For Jamie and Amy, it’s worth it to keep trying. They have seen positive change, and their buyers certainly thank them for it. “Every community, every farm and every market is going to look different, which is another thing that makes it hard,” Jamie added. “At the end of the day, I’m a farmer,” he says, “and I’m about farmers making money, and staying farmers. If the chance for a young farmer is to invest in a corporation, and put up a chicken house, so be it. He’s enterprising in agriculture, and that is hard enough as it is.”
I’d like to see us developing systems that are profitable for farmers, but better for the chicken and the diner as well. If it was easier for young farmers to enterprise in agriculture that was more sustainable for whole systems than that corporate chicken house, that would be ideal. In pursuit of this wish, I charge food citizens to regard the effort of farming more politely, and consider enterprising in good agriculture, farm education and research into sustainable agriculture.
You can do this by buying local food, and you can take it even further by investing in local food and a local farm. It is not enough for us to ask our stewards of the land to shoulder so much of the risk of forging our new systems. After all, come dinnertime, farmers have to choose what food to buy, just like you do, after spending their long day choosing how much to fund better agriculture. It’s a double whammy. In this way, local farms, butcher shops, bakeries, feed mills and other middle-system business owners are indeed our bravest pioneers in the journey toward better food.
Read more from The Ethical Meat Handbook in The True Cost of Organic GMO-Free Pork.
Reprinted with permission from The Ethical Meat Eater by Meredith Leigh and published by New Society Publishers, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Ethical Meat Handbook.