Know Thy Food: Eating “Glocally”
By Tania MacWilliam
*PDF of the original article (no longer accessible via website) can be found here.
Jan. 26, 2012
Chances are you’re not thinking about where the chicken comes from while nibbling on those sauce slathered wings. But you should, say animal cruelty activists.
A California chicken hatchery is facing a lawsuit for animal abuse, according to an article in the Huffington Post. Horrific video footage shows unwanted chicks being drowned in a bucket of waste and shoved down a disposal drain with a stick while still alive. This hatchery supplies chicks to various farms and the meat eventually ends up on a dinner plate.
If the humane treatment of livestock is something you consider when selecting your meat, you might want to get to know where it comes from.
Chef Damian Wills, of Wills & Co. Fine Food Market in Burlington, sources most of his products from local farmers.
“It’s actually quite difficult to source local and naturally raised [livestock],” he said. “They’re small farms and they don’t have the manpower and marketing knowledge to get their names out there.”
Wills does a lot of legwork by researching the web, attending events and networking. Most of his contacts are from word of mouth. For example, he may call up his pig supplier and ask for recommendations for a lamb farmer. His network builds with each connection he makes.
Not only is it important for Wills to know where his product comes from, he wants his patrons to know, too.
Meet your local farmers
Wills & Co.’s pork is supplied by the Boar & Chick, a family run farm located in the hamlet of Troy, Ont.
One Saturday, he brought the owners of the farm, husband and wife team Mark and Tania Veenstra, to dine at his restaurant. They sat among the diners who were served pork from their farm and in turn were available to answer questions.
“It was a real connection from farm to table,” said Wills.
By building a trusting relationship with those who supply your meat, you are able to discern the type of treatment their livestock receives. The Veenstras pride themselves on their transparent operation and frequently welcome visitors to their farm to see how it is run and the living conditions of their livestock.
“We try to put our animals in a position so they’re in their natural environment,” said Tania Veenstra.
The Veenstra’s farm is primarily a pig farm but they do keep sheep, cows and chickens for eggs.
“Our goal is to be more traditional,” she said. “Like how early settlers lived who needed to provide for themselves. They had mixed farms. They had pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, cattle.”
Chatting with hundreds of people at farmers’ markets gives the Veenstras a good idea of what people are looking for in their meat. They say their customers care about where their food comes from, and how it is being raised.
“I find that the trend towards organic is being replaced now by this idea of naturally raising things,” said Mark.
What seems to be the most important to them is that the animals are leading a comfortable existence, Tania says.
“That’s one thing that they like to hear, that we’ve got happy animals,” said Tania. “Our pigs have got space to run around. They’re not in a stressful environment. They’ve always got fresh food, fresh water, good bedding. They’re not overcrowded, for the most part,” said Tania. “In the winter you can’t help but have smaller conditions.”
The barn offers ample space for the pigs and sheep to buckle down for the winter, while the heartier cows and horses are free to brave all seasons outdoors. The chickens are housed in the upper portion of the barn, wandering freely in their enclosure. They will get to peck away outside with the rest of their barn mates once the weather warms up.
How the Boar & Chick operates is not typical of conventional farming practices. You can’t call up a factory farm and ask to see how stressful the animal’s environment is.
The Veenstras are confident that the care they give their livestock provides them with the least possible stress. This includes how the animals are fed.
“Not that we want to slag on conventional pork producers, the reality is that the market is demanding fast, cheap food,” said Mark. “So they really cork the feed to these animals to put the weight on fast enough. Those guys are three months from the day the pig is born to the day it goes to market.”
Unlike conventional farmers, Tania feeds the animals twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. This means it takes two to three times longer to grow their pigs.
“We’re 10 months, 11 months from farrow to finish,” said Mark.
Things to consider before you eat
The humane treatment of animals is not just for personal, ethical reasons. Wills believes that there is a direct connection between animal treatment and the quality of the product.
“The care and attention that the animals are treated with is what makes the product, itself, better,” he said.
Wills does not favour factory farming where living conditions are crowded and antibiotics are unnecessarily given to animals as blanket treatments.
“By having better living conditions to begin with, you don’t have to pretreat a non-sick animal with antibiotics,” he said. “In terms of [antibiotics] affecting the quality of the meat, you’ll never taste a difference. But you’re gonna taste the difference because of the way that they were raised.”
Wills is also concerned with how the growth hormones and antibiotics given to livestock affect consumers of the meat.
“We’re consuming meat that’s already tainted with antibiotic treatment,” he said. “The issue is that the antibiotics remain in the meat.”
“What is really happening to these poor animals?”
Consumers need to think about their health in a different way, Laurie Burrows, a holistic nutritionist and founder of Thyme To Thrive Holistic Nutrition, says. It’s not just about eating too much saturated fat; it’s about finding out what else might be in that cut of meat.
“When you’re constantly giving animals antibiotics because they are living in such poor quarters, we are now becoming antibiotic resistant,” said Burrows.
Burrows, who also works at the Institute for Hormonal Health in Oakville, says that we are taking in everything that goes through the animals and it can have an impact on us. Elevated levels of hormones, like estrogen, are seen in those who consume the meat of animals given growth hormones, she says.
“One of the main things we’re seeing is women especially, and men, coming in with massive hormonal imbalances,” she said. “So now we’ve got this resurgence of breast cancer and prostate cancer which are hormonal cancers and you have to wonder what is going on. It’s gotta be something we’re taking in.”
Then you add cortisol, a hormone released by animals that are being raised in a stressful environment and unethically slaughtered, to the cocktail of what we are ingesting, she says.
“Its about being responsible. What is really happening to these poor animals? Ethically it’s important, but even more-so, looking at what we’re putting in our body and how our body is reacting,” said Burrows.
With every bite we take we are trusting that farmers have treated these animals well, says Burrows.
“What I tell my clients, and I’m adamant about it, is if you’re going to eat meat you’ve got to turn to naturally raised meat,” she said.
“Yes, it’s more expensive, but we don’t eat meat every day so financially it works out perfectly fine. We alternate with fish, vegetarian dishes.
“For me it’s the choice between buying a Coach purse and feeding my family great food and not having to worry about what I’m putting into their bodies. It’s all about choices.”