Sunday, January 9, 2011

Knowing Where One's Food Comes From

Can you imagine going to the grocery store or the butcher shop's meat counter and seeing my family's picture next to a Ribeye Steak? Can you imagine reading about how the beef you'll be enjoying tonight have been treated during their life span? How about seeing a picture of the pasture in which they graze?

In a world where we are bombarded with advice to "eat locally," "know your farmer," and "be green," wouldn't seeing who is providing your beef, specifically, give you a positive farmer image? My guess is the answer is yes. I would buy beef from me, just seeing a picture of my cute kids frolicking in the green grass next to white machine sheds and green tractors (I am biased, I know). However, it would be interesting to see where our food is growing and by whom, and wouldn't that promote a positive farmer image to the greater public?

Whole Foods, Inc. already has a program such as this. I was reading the latest edition of Agri-News (my dad is beaming, and my friends are laughing), and they reported that Whole Foods markets have been employing a Step System. This system is more focused on the "how" of the raising, rather than the "whom," but beside the graphic of the system they have employed for the grading of animal welfare, literally in the meat display, there is a picture of a happy looking older gentleman in a cowboy hat. At first glance, I thought, "Hey! This looks like something that should be at MY grocery store."

Seriously, why in the heart of farm country, is something like this not in place? This is Farmer Image 101. This is easy. This is something I could get behind.

However, reading on, the article states that the Whole Foods, Inc. committee (made up of a "natural" beef rancher and the head of the Humane Society of the United States...look up that organization, if you never have, and then run screaming from them.) is more concerned with getting the information out about how the beef and other meats were raised before making it to Whole Foods. While it is good to not only know who your food is raised by, but also how, the requirements they have come up with are a bit, well, odd.

I will not go through all the details, but there are five levels in this "Animal Welfare Rating System." They range from a Level One, which is, to use a buzz word, free range: no crates, no stalls, no cages. It progresses from there, from allowing animals to have meaningful outdoor access, whatever that means, and I am horrified to write that in order to be a Step Five producer, you must not only allow your animals basically the freedom to do whatever they want wherever they want, but also slaughter them on your farm.


I am of the belief that there are certain experts out there. I go to the hospital to give birth, go to a doctor when I'm sick, ask for grammatical advice from my mother, consult the Pottery Barn catalogue for decorating details, and above all else, send my beef to the meat locker. We don't know enough about the art of butchering to be considered a Level Five, nor do we allow our cows to roam free and basically party on the pasture. There are rules and there are people who are employed to take care of certain aspects of our beef production because they are, well, experts.

I am torn by this article. On the one hand, it a great idea it is to have a face associated with your product, one that you are proud of. On the other hand, would you really make a decision based upon "meaningful" outdoor access and in-house slaughtering when you're considering the ground beef for your chili?

I guess what frustrates me about the latter portion of this article is that is someone shopping at Whole Foods really that knowledgeable in the study of meat science to make a decision based upon whether the outdoor access was meaningful or not? When did we, the non-agricultural folks, become experts all of the sudden? I personally hate being in tight spaces, but did you know hogs like it? I didn't know that until my father-in-law (a pork producer, and a person whom I would call an expert in his field) told me that hogs are happiest when they are in a confined, tight space. They feel safer, and are thus more calm, and therefore produce a better end product. Cattle should have a comfortable and safe place to graze and roam. However, would you want cattle roaming freely into places where they could eat plants or be around other animals that could be detrimental to their well being? Is that considered meaningful outdoor access? I think not. Do you want to have to dodge them while you're taking the back roads to get to your destination quicker? Personally, I don't want my kids to have to dodge cow manure while they play ball in the yard, as I believe my yard and my girls could possibly offer a meaningful experience to anyone...or at least an interesting one at that!

As a consumer, one should be knowledgeable. However, when does this knowledge cross the line? When do you become so open minded that your brains fall out (thanks Mom, for that phrase)? Consider your source of information, at all times, and if you do find out what meaningful outdoor access is, will you please share that with me? I am dying to know.

1 comment:

  1. I am so enjoying your blog. We raise feeder cattle, backing up my husband and FIL milked cows for about 40 years, then went to a cow/calf operation, and then we went to feeding out calves for market. Until just a few years ago, we did our own butchering here on the farm for ourselves.
    I have used Facebook to sell several head of cows to friends wanting beef in their freezer. they can see my Facebook profile pic to know where their beef comes from!

    As far as meaningful outdoor access is,....I have no clue. Our cows seem fine in the great outdoors; they are NOT "housed" in anything but some open free stall barns. They can choose where to go ;-) (as long as they stay on their side of the fence!

    Have a great week!