Vegetarian seeks most humane and delicious steak.
October 10, 2009 2:40 PM   Subscribe

Help me pick the best option for humanely raised and slaughtered beef (Local? Kosher?) I'm having a hard time deciding between certain criteria.

After some deliberation and 7 years of being vegetarian/pescetarian I've decided to jump off the wagon for one delicious steak (which may lead to more occasional meat-meals). Because of my ethical convictions I would like for this steak to have come from a cow that lived a happy life and did not die in fear or pain. Onto my options:

There are two local beef farms that sell at the local farmer's market. I plan on asking them this directly, but in the meantime, is there a "standard" way for smaller farms to slaughter cattle? I know in most cases they are transferred to a separate place, but do smaller farms usually send their cattle to "humane" slaughterhouses?

Despite living in the meat-loving, bbq capital, most obese city in the South, we do have a Whole Foods, which opens up a ton of other options for kosher and "humane" beef. Can anyone explain what the distinctions mean? Does something being slaughtered humanely mean it was treated well it's whole life?

I like the idea of buying from a local farmer for reasons of freshness and legitimacy, but I would really rather not be thinking of all the horrors that occurred after it left the quiet little farm. I'm having trouble finding resources to help me make the most informed decision. And if anyone out there has first-hand experience, spare no details. I want my experience to be as delicious and guilt-free as possible. Thanks!
posted by a.steele to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The commercial slaughter of cattle is pretty much a case of (a) stun the animal, rendering it unconscious; (b) hang the animal up, still unconscious; (c) cut the throat, killing the unconscious animal.

If the animal is slaughtered cleanly, then that's about as humane as it can get. Better in my mind that this is done by someone who does it day in, day out, and can do it well.

If it were me, the decision would be 100% about the quality of life the animal had before being taken to be slaughtered. The slaughter, if performed correctly and according to offical guidelines, is pretty much instantaneous loss of consciousness.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:58 PM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

And as for horrors, most small-scale farmers, at least where I live, supervise the cattle right up to the point where they enter the holding area at the slaughterhouse. And obviously it's in everyone's interest to keep the animals calm.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:01 PM on October 10, 2009

Best answer: Does something being slaughtered humanely mean it was treated well it's whole life?

Nope, any more than it being raised humanely tells you anything about the slaughtering.

is there a "standard" way for smaller farms to slaughter cattle? I know in most cases they are transferred to a separate place, but do smaller farms usually send their cattle to "humane" slaughterhouses?

This depends on where you are. Around here, for small-scale farmers, the slaughterhouse comes to the cow, not the other way around -- there are two or three mobile slaughter operations in the county that operate out of trucks, and go from farm to farm. Sometimes they only do the killing and the butchering is done by someone else; sometimes they do the entire processing. And some farmers do their own killing, and contract out the butchering. Other places are going to have different rules, different accepted practices, different resources.

My suggestion is to go local. Very, very local. Meaning, talk to the farmer, tell him/her that your primary concern is ethical and that you want to make an appointment to see their operation. Any farmer that won't allow that is (probably) someone you don't want to buy from. All you'll probably see are some cows standing around doing cow-y things, but it's a chance to ask questions about hormones and antibiotics, get a sense of how things look (overcrowded with cows? acceptably clean for a farm?) and what the general tone of the place is.

And ask specifically about the slaughtering. Who does it? Where? Is it humane? (Personally, I've watched a lot of animals be slaughtered, and I'm convinced that a really skilled mobile slaughter operation is a great option -- you avoid all the stresses of travel and the scent of the abattoir, impersonal workers, etc. With the farmer there and watching, there isn't much room for abuse or bad behavior, either.)

I'm suggesting that you do this instead of buying from a butcher's counter, so as to ask the questions from the person who has direct responsibility for the cow's life. A place like Whole Foods is going to buy beef from suppliers who certify that they meet minimum standards of humane treatment, which is good; by asking questions directly I think you can look for a farmer who addresses your particular concerns and makes you comfortable.
posted by Forktine at 3:04 PM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm not an expert on this, but I believe that in Kosher (and Halal) slaughtering, the animal is not rendered unconscious before its throat is cut. If I'm right about that, then kosher (and halal) is more cruel than commercial slaughter houses.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:09 PM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

One consideration is the animal's diet. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, it talks about how most cows in the country are raised on a corn diet, simply because there's such a surplus of corn (because of all the subsidies). However, cows can't properly digest corn and get sick from it, so we have to pump them full of antibiotics. In contrast, a cow's stomach is designed for consuming grass, so cows that grow up feeding on a pasture have a much better life.

So consider asking if they're "grass fed".
posted by losvedir at 3:09 PM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

The 'abbatoir' I am best acquainted with shoots them between the eyes. Also, the cow being led (more like dragged) into the chute usually sees the workers finishing hosing the floor down from the just-finished animal. The smell isn't overpowering or horrible, but it is distinct and surely detectable by the cow. FWIW everything there is done to the letter of the law, and the actual slaughter takes a split second. Probably making sure the animal was treated well by the farmer/rancher will lead to ensuring a humane slaughter. I can't see someone taking that kind of time and effort and then losing track of things.
posted by variella at 3:11 PM on October 10, 2009

A long time ago I saw a film on PBS about a slaughterhouse. That one used a cattle prod to stun the animals. The beef was herded into a small space with a metal floor. A man reached out with the cattle prod and zapped it on the head with a charge that knocked it out without stopping the heart.

Then the floor tilted away underneath it, and the stunned animal slid down to the lower level, where it was hung up by its hind legs, and then its throat was cut.

There would have been the smell of blood, but not nearby. It seemed to me that it was just about as good as you could reasonably do without using things (like drugs) which would contaminate the meat.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:22 PM on October 10, 2009

I was right.

"The method of slaughter differs from the usual custom in that the animal is not stunned before the throat is cut."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:24 PM on October 10, 2009

Response by poster: Man, chocolate pickle! That is horrifying! I guess that option is out for sure, so thank you.

And thanks to everyone else for all the advice so far! It's been enlightening. I'm still open to more stories/links/etc. until I hear back from the local farms in my area. So far it looks like local trumps Whole Foods.

Anecdotal advice about eating beef after being vegetarian is welcome, too.
posted by a.steele at 3:35 PM on October 10, 2009

Anecdotal advice about eating beef after being vegetarian is welcome, too.

That's been discussed here before, I think. Some people find the transition hard on their system and do best easing back in to meat eating; other people (like myself) find the transition to be a non-event physically. If you have a sensitive stomach generally, maybe best to go easy, but really there isn't some absolute rule about how to do it and how you will feel.

Here's a really brief article about mobile slaughter units in Washington State, and why they are supported. Here is a how-to page from the WSU extension office, in case you are interested in the technical details (NSF people who don't want to see a photo of a dead cow). But it's not legal in all states, so you really want to begin by talking to some farmers and finding out what options they prefer, and why.
posted by Forktine at 4:15 PM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is no such thing as a humanely killed cow in this world, sorry. Slaughterhouses are a nightmare and the cattle know what is happening to them. If you really want to do this, go visit one and then decide if you still want to participate.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 4:31 PM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

You probably want to read Temple Grandin's work on humane slaughter (link to a single paper; Dr. Grandin has done extensive research and publishing in this area). This particular paper includes "objective scoring methods which can be used to assess animal welfare" in slaughter plants.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:34 PM on October 10, 2009

If you're really thinking of taking a small farmer's time to discuss his husbandry and slaughter practices, for the certain purchase of one steak, I think you should make that clear, at the outset of the conversation.

Also, I think you also do not understand that you do not want a truly fresh steak. The best (and most expensive) steaks are dry aged, although you can get a fair amount of arguement about that assertion, versus wet aging, these days. But I've eaten in the top steakhouses on 5 continents, and I strongly advise dry aged meat for the best flavor and texture. Unless you are willing to try dry aging steak at home, yourself, (which can be an expensive, messy disaster quite easily), your best bet is probably to seek out a top steakhouse that does it, and eat your steak there.

You lose visibility into the slaughter process, but you gain the certainty that the beef you are commissioning for slaughter by your purchase is put to the very highest and best use in terms of human consumption, and so you can, perhaps, better justify that initial act of slaughter, that provides the meat. The top steakhouses in the U.S. can pay top dollar for grass fed, minimally finished beef, and their buyers are among the most knowledgeable meat professionals you'd ever meet. Even chain operations like Morton's, The Palm or Ruth's Chris can provide reliably dry aged beef, but in Memphis, I might recommend Folk's Folly, especially if you've never been.

Put yourself in the hands of professionals, and accept their ethical choices on your behalf.
posted by paulsc at 4:39 PM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Paulsc, one of the two local farms does dry age their beef, actually. I remember reading that on their site but I wasn't sure what it meant. So thanks for helping me decide between the two. I wouldn't drive to visit the farm for one steak, (they come to Memphis for the farmer's market). I just emailed them to ask whether it's done on site and to what extent they're involved in the process. And I've heard great things about folk's folly. Thanks for the advice!
posted by a.steele at 5:01 PM on October 10, 2009

There is a lot more to Kosher slaughter practices than is shown in the short summary linked above, here's a more in-depth article for example.
posted by illenion at 5:44 PM on October 10, 2009

I would weight your decision much more heavily towards the life that the cow lived, rather than how it died. Was the cow free to roam? Did it have plenty of grass to eat or was it ever fed grain? Was its health taken care of?

In my experience, slaughter on small ranches that sell directly involves a rifle (but I live in a pretty small town). As long as the rancher can aim, that seems pretty humane to me.

As a kid, though, when the butcher came to shoot our cow every fall, I could never bring myself to watch.
posted by ssg at 6:01 PM on October 10, 2009

I'm not an expert, but Kosher definitely does not imply "humane" to me. And I don't think you can assume much about the cow's life from the "grass-fed" label either.

I think you need to find a particular ranch that makes beef the way you want it.
posted by meta_eli at 9:09 PM on October 10, 2009

Note also that kosher meat receives its designation only by virtue of how it dies, not how it lived. So if you're looking for the most humane steak you can eat, industrial-farmed kosher beef isn't necessarily the best place to look first.

I'd second the notion of forming a relationship with a farmer near you.
posted by AngerBoy at 1:05 PM on October 11, 2009

Risking derailing, but: While you're tracking the humane treatment of the cow, consider the humane treatment of the slaughterhouse workers, too.
posted by mendel at 3:42 PM on October 11, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you for all the thoughtful responses, and for the point/counterpoint on kosher beef. You learn something new every day on metafilter! I've decided on one of the two local farms and have already gotten a reply email from the owner of the farm. He said the cows are sent elsewhere (which I was hoping against, but the farm doesn't have space or USDA certification to do it on site), but he assured me that they have supervised the plant themselves to make sure it is up to their standards, in addition to minimum federal requirements. Thanks for the help in deciding!
posted by a.steele at 11:03 AM on October 12, 2009

In the future, you may be interested in Thunder Heart Bison, which is about as ethical as it gets, for my own definition of ethical, though not actually cow. It's hard to beat field harvesting.
posted by rush at 11:46 AM on October 12, 2009

Response by poster: Oh, thanks, rush! I hadn't considered the "alternative" meats :) That definitely looks like something I could get behind.
posted by a.steele at 1:16 PM on October 12, 2009

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