Monday, June 28, 2010

Piglet would approve.

On a recent trip to a nearby farmers market, I walked past a vendor selling a wide variety of pig products: spicy sausage, pork chops, and even bacon. Mmmm… bacon. Since I am so picky about my meat, and this particular market doesn’t select vendors based on sustainability or ethical farming practices, I just continued on in my quest to find the two or three organic produce stands I knew were there. I ended up doing a second lap around the market, though, and when I passed the meat stand again, I noticed that they were advertising a Slow Food movement BBQ at their ranch.

The Slow Food (SF) movement has two complementary goals. First, it aims to preserve traditional cuisines and the food diversity that has historically made up our diets. The benefit of tradition is that it represents time-tested knowledge about what foods and preparations are beneficial to our bodies, and diversity in our diets helps us get all of the nutrients we need. An outcome of our industrial system, in which convenience and consistency and efficiency are top priorities, is that much of what we consume is made from very few foods. The prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related illnesses in the US speaks to the unhealthy results of these priorities. The second focus of the Slow Food movement is the ecological impact of industrial versus traditional food systems. SF promotes obtaining food from sustainable and ethical sources and, overall, being an informed consumer. You can find much more information on SF’s mission and the actions it is taking to promote these ideas on their international website, For more local info, check out

In their own words, the philosophy of the Slow Food movement is as follows:

We believe that everyone has a fundamental right to pleasure and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that make this pleasure possible. Our movement is founded upon this concept of eco-gastronomy – a recognition of the strong connections between plate and planet.

Slow Food is good, clean and fair food. We believe that the food we eat should taste good; that it should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health; and that food producers should receive fair compensation for their work.

We consider ourselves co-producers, not consumers, because by being informed about how our food is produced and actively supporting those who produce it, we become a part of and a partner in the production process.

You can see why the mention of Slow Food piqued my interest! I wanted to go up and ask the guy behind the table about the ranch and the pigs, but I felt really nervous about it. I wasn’t sure what to ask or if he’d be offended by my questions or if I’d be able to tell from his answers whether the meat would really meet my standards. I mentally and physically wavered and probably looked like a total lunatic, but finally I came to the conclusion that I am just going to have to start asking if I want to continue eating meat!

I really didn’t know what to say, so I walked up and (rather embarrassingly) said “So, tell me about your pigs”. Luckily, the guy was friendly and seemed to know what I meant. He told me about the ranch, Llano Seco, which he happens to own and operate, and his viewpoint on animal and ecological welfare. He also gave me a brochure with pictures and information. It sounded like the pigs do get to root around and basically act like pigs. They are fed vegetarian diets and do not receive antibiotics or hormones. Also, the pork has certifications from USDA Organic and California Certified Organic Farmers (the company that processes the pork into sausages and the like is also CCOF certified). His description of the farm and his farming practices convinced me to take the risk and buy some sausage and a couple of pork loins.

When I got home, I went online to Llano Seco’s website, where I found pictures and even video of the farm and the pigs. They looked pretty happy to me! I also found, in writing, that the pigs do not have their tails chopped off. Hurray! In addition, the company to which the pigs are sold is Certified Humane*, a standard set by the non-profit organization Humane Farm Animal Care. From start to finish, it seems, these pigs are treated humanely and allowed to participate in their natural pig behaviors.

Now of course it is possible that, with all of the different certifications and standards and clever descriptions available to food producers and sellers, that I have merely been tricked. But without actually visiting every farm I want to purchase food from, I have to at some point trust my instincts and my ability to investigate and differentiate the good guys from the decepticons. It’s probably clear from the above description, that I now consider Llano Seco to be one of the good guys. And their spicy sausage is fantastic! Llano Seco products can be purchased online (processed products only), at a few farmers markets, and at several grocery stores in the Bay Area (including Andronico’s and Berkeley Bowl), Northern California, the Central Valley, and even Oregon.

More important than finding an additional source of ethical meat (Still love ya, Marin Sun Farms!), my experience with Llano Seco renewed my confidence and my determination to continue to question and investigate the sources of my food. The first step can be uncomfortable, but it’s worth it to know that I am doing the right thing. Getting to enjoy a tasty, guilt-free BLT helps too!

* - I’ve seen the Certified Humane logo a few times now so I checked it out. The certification requires much better treatment of animals than conventional methods and in most cases more stringent standards than USDA organic. They also evaluate the treatment of the animals from birth to death. However, according to their fact sheets, the Certified Humane program still allows some things I find strange such as sending cattle to (small) feedlots. Perhaps there are additional specifications for treatment on feedlots, but I didn’t find that info on their website. On my rather arbitrary scale, I would give this certification system a B+. Interestingly, they list another certification program, Animal Welfare Approved, in their comparison grid that seems to have stricter standards. I will check this out and get back to you!