Since my last post, I have moved across the country, started a new job, and had a baby. With all of that going on, perhaps it’s no surprise that I have yet to find a new farm from which to buy ethical, sustainably-raised meat. Instead, we’ve been relying on Whole Foods. Through their signs and labels, Whole Foods provides its customers with information about the farming and production practices involved with their meat and, supposedly, has a higher standard than most grocery stores. Up until now, I’ve been mostly taking it on faith, and the word of the employees at the meat counter, that buying meat at Whole Foods is a better choice for the animals, environment, and workers than shopping elsewhere. Now it’s time to dig a little deeper.
Animal welfare is one of my main concerns when it comes to meat. I’d like to think that the animals I eat have only one bad day. That’s far from the case in conventional meat production. Efficiency seems to be the hallmark of the conventional approach. Part of upping efficiency is increasing the number of animals that can be kept in any given operation and strictly controlling the environment in which the animals live.
Because chicken, pigs, and cows do not typically live indoors in highly-concentrated groups, conventional farmers have to take many extra measures to keep the animals alive until they make slaughter weight. For example, when chickens are kept in crowded pens, they peck at each other, which can lead to injury and reduce their value. The solution in conventional farming is to remove the beaks of the chickens. Similarly, when pigs are confined and crowded, they express their natural desire to chew on things by nipping at their neighbors’ tails. To discourage this behavior, farmers routinely cut off the pigs’ tails, leaving only a sensitive nub. That makes it much more painful to be chewed on, causing the pigs to fight back and dissuading the pigs from chewing on each other. The idea that causing animals more pain is a better solution that simply enabling animals to behave naturally highlights the unfortunate priorities of our food system.
Similar to the animals, our environment suffers from conventional farming practices both from the monoculture cropping systems that generate animal feed and the animal operations themselves. When animals are raised in more natural conditions, where they are able to express their natural behaviors, eat the foods they evolved to consume, and contribute to the farm ecosystem, the animals and the environment benefit. A wholly integrated farm is the ideal, but there are many ways in which the lives of farm animals can be improved and are worth supporting.
The Whole Story
Whole Foods uses a tiered rating system for its chicken, pork, and beef. The ratings actually come from the Global Animal Partnership (GAP), which evaluates farms based on long lists of animal-specific metrics. The ratings go from 1 to 5+, and they are color-coded from orange to yellow to green. Higher ratings represent farms that are more animal-centered, meaning that animals are more able to express their natural behaviors. In general, Steps 1 – 3 apply to farms that are more conventional in nature (i.e. animals in enclosed, controlled environments) with many enhancements for the well-being of the animals. Steps 4 – 5+ are for farms that are pasture-centered, meaning that the animals live mostly outdoors in more appropriate environments. All of the chicken, pork, and beef sold at Whole Foods has received at least a Step 1 rating.
Even farms with the lowest rating, Step 1, have taken significant steps to improve the welfare of their animals over conventional practice. Many common physical modifications, including tail docking (pigs) and debeaking (chickens), are not allowed even in Step 1 farms. By Step 5, no physical alterations are allowed.
Another major consideration when evaluating farms is the concentration of animals. Crowded pens and crammed cages are not allowed. At Step 1, all animals must be able to move about. Chickens must have enough space to flap their wings without touching one another, while pigs and cows must have enough space to exercise, lie down, and move freely. Cows must also spend at least 2/3 of their lives on pasture.
Antibiotics and growth hormones are also disallowed at any step, and animals can never be fed by-products of other animals. Antibiotics, particularly medications that are intended to cure diseases in humans, are frequently used in conventional animal production. In fact, their use is on the rise despite the FDA advising a ramp down. Such pervasive usage is leading to drug-resistant strains of diseases that we used to be able to treat with antibiotics. For more on this important topic, read these recent articles from Mother Jones and Scientific American. Because Whole Foods only carries GAP-rated chicken, pork, or beef, it all comes from animals raised without hormones or antibiotics.
There are many other factors that go into the ratings evaluation, which can be found on the Global Animal Partnership website as well as in pamphlets available at Whole Foods. Meat that carries a GAP rating is clearly better in terms of animal welfare than that found at most grocery stores. I definitely feel better about buying even a Step 1 product than buying conventional meat, but I would much prefer to buy Step 3 through 5+ meat whenever possible. At the Whole Foods where I shop, there are a lot of beef products with ratings of 4 and 5. Much of it comes from Eel River Ranch in California, a Step 4 organic* farm that raises cows on pasture. There is also Step 3 and 4 chicken from Mary’s Chickens. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen over the past few months, the selection of pig products is currently limited to Step 1. While we still purchase these products, we now eat a bit more chicken and beef than pork. Some packaged products at Whole Foods are also GAP-rated, including some deli meats from Applegate Farms, evol frozen meals, and Krave jerky. You can see the full list of GAP-rated products on their website.
Although we still plan to join a farm CSA for our meat, if one is available in our new hometown, it is still good to know that we can pick up meat from our local Whole Foods without abandoning our commitment to ethical animal products. Plus, we are using our food dollars to support the GAP ratings program, which promotes better industry practices, and to show Whole Foods that we value ethically-sourced meat and the information that enables us to identify it. All that adds up to a whole lot of piece of mind.
* - A farm’s designation as certified organic is not evaluated as part of the Global Animal Partnership rating system. They are complimentary but quite different sets of metrics.