How convenient is it to pick up a pack of hot dogs or on-sale cuts of steak at the supermarket? We kind of know it's not the best choice, but it's all to easy to push that niggling thought out of mind.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1970, the average American ate about 129 pounds of meat over the course of the year. After a relatively steady incline through the decades, meat consumption peaked in 2004, at over 145 pounds per capita per year. Interestingly though, in 2012, the number dropped, back down to 132 pounds.
This could be attributed to Americans’ growing awareness and concern over the state of the meat industry. Factory-farmed animals live with little dignity as they’re treated purely as commodities; they’re fed biologically inadequate diets, pumped with hormones and antibiotics, are kept in cramped and unnatural environments, and die gruesome, highly stressful deaths. Even knowing all of this, it’s still difficult for plenty of people in this country to make the leap to opt out of factory-raised meat. We get it—conventional protein seems like the most economical way to feed our families.
Anya Fernald has some insights to share on the subject. She is the co-founder of Belcampo Meat Co., a Northern California–based farm, processing plant, butcher shop, and restaurant, all in one. Belcampo's model that really takes farm-to-table to the next level.
Fernald's background prepared her well for this endeavor. As a child, she was raised above a Bavarian dairy barn. In college, she had a brief stint as a vegan. She has also worked with Sicilian cheese makers, Bolivian llama farmers, elderly vanilla growers in Madagascar, and the only indigenous people in Europe making dried reindeer meat. Basically, Fernald is well-versed in all types of sustainable food.
Now as a champion of grass-fed meat, she's poised to help revolutionize the meat industry. So we thought she'd be the perfect person to share her seasoned perspective on why those who still feel helpless in the face of factory farms should think long and hard about the meat they eat—and what they can do about it.
Why does sustainable meat matter?
The main issue we see [consumers] connecting with is a focus on health and wellness. Americans have truly begun to realize the negative impacts of cheap, industrialized meat production and its impact on the well-being of their families. Our customers are concerned about toxins and antibiotics in their food supply, about foods that can cause weight gain, heart disease, and more. They want to know where their food comes from and what is in it.
Can you explain the differences between what sustainable farmers provide and the product you get from factory farms?
The quality of meat—its flavor and nutritional content—are tied directly to what the animals eat. Factory-farmed, grain-fed meat has lower nutritional value and often contains more total fat, saturated fat, and calories than its grass-fed counterparts. At Belcampo, our cattle have been selected for their ability to thrive on a grass diet—producing a more nutrient-rich product that also tastes delicious. Grass-fed and grass-finished beef may taste slightly different than what most of us grew up eating, but it tends to be more flavorful, with less need for sauces or heavy seasonings. I also noticed that when I switched to eating grass-fed and finished beef, I never felt bloated, as I often did after eating grain-fed or grain-finished meat.
What do you mean by "grass-finished" and "grain-finished"?
Nearly all beef cattle in the U.S. are started on grass at the beginning of their life. After that, conventionally raised calves are moved to feedlots where they are fed a grain-based diet, and are often given high levels of hormones and antibiotics. Grass-finished cows continue to forage and eat grass for the remainder of their lives. Even 30 days on grain at the end of the life of a beef cow can completely alter the crucial ratio of omega-3s to omega 6s. It almost totally eliminates the significant health benefits of grass-fed beef.
So what are the health benefits of grass-fed meat?
Grass-fed and -finished beef tends to have higher concentrations of vitamins A and E, antioxidants such as carotenoids and conjugated linoleic acid (which has been shown to reduce body fat, improve the immune system, and prevent certain types of cancer), as well as fewer calories and total fat than their non-sustainable counterparts. Omega-3 fatty acid levels in grass-fed beef can be up to five times higher than in feedlot beef.
Any advice for people who really want to make the switch from factory-raised to grass-fed, but truly don't have the financial means to afford it?
Part of Belcampo’s vision is a return to the late-agricultural or pre-industrial approach to producing and consuming meat. Through the early part of the 1900s, people ate meat much more sparingly than we do today. And when they did, they purchased high-quality meat from their local butcher shop. The Industrial Revolution created an abundance of cheap meat through factory farming, and consumers began expecting to pay rock-bottom prices. However, these prices do not factor in the many external costs—such as environmental damages, health risks, etc.
Even as consumers begin to realize the value in paying more for sustainable meat, it often still remains a low percentage of their grocery budget. There needs to be a shift in the way we prioritize spending money.
Another focus of sustainable and responsible meat consumption is teaching [consumers] how to utilize the more overlooked cuts—from lamb shoulder to bavette steak to offals. These are often far less expensive than the filets and rib-eyes that Americans have become accustomed to and are just as, if not more, delicious. Most of these cuts should be available at your local butcher.
Not everyone has easy access to sustainable farms or even trusted butchers, but you can start by minimizing consumption of conventionally raised meats found in the supermarket and incorporating some high-quality, sustainable meat products that we offer here at Thrive Market. See if you notice a difference in your overall health and well-being, and it just might inspire you to make the full switch.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont