I should start out by saying that I completely respect and support vegetarians and vegans, so if you were hoping this article would contain vegetarian bashing, I’m sorry to disappoint.
I was a strict vegetarian for a little over a decade, and I have only recently started eating meat again. However, I am eating meat in a way that comports with my morals; specifically by supporting food producers that take animal welfare and human safety into account.
Everyone has his or her own reasons for what and how he or she eats. There have never been more dietary life choices than there are today: vegetarians, vegans, raw vegans, pescatarians, etc. You might be kosher, gluten-free or lactose intolerant.
Lesser known forms include lacto-vegetarians, who are vegetarians who eat dairy products such as milk and cheese, but no eggs. Or those on the macrobiotic diet, which includes only unprocessed, unrefined foods, and generally no animal products. And, of course, the semi-vegetarian or flexitarian, who eats meat but not that much of it (do we really need a name for this?).
I never got too fancy with what I categorized myself as; I was a vegetarian, which means I didn’t eat meat, poultry or fish. I did have other animal products like dairy, and I am guilty of owning some leather products, but never fur (that’s another conversation).
I was often asked why I chose to give up meat, including the holy grail of food (aka bacon), as well as the ambit of other meat dishes. I had many reasons: One was to cut unhealthy foods out of my diet to prevent long-term health implications; maybe to fit into those size two jeans and to avoid the toxic additives and bacteria that have been found in meat.
My greatest reason for being a vegetarian, however, was my feeling about animal welfare and the factory farming industry. Whether or not you’ve clenched your teeth and forced yourself to watch the PETA factory farming video, most of us have a clue that the massive amount of inexpensive meat products that are sold in this country are not the result from happy animals living on Old McDonald’s farm.
Rather, factory farms, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), produce the majority of meat products in this country. Sadly, these operations are focused on volume and profit with complete disregard for animal welfare, human health, the rural economy and safe food.
I could write 10 volumes on the list of offenses factory farms have committed and continue to commit, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll limit it to the following examples regarding the basics: chickens, pigs and cows.
Most of the animals on factory farms are kept in cages in windowless warehouses without the ability to roam freely or go outside. More than 95 percent of egg-laying chickens are kept in small battery cages where they are prone to infection and have broken bones.
Their beaks are clipped without anesthetic so as to prevent pecking. Chickens raised for meat are kept on shed floors, which are often covered in their own waste. They are also given hormones to make them grow unnaturally quickly.
Pigs are known to be as smart as dogs with a full range of emotions and social needs, yet they are kept indoors in crates without free range of movement. They suffer from chronic frustration due to lack of mental stimuli leading them to chew their cage bars obsessively and bite off each other’s tails.
Female pigs are kept in gestation crates for their nearly four month-long pregnancies. These crates are so narrow and small that the pigs cannot move or turn around for the entirety of that time (just imagine putting a pregnant woman in a cage she couldn’t turn around in for nine months).
Cows have a natural diet of grass, however, they are often given corn or grain-based feed instead because it is cheaper, despite the fact that it can cause them severe digestive disorders.
The males are branded and castrated, and many of them have their horns or tails removed without the use of painkillers. Female dairy cows are given hormones to increase milk production, which can cause their udders to swell and increases their chance of infection. Dairy cows are separated from their babies as soon as the calves are born so their milk can be used for human consumption.
Knowing these facts makes me want to stay away from meat forever, but I also know that the meat I eat today has nothing to do with the practices of the factory farming industry.
My decision to start eating meat and poultry again happened a few months ago. I did this gradually and based on different factors. One reason might have been because I was in a new relationship and being out with my boyfriend and watching him eat meat on a constant basis made me want to join in.
It also may have been because I felt happy and more carefree, but that’s just a guess. The biggest reason was because I realized that it wasn't the fact that animals are killed for consumption that I had the real problem with, it was the manner in which they lived before they were killed.
I also saw that there was an industry starting to cater to the needs of people who care about how the animals they ate were treated during their lives, and that their food isn’t pumped full of antibiotics and hormones.
This small but growing wholesome food industry seemed to need support, especially since they were facing a minority movement among the massive factory farm industry. I found restaurants like Bareburger, which specifically serves organic, all-natural meats from pasture-raised animals, without pesticides or GMOs. I also found brands like Green Valley Organics, Eggology and Holy Cow Grass-Fed Beef, which makes dairy, egg and meat products that are Certified Humane.
Seeing labels on products or in restaurants is definitely a good start, but it’s important to know what these labels mean. For example, the term “pasture-raised” was created by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), though it does not have a federally recognized definition.
It generally means that the animals used were able to graze in the pastures during their life. However, the fact that the animal lived outdoors in the pasture does not mean it was exclusively fed its natural diet of grass rather than corn or grains. It also does not mean the animal wasn’t given hormones or antibiotics.
Likewise, the term “grass-fed” is defined by the USDA as:
Animals that receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life, while organic animals’ pasture diet may be supplemented with grain. Also USDA regulated, the grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides.
As these definitions indicate, the fact that one label applies does not mean other criteria were met as well.
You may see the term “cage-free” on your eggs container. This indicates that the chicken was not kept in a cage, though it does not necessarily indicate that the chicken was given sufficient room or was allowed outdoors.
On the other hand, “free-range” hens are supposedly given access to the outdoors, though they are often kept the buildings that are structured so that they’re unlikely to go outside. Labels that were not created by the USDA include “Humanely Raised,” “Animal Welfare Approved” and “Animal Humane Certified.”
The Certified Humane Animal Care (HFAC) organization is a nonprofit that inspects farms and producers to ensure their standards are met before they approve the products as “Certified Humane Raised and Handled.”
These standards include that the animal had ample space, shelter was subject to gentle handling, that it has access to fresh water and a healthy diet without added antibiotics or hormones, and that cages, crates or stalls were not used.
Animal welfare is only one part of the equation in making sure you’re getting good food that is free of pesticides and antibiotics. It’s important to make sure your food is “USDA Organic,” which means it contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients with no synthetic growth hormones or antibiotics.
In the case of meat products, this would mean that the animal was given organic feed. Some farmers feel that the cost of being certified USDA Organic, which is a government certification, is too expensive, and so they are “Certified Naturally Grown” instead, which means they use the same standards as organic farms.
“Non-GMO” indicates that the product was created without genetic engineering or modification. Meat products should also indicate that the animals were raised without antibiotics or hormones, such as the recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which is injected into dairy cows to make them produce more milk.
These hormones increase the chance of infections, which in turn leads to increased use of antibiotics to treat the cow with antibiotic-resistant bacterial residue left in the milk.
Considering all these labels when I’m out or at the grocery store isn’t easy and often isn’t cheap. Some people find this kind of concern pretentious or silly, but most people who are vegetarians or care about animal welfare are used to taking some heat for getting the veggie burger at the steakhouse or buying almond milk at the grocery store.
Hopefully, over time and with more information, more people will come to understand why it's important to be a conscious and compassionate consumer.
It also might seem easier to just avoid meat altogether, which is a perfectly fine alternative. But for me, right now, if there are organizations and local farms out there fighting to make meat eating a more compassionate and healthy process, then I want to put my dollars toward supporting those organizations.
If enough people begin supporting farms, food producers, retailers, distributors and restaurants that sell humanely-raised, all-natural products, maybe we could show the factory farm industry that they need to change their ways to earn us as customers.
Supporting humane and organic organizations can also get the attention of legislators and the USDA so they might begin to really take action toward regulating farm industry standards.
I stopped being a vegetarian because people should be able to eat animal products if it's done in the right way. Let’s do it the right way and support the good fight for animals and for ourselves.
You help by shopping at both Trader Joes and Whole Foods. Trader Joes offers grass-fed beef and lamb, cage-free eggs and pasture-raised, antibiotic free animal products.
Whole Foods monitors meat products and ensures that meat and poultry is sold without hormones or antibiotics, is never fed animal by-products and is raised by farmers who provide a safe, good environment for their animals.
There are many resources for places to find sustainable, humanely-raised meat products, but here are a few good places to start: Eat Well Guide, Humaneitarian, Sustainable Table, Certified Humane, Eat Wild, Nicolette Hahn Niman: Avoiding Factory Farm Foods: An Eater's Guide and The Carnivore's Dilemma.
Photo Courtesy: We Heart It