My friend Rob wrote me the following e-mail yesterday and because it’s such a good question, I thought I’d answer it right here on the blog.
Hey Adam, I was reading reviews of [Jonathan Safran] Foer’s new book “Eating Animals” on being a vegetarian and renewing my pledge to only eat “humane” meat — free range, cruelty free, local, organic, etc. But I cannot for the life of me figure out which places are “approved.” Is there any way to figure this out? Would this make for a good blog? It seems to be a topic a lot of people are talking about… – Rob
This is a tricky, sticky issue and one that I struggle with all the time. For example, on a very small scale: eggs. When I go to the supermarket and stare at all the different egg options I am baffled. Do I buy free-range eggs? Organic eggs that aren’t free-range? If I buy local eggs at the farmer’s market are they free-range and organic? What is an organic egg? Is that better than a local egg? Is that better than a free-range egg? And so on.
But you are asking, specifically, about ethical meat. That gets even MORE confusing, for starters because you can’t trust the words you see on the meat at your supermarket. Did you know, for example, that there’s no one regulating the word “free-range” as it applies to chicken? So even if your “organic, free-range” chicken is labeled as such, there’s a good chance that that chicken isn’t very free at all. In Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (which is basically the Bible on this subject), Pollan goes to visit some “organic, free-range” birds and writes: “Compared to conventional chickens, I was told, these organic birds have it pretty good: They get a few more square inches of living space per bird (though it was hard to see how they could be packed together much more tightly), and because there are no hormones or antibiotics in their feed to accelerate growth, they get to live a few days longer. Though under the circumstances it’s not clear that a longer life is necessarily a boon.”
The answer to your question, then, is clearly not the supermarket (though I am guilty, I must admit, of buying free-range, organic chickens at the supermarket anyway, because of convenience) but rather, the farmer’s market.
If you want ethical meat in New York, get thee to Union Square. On Saturdays, especially, you will find many ethical meat options. You can talk to the farmers directly and ask them about their practices; some farmers even flout their ethical practices as a way to entice engaged shoppers like you!
The only problem is, it can be prohibitively expensive. One of the best meat purveyors in Union Square, Flying Pigs Farm, raises heritage breed pigs as humanely as possible (see this Oprah article for details). Because their pigs are treated so well and the pigs themselves are such superior breeds, any pork you buy from Flying Pigs will taste wildly better than the shrink-wrapped unethical pork you’ll buy at your supermarket. But a package of pork chops from D’Agostino’s (according to their website) will cost you $5.49, at Flying Pigs a package of 2 chops will cost you $18.75. So buying ethical meat on a regular basis, unless you’re extraordinarily rich, may prove to be financially impossible.
The solution, many would argue, is to eat less meat and, when you do buy meat, to buy the expensive ethical meat from the farmer’s market. As our friend Diana likes to point out, “Meat SHOULD be expensive. It’s only factory farming that made meat cheap in the first place.” At the very least, go to the farmer’s market and buy one thing, go home and cook it and see if you taste the difference. From my own experience (check out these meals I cooked with Flying Pigs meat: pork ribs, pork shoulder) just knowing that the meat was well-treated makes a HUGE difference. You feel good about yourself while you eat it.
After that, I leave it to my readers to offer their advice. Help us out, ethical eaters–where do you buy your meat? Tell us in the comments.