Meat, Inc. (Or The Meat Detective)

So I went to the grocery store this morning and braved funny looks in the name of getting to the truth.

I wrote down the names of the companies that provide the meats that I’ve been feeding my family for the last three years.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this little journey was checking out the way my food is packaged. Pictures of sunny farms, or old-world charm. Names that illicit feelings of security and well-being. Advertising-voodoo claims, like hormone-free pork when all US pork is hormone-free. Meat packaged so that it doesn’t look anything like it’s source material. Meat packaged in a way that is meant to squash the questions that I’ve been asking.

Here’s are some highlights:

  • Most of the fresh beef came from Hereford. Despite the fact that there is a whole ranch full of grass-fed, open range cattle behind my house, my local grocery store sells beef from a company in Missouri. A big company whose website ensures me that they “support the judicious use of vaccines and antibiotics to maintain good animal health. After twenty years of research, the Institute of Food Technologists in 2006 found antibiotic-free foods are not necessarily safer for the consumer.”
  • The store carries some unmarked beef. The butcher told me that it is from the same source.
  • All of the fresh pork comes from Premium Standard Farms, which I’ve already discussed.
  • The fresh chicken comes from Gold’n Plump. They sell a brand, by the same company, that is called Just Bare Chicken. Just Bare Chicken is raised without hormones or antibiotics, vegetable fed, and cage-free. Cage-free, in this case, means in a barn but not in cages. These Just Bare chickens are raised on family farms, and interestingly you can put a code from the package into a box on their website and find out exactly which family farm. That’s pretty cool. The Gold’n Plump website claims a ‘family’ of 1500 employees, which indicates that it’s a pretty big operation. They also have an employment add for a “catcher” that can work in dusty, adverse conditions.
  • The turkey available in my store is either from Jennie-O or Honeysuckle White. Both are giant corporations and make me uneasy. Jennie-O is owned by Hormel. Hormel’s website states a pretty comprehensive list of principles. Their page about animal welfare says that the hogs and turkeys are raised with ‘judicious’ use of antibiotics provided by eight on-staff vets that work with the family and corporate farmers. The hogs are raised in group pens in a barn and the turkeys are cage-free in a barn.  Honeysuckle White is part of Cargill, a huge producer of meat. Specifically Cargill Meat Solutions. Cargill has some pretty scary brushes with e. coli if that second link is correct. Cargill and Hormel are the two leading turkey producers (is that the right word?) in the US.
  • The main supplier of deli meat is Birchwood. I had a hard time getting information about them at first. But then I got excited because they are a Salt Lake City company, which is damn near local to me. But I called, and was told that their meat comes from IBP. From Iowa, not Utah. Which is Tyson Foods.  Tyson, which has some pretty interesting stuff on their Wikipedia page. “In 2005, journalists Sally and Sadie Kneidel reported on their tour of Tyson broiler farms in their book Veggie Revolution: Smart Choices for a Healthy Body and a Healthy Planet. According to their report, each windowless shed on a typical Tyson broiler farm is approximately 42 by 400 feet (120 m) and holds around 24,000 chickens, giving each chicken 0.7 square feet (0.065 m2) of floor space.”
  • A company called Falls Brand, part of Independent Meat Company from Idaho, supplies process pork like hot dogs, sausages, and hams to my grocery store. I called and spoke to a very nice lady there who told me that their pigs are raised on family farms in Idaho. They are raised in barns, she said, “because they would freeze to death here in the Mountain West.” It was about 10 degrees today, about 200 miles south of them, so that might be true. She made a point of telling me that their company does not have a rotating array of under-paid workers. The farms are run by families, there is no corporate farm. She told me that the pigs raised for this company are antibiotic free.

So, again a meaty story with a moral.

Companies use the term ‘family farms.’ It sounds sweet and idyllic. It makes me think of the things I want in my life. In reality, many of these family farms are controlled by massive corporations with one agenda. To provide Americans with the cheap meat we demand.

If we start to demand meat raised ethically and humanely, the corporations will provide. They aren’t raising cows and pigs and chickens and turkeys for the hell of it. They want to give us what we want. They want our money, and that’s how they get it.

I do not have access on a regular basis to the kind of meat I’d like to feed my family. Somewhere along the way things have gotten skewed enough that the free-range cows in my backyard don’t make it to my grocery refrigerated case. I’m not 100 percent sure what to do about this.

We could go vegetarian, but I know this isn’t a long-term solution. My vegetarian-ish daughter would go for it. At this point I’m so in shock from all I’m learning that I might not ever be able to hold meat down again. (I haven’t had any in two days and counting.)

My husband and son and littlest daughter would revolt.

But they also understand when I talk to them about what I’m learning. (Well, not Ruby. But she’s five, she eats what’s in front of her.)

So what is the solution? The here-and-now, adapt-in-place solution.

Because we have to start where we are.

I think our best choice is to stock up on high-quality, ethically-produced meat when we’re in a bigger city. That happens about once every three months, maybe more often if I have to travel for work.

In the between times, the best choices in my local store seem to be the Just Bare chicken, Jennie-O turkey, and Falls Brand pork. These companies aren’t perfect. Two are subsidiaries of huge corporations, which I would like to avoid. But Gold’n Plump is making an effort with Just Bare. And Hormel is making an effort to hold to higher standards. If those efforts are supported, maybe they will be expanded on. (Maybe all Gold’n Plump chicken will be held to the same standard as their chicken marketed to the hippies.) Falls Brand, despite being all processed meats, seems the best choice, but I’m not 100 percent sure that their “family farms” isn’t a euphemism for something less warm and cozy than it sounds.

Another part of the solution is to have vegetarian days two or three times a week. Maybe more. To feed my carnivores some meat, but not as much. Perhaps to wean toward vegetarianism, which is more likely to illicit support than a sudden drastic change in our diet.

This will not be how we shop when we are in Seattle. This is not how we will eat there. But it is the best, most informed choice we can make for where we are now.


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6 responses to “Meat, Inc. (Or The Meat Detective)

  1. ephemere17

    I’m glad you did this detective work!! I too don’t have access to grassfed/freerange meats locally, but I can stock up when I get to my large city nearby.

    It really sounds like you’re making a great effort here. I really admire you for it.

  2. Very good detective work, and interesting post. I’m guessing from your post’s headline that you have seen Food, Inc., but if not, you should. It’s an excellent documentary, and it’s out on DVD.

  3. Salmon Creek Farms pork is sold by one of the food co-ops here in Seattle, and I share your concern about Ag companies that stress ” family farms” and “natural.” In researching Salmon Creek a few months back, I ran across this information on the Hutterite Community website:

    My calculations indicate that each pig in the 60,000 sq. ft. pig barn gets about 12 to 16 sq. ft. each. While this isn’t ‘pasture-raised’ it is no where near the conditions of a Big Ag CAFO. The other food co-ops here sell pork from “Pur Country Pork,” and they have more information and pictures on their website. They seem to be a better operation than Salmon Creek Farms, and they sell throughout WA and OR.

  4. Nicole

    you may have better luck going to a local farm or farmers market where families in your area are selling meat they raised and prepared for market.

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