Help me navigate the world of ethical/sustainable food sourcing
April 19, 2016 11:54 AM   Subscribe

I'm becoming increasingly frustrated with misleading labels at the grocery store - "cage free" eggs that cost three times as much but the chickens are treated no better than the cheap eggs, "grass fed*" beef with an asterisk. I am willing to pay more for genuinely ethical/sustainable meat, dairy, and poultry. I am not willing to pay more for bullshit labels. Help me navigate this landscape without being misled.

For both health and social/environmental reasons, I am interested in consuming meat and dairy products that lived a species-approriate lifestyle and consumed a species-appropriate diet. I'm less concerned with a formal organic certification. I figure that the increased price of these will lead to an overall reduction in volume of meat consumed, and that's a fine natural consequence. I don't plan to become vegetarian.

I'm interested in knowing of specific things to watch out for in food labeling (or labels to specifically seek out); specific brands to seek out or avoid; and local options in the Chicago Northwest suburbs. I'm tired of walking around the grocery store constantly wondering if I'm being swindled by labels that appear to mean one thing but really mean something quite different. (See: "cage free".)

With limited time and energy for grocery shopping, I'd like to have a clearer mental picture for making decisions on the fly. Beyond that, I would be absolutely thrilled to learn about local brands that some of you in my region might know of but I might miss because they're only sold at this grocery store I could totally get to except it's not part of my routine so I'd never see it to look it up, y'know? Also any guidance in selecting a local farm to buy meat from, or positive experiences on that front you could share that would nudge me over the bump into taking the plunge.

Similar tips regarding seafood are also appreciated. (For example, I studiously avoid farmed salmon - but is there farmed salmon from some location that I should seek out? Wild locations to specifically seek out or avoid? How do you choose ethical shrimp?)
posted by telepanda to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
If you don't personally know the producer, assume that all the labels are sketchy at best and that all the livestock is treated and handled similarly. Then, if you are upset at how some foodstuff or other is generally produced, do not buy that foodstuff.
posted by kindall at 12:01 PM on April 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Go to your local farmer's market. Talk to the farmers. Note if the people selling the food aren't the farmers/don't know them or have easy facts to hand about exactly what the farm is like and how the animals are treated, crops are grown, seafood is harvested, etc. Note if the farm seems weirdly far away, weirdly large, or is selling produce out of season, etc.

A good farmer or person running a booth on behalf of the farmer will be able to tell you whether the chickens run free, what the cows eat, where the fish was caught, etc.
posted by Sara C. at 12:04 PM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Re: eggs. Kenji Lopez-Alt wrote a pretty thorough piece that elaborated on what the different labels actually mean. I think Certified Humane is the only one that meant the chickens could somewhat free roam. That is the only kind I buy in stores now.

Are there farmer's markets where you live? That will be probably be the best option.
posted by monologish at 12:04 PM on April 19, 2016 [9 favorites]

I've been with (that is, as a customer, not as an employee or anything) this company for a few years now, and the food they source is top notch, and I trust them (so far).

You order online, they deliver (the meats are frozen) once a month, you go pick it up at the truck. Looks like they have delivery to Arlington Heights.
posted by WesterbergHigh at 12:05 PM on April 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm interested in knowing of specific things to watch out for in food labelling

"Outdoor reared" (for pork etc) implies the animals live outside, but actually means the piglets live outside to begin with, but then are indoors permanently when they get older.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 12:32 PM on April 19, 2016

Here's an interesting article about this topic, specifically Farm to Table restaurants.

Here's a listing of Organic Egg producers and how humane they are. This can help you source good eggs in your area. Farmer's Hen House are affordable, tasty and you can get them at Whole Foods in Chicago.

Farmer's Markets are good for meat and eggs, some veggies, but they're seasonal. I did business with a farmer and it was great, then I found out she augmented her CSA with veggies from other sources when her crops didn't come up to snuff. I get it, no one wants Kale and nothing but Kale, but the fact that you bought the peaches from down the road... I dunno, that's a lot of money to spend if I don't know the provenance.

It's a crap shoot, and you have to accept that sometimes, it's not always going to be 100% organic, grassfed, pastured, free-range, unless you raise it yourself.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:33 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @Ruthless Bunny: Yes, I read that article on the blue. It was part of the motivation for this Ask. I accept that I may not be able to do perfectly, but I'm trying to make an effort to come at this with my eyes open.

Thanks to those who have made specific recommendations so far.
posted by telepanda at 12:41 PM on April 19, 2016

If I were going to do this seriously (which is probably a good idea), I'd think about maximizing the value of the time I _do_ put in. So, finding something/a supplier I trust -- probably at a farmers' market or a farm -- then buying a significant quantity and consuming it slowly, OR consuming meat/eggs more one week and then less/not at all the next week.

You could freeze a bunch, or cook a lot of a good dish on one weekend day, freeze that, then eat it occasionally over the next month.

There are a number cuisines that use meat sparingly in really yummy dishes, and that might be one way to think about making this work.

In addition, to make this healthier, one would need to make other meals/dishes less "unhealthy", so that you're not displacing all that meat on other days with just potatoes or something.
posted by amtho at 12:58 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you know about the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association and its state-based directory?
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:13 PM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

For sustainability of fish, see Monterey Bay's Seafood Watch. They don't consider labor practices in making their recommendations; I guess the Global Aquaculture Alliance started a certification for Best Aquaculture Practices that does take those factors into account.

The US Department of Labor also maintains a list of goods made in each country by child and/or forced labor (generically, no brand names listed). So, you could, for example, avoid chili peppers from Mexico or hazelnuts from Turkey.
posted by melissasaurus at 1:58 PM on April 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is a really difficult thing to accomplish. The more you learn about the practice of raising animals for food, the clearer it may become that there's no way of doing it that's actually species-appropriate for the animal.

I say this not as a moral judgment about using animals for food but because the USDA regulations governing slaughter make it very difficult to provide a genuinely species-appropriate experience to food animals; animals that have been raised in as close to a species-appropriate way as possible on small farms must still be transported (sometimes many hundreds of miles) to large slaughterhouses. The end of these animals' lives are anything but species-appropriate.
"The majority of livestock in the United States are processed at a relatively small number of large-volume federally inspected plants. However, these plants, even if conveniently located, are essentially unavailable to local meat processors due to mismatches in scale, services, and business models." [PDF]
All that said, there's obviously a huge difference between the worst kinds of factory-farm horror and the best kinds of farms that think carefully about humane practices. Supporting the latter is an unequivocally good thing to do.

Prather Ranch in California is one of only two ranches in the country that's authorized by the USDA to have their own abattoir on site. Their cattle never leave the ranch and are spared the feed-lot-and-big-slaughterhouse experience that the rest of the nation's cattle experience even if the bulk of their lives are spent in a bucolic pasture.

White Oak Pastures in Georgia is the other; they are the only farm in the country that is authorized to slaughter both cattle and poultry.

You can arrange to purchase meat from either of those places provided you have the freezer space to store it.
posted by jesourie at 2:09 PM on April 19, 2016 [7 favorites]

CSAs. You can get not only produce delivered, but also meat, milk and cheese, honey, and lots of other things. Visit the farms, meet the people who run it, and see how they treat their animals. You'll need a deep freezer if you get a meat CSA share, as they typically only slaughter once or twice a year, and you'll want to buy enough to last until the next culling.
posted by ananci at 2:17 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm here to tell you seafood guides are not worth listening to (think info cut and pasted by interns) and... Cultivated oysters, clams, and scallops are about all the seafood I approve of these days. Because I dislike fish grown in pens eating fish pellets. And over-fished species. YMMV, and this is my professional opinion and folks are welcome to disagree with me! This is how I do. You do you when it comes to aquatic creatures....

There is no substitute for getting to know the vendors at you local farmers market + driving out into the places where the farms and ranches are. When you see the same names on signs by the side of the road as on booths at your weekly farmers market, you're in business!!

I know of no reliable way to do what you want by following any guide or list put out by any organization or association, sadly. You really have to sorta delve into it on your own and get to know who is in your area.

If my farmers market guy is out of eggs one week, we don't have eggs. That's just how we roll. You get used to it after a while. You certainly feel better, morally speaking. You eat vegetarian a lot. It's all good.
posted by jbenben at 2:50 PM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A few more thoughts about this, as it's a subject that's very important to me.

As backstory, I became a vegetarian when I was 15, and then a vegan when I met my first husband. I went back to vegetarianism after we divorced, and currently have a mostly-vegan approach[1].

I'm married to a committed omnivore. When I met him, I started to think about eating meat again, so I did a lot of research hoping to find what you're looking for now. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that it simply isn't commercially available[2] in this country due to USDA slaughter regulations, lax enforcement of humane handling and slaughtering laws, demand for low prices on animal products, etc.

It's not hard to find a commercial source for meat and eggs that provided the animal with a genuinely good life that was free of stress or pain until the moment the animal was loaded on to the truck to go to the slaughterhouse. Unfortunately, after that, the small local farmer loses control of the treatment of the animal. The overwhelming majority of happy free-range organic animals ends up in large commercial facilities not known for their humane practices for slaughter. (I had a really, really hard time believing this could possibly be true until I did the research. All that marketing! All those lovely advertising images of happy cows frolicking in green fields!)

Thankfully, mobile processing units (MPUs) are starting to gain some traction. They're USDA-inspected slaughter facilities that are usually housed in the trailer of a semi. From the link: "By traveling from farm to farm, they allow on-farm slaughter, which many people consider more humane than trucking animals to a slaughter facility." They're only capable of processing a small number of animals at a time, so they're mostly useful for small-scale farmers. Farmers' market folks or local butcher shops in your area might receive some meat from farms that use MPUs, so it's worth asking around.

Dairy is going to be even more difficult for you to source than meat, mostly because diverting another mammal's milk away from its young so that we can drink it instead is about as species-inappropriate as you can get.

Female cows, even on wonderful family-run organic dairies, are separated from their calves long before it would happen normally; time spans range from one hour after birth to 48 hours. Some female calves are raised to join the dairy herd; most are fed on milk replacement formula until they're weaned. Male calves of dairy cows, being of no commercial value to the dairy farmer, are sometimes sold as steer but mostly become veal.

Any dairy farmer will tell you that female cows display behaviors consistent with searching for their missing calf for days after the separation, with vocalizing, not eating, breaking out of corrals, etc. In terms of providing a species-appropriate life, dairy is about as bad as it gets. If someone told me they were willing either to stop eating meat or stop eating dairy but not both, I would without hesitation choose to have them stop eating dairy.

In case this is starting to sound strident, let me say that I believe strongly that everyone has the right to perform their own moral calculus about these facts and come to their own conclusions about what they're willing to do with the information. Some people like me find it's worth becoming vegan. For others, it changes nothing. For some, they seek out the best possible commercial sources of meat and eggs, maybe eat a little less of both in general, and feel that the last part of the animals' lives is unfortunate but unavoidable. Some people buy a big freezer for the basement and go in on a quarter of a steer from Prather. Obviously only you can decide how much effort this is worth to you, and no one has the right to judge the informed decisions of other adults.

I wish I could tell you it was possible to do what you're hoping to do easily. I'm sorry if this is discouraging, and I hope it's helpful!

[1] I eat no red meat, pork, poultry, or dairy. Like jbenben, I do eat locally cultivated oysters, mussels, and scallops. I have a few friends with backyard chickens, so I'll eat those eggs because I know they don't force laying cycles and that they keep their chickens as beloved pets when their laying lives are over.

[2] You can find individual people with home-raised livestock who are willing to share with you, and their livestock is exempt from the USDA slaughterhouse trip provided they intend to use it for themselves, their family, and "non-paying guests." It's illegal for them to sell it. It's also possible to purchase a living animal, either alone or with others, and then hire a small processor to butcher it, which also avoids the trip to the slaughterhouse, but the regulations are stringent and it's hard to find these kinds of arrangements. Plus you end up with a lot of meat that needs freezer storage.

posted by jesourie at 7:51 PM on April 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I really appreciate the thoughtful responses. Although my goal right now is mostly "do better than before" and it's clear that even that leaves a lot to be desired, this is all really good stuff to think about. My parents are in grocery-store distribution range for White Oaks, and I've sent that information to them; and I've made progress on at least finding brands of milk and eggs from small local farms that are at least an improvement over packed warehouses. The "Certified Humane" label for the eggs was a good tip.

I'm researching local farmers to buy a frozen beef quarter from, and that's pretty overwhelming but I'm working on it. Unfortunately, there don't currently seem to be mobile processing units in our area, but it's a really helpful direction to learn about.

For now, I hope to take a small step in the right direction by helping create demand for local, environmentally (more) responsible, products. Thank you again.
posted by telepanda at 8:28 AM on April 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

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