Above is an idyllic photo of a herd of cattle being driven out to pasture by yours truly in the expansive valley east of the Crazy Mountains in central Montana. They aren’t my cattle but are part of a herd managed by my husband’s cousin, who calls on her relatives every year in springtime to help with branding.
My husband and I are fortunate to know exactly where a majority of our food comes from. In addition to owning some of our own cattle, we also hunt and fish and manage a small flock of chickens, who lay for us delicious eggs with deep orange yolks. When I feed my family meat and eggs, I feel confident that they are receiving high-quality fats and proteins in the proportions intended by nature.
Unlike my husband and I, many people (probably you) are unable to harvest their own meat and eggs. They are confronted instead with an array of choices in the supermarket, labeled with confusing and often misleading catch phrases such as “organic,” “free range,” “vegetarian-fed,” and “hormone free,” along with the standard non-hyped meat and egg products.
As a consumer, it’s becoming increasingly important to know what these labels mean as well as to be aware of what goes into the animals’ bodies before they go into your body. More and more processors are now catering to consumers’ desire to make healthy choices at the supermarket but do not actually care about their health. The label “free range,” for example, is allowed on any package of eggs (or chicken breasts, thighs, and wings) as long as the chickens they come from have access to the outdoors while they are alive, which in most cases means they are allowed to roam a very small strip of land outside of the industrial-sized coop that houses them along with thousands and thousands of other birds; hardly the free-range picture most consumers have in mind when they purchase free-range eggs (which sell for more than regular eggs despite the fact that they are hardly raised any differently).
In my post on federal food policy, I discuss the ubiquitousness of corn in our food system, including in the animals we eat. Most concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)–which is where most of the meat, poultry, and eggs in the supermarket comes from–use corn and soy as the base for their feeds. Animals fed a high-corn diet develop a different, and unhealthy, ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in their systems, which researchers are now associating with high levels of chronic disease. Chickens, like other birds, are biologically suited to a diverse diet of bugs, worms, grasses, legumes, and whatever else they encounter as they peck around on the ground in the sunshine. Cattle have a digestive system suited to grasses and are healthiest when allowed to roam and graze across large outdoor expanses.
When animals AREN’T fed the diets for which they are suited they are more likely to become ill, a likelihood that is further compounded when they are confined in close quarters with other animals. Consequently, most cattle and chickens raised in CAFOs require antibiotics. But get this: the antibiotics aren’t just doled out to prevent and treat disease; they are also administered to induce weight gain, which results in greater returns for the seller since most animals are paid for by the pound.
What on earth do antibiotics have to do with weight gain? The answer is linked to one of the fascinating new findings about the human microbiome discussed in Dr. David Permutter’s new book Brain Maker, which I overview in my post on gut health. Researchers have discovered that there are certain strains of bacteria that are able to extract more calories out of food than others and that those strains happen to thrive when antibiotics are given (which will kill other strains of bacteria that keep the fat-inducing strains in check). When our gut flora–or that of a pig or steer or chicken–becomes unbalanced in this way, we will absorb more of the calories from our food and gain more weight. As a result of this phenomenon, the administration of antibiotics proves to be an easy way to produce cheaper meat. This is a big reason why meat that isn’t truly free range is so cheap, yet we will all be paying the price in the form of the antibiotic resistant diseases that are becoming increasingly common. If you come across a package of meat that claims to be hormone free (which it may be), don’t assume the animal from which that meat came was raised in a healthy manner; it could just mean that antibiotics were used to induce weight gain rather than growth hormones.
In 2011, the latest year for which Perlmutter had data upon the writing of his book, fully 80 percent of antibiotic sales in the United States went to livestock, not people. But if you’re a person who eats factory-farmed meat, then you too are ingesting these antibiotics as well as all of the other toxins and genetically modified substances that these animals come into contact with during their lifetimes. You’re also contributing to a major pollution problem by supporting an industry that concentrates animal waste in disgusting proportions rather than allowing it to scatter across acres and acres of land and act as a natural fertilizer as animals roam, which is what nature intended (for an insightful and humorous look at how poop can and should be used, pick up a copy of Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind, by Gene Logsdon).
Not all grass-fed and organic operations are necessarily sustainable, either, but they are leaps and bounds better than CAFOs (by the way, the “organic” label can be trusted if you see the USDA Certified Organic seal on the package–but if you don’t, be wary). Your best bet for high-quality meat is to buy it from a local or regional farmer or rancher, even if they aren’t certified organic (just make sure they don’t use hormones or antibiotics). Farmers’ markets and butcher shops are great places to find quality meats because they are places where you can ask questions and get answers about where your meat really comes from (you can also try asking the manager at your local grocery store, but s/he may not have all of the answers). Not sure where to find a farmers’ market or butcher shop in your area? Check out the website Eat Local Grown or contact a nearby Weston A. Price Foundation chapter. You will pay more for quality meat at the checkout but what you’ll save in healthcare costs down the road will surely make your free-range and grass-fed sources more economical in the long run.
If you have the space for a chest freezer, you can make free-range and grass-fed meats more affordable by purchasing them in bulk. Many farmers, ranchers, and butchers will sell a “quarter beef” or “half beef,” which means you’ll get a quarter or half of the meat from an entire steer (or pig), which can be processed to your liking. If you purchase a whole chicken rather than the individual parts (such as boneless, skinless breasts and thighs), you will also make buying better meat more affordable. See my post on slow-cooker chicken and broth for an easy and delicious way to prepare whole chickens.
As for eggs, if you can’t get to a farmers’ market and don’t have neighbors or friends with chickens, your best bet is to purchase eggs fed an omega-3 rich diet (this typically means that flaxseed is mixed in with the standard corn and soy fed to CAFO birds). It isn’t ideal but it’s better than buying eggs from birds fed strictly corn and soy. You might also consider getting a few backyard chickens of your own if your town or city allows it (many do). You can also ask your local grocer or health food store if they’d consider sourcing eggs from nearby farmers; our food co-op buys eggs from anyone who has chickens of their own and more eggs than they can eat and then sells them to their customers.
It is becoming increasingly clear to researchers and to anyone who pays attention to the news and its reports of ever-rising morbidity rates from diet-related diseases that what we eat matters–and that what we eat eats matters, too. Don’t be lulled by cheaper prices into buying meat and eggs that are bad for your health and bad for the environment. If you need to cut costs somewhere, cut out organic fruits and veggies and buy organic meat and eggs instead. According to Dr. Mercola,
Animal products, like meat, butter, milk, and eggs, are the most important to buy organic, since animal products tend to bioaccumulate toxins from their pesticide-laced feed, concentrating them to far higher concentrations than are typically present in vegetables.
So make room in your budget for healthier meats and eggs and make the proportions smaller if necessary so that you can afford to do so. You’ll be doing a wonderful favor for yourself, your family, and the planet.