If you’re into healthy foods, chances are you’re looking for (or have found) a source of high-quality meat. If not, you should! What is high quality meat? Where do you find it? And why does it really matter?
First, if you haven’t seen the movie Food, Inc., you simply must. There’s so much information in it that I can’t and won’t repeat here that you need to know. The meat that is produced in large farming operations and sold in regular grocery stores is not the same as meat from small farms or found in health food stores. However, even in some health food stores you have to be careful, because you may not fully know your source.
What is healthy meat?
- Fed its natural diet, not supplemented with GMO grains or bakery waste
- Not fed animal by products
- Allowed free access to the outdoors, spending most of its time outside
- Not supplemented with hormones or antibiotics
- Slaughtered humanely at the appropriate time
- Not processed by dipping in chlorine or other chemicals
- Does not contain nitrites or nitrates or any “mechanically separated” meat
Meat found in regular grocery stores breaks all of these rules. Those animals are packed into massive barns with very little room to move. They’re called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. They are fed primarily grain (corn and soy), and most of it is GMO. They’re also fed animal by-products (chickens are fed dead chicken parts…), bakery waste (old cookies, cakes, even corn chips and gum).
In addition, they are loaded up on hormones to grow faster and antibiotics because this environment makes them sick. Once slaughtered they’re washed in chlorine or ammonia to kill bacteria. Some processed meat products contain “mechanically separated” meat and nitrites and other chemicals to “cure” it.
Do you want to eat that?
I don’t. Because whatever that animal consumed is what it is made of. Those chemicals — including the antibiotics and hormones — will make it into the meat you are consuming, and thus make it into your body. (It’s also in the cow’s milk from the stores.) It’s one of the reasons scientists think that children are entering puberty so young — the onslaught of extra hormones.
How do you find high-quality meat?
Most meat at health food stores is pretty good. I say that because if it’s not certified organic, it could still contain some antibiotics or hormones, though it’s a lot less likely. Even if it is certified organic, they are only required to have the animals out on pasture about 30% of the time, and they can supplement the animals’ diets with corn and soy (non-GMO). Grass-fed beef may have been “mostly grass-fed” but finished on grain to get fat quickly for slaughter. It’s not ideal, but it’s several steps better. You can read more about organic standards in this post.
The best source is a farmer’s market or directly from a farm, where you can talk to the person who raises your meat. It doesn’t need to be certified organic if you get satisfactory answers to your questions. Find a farm near you by searching Eat Wild.
Here is what to ask:
- Do you use antibiotics with your animals? (Best answer — never. Good answer — yes, if needed, but they don’t make it to slaughter until at least 6 weeks after the last dose. Bad answer — yes.)
- Do you use hormones in your animals? (Best answer — never. Bad answer — yes.)
- What do you feed your cows? (Best answer — grass only, with hay or alfalfa in the winter. Good answer — mostly grass, with the occasional non-GMO grain. Bad answer — mostly grain, lots of it non-organic and GMO, bakery waste.)
- What do you feed your chickens? (Best answer — worms and bugs, non-GMO grain. Good answer — Mostly non-GMO grain. Bad answer — Only grain, mostly GMO, and chicken by-products.)
- Do your animals have access to the outdoors? (Best answer — All the time, except in inclement weather. Good answer — yes, most days, at least for a few hours. Bad answer — No, they mostly stay inside/are in cages.)
- Do your finished meats go through ammonia processing or other chemicals baths? (Best answer — no, never, they don’t need it. Bad answer — yes, it’s necessary for safety.)
- Do your meats contain nitrates or nitrites? (Best answer — no, none of them. Good answer — only bacon/smoked meats, but you can request them without. Bad answer — yes, they are necessary.)
- Can I have a tour of your farm? (Best answer — yes, of course. Good answer — yes, but you’ll need to make an appointment. Bad answer — no.)
When asking questions, really listen to the farmer’s answers. Most farmers who follow organic methods are very proud, and will be willing to answer any and all questions you may have, show you their operations, and discuss in details exactly what they do and why. They should be more than willing to take you on a tour. Many even like to receive feedback from you, like for new products you want them to carry (like chicken feet or lard), farm pick up options, etc.
If the farmer does not want to answer questions, or gets defensive about conventional practices, do not do business with them. I once emailed a farm to ask if they sprayed their crops — and got back an answer that not only did they, but that spraying was “absolutely necessary” and all these organic farms out there are ruining everything. I refused to give them my business even if they were local. Any farmer who gets so defensive about a simple question should be avoided, because they probably have something to hide, and are definitely using conventional practices.
Taste and Cooking
Be aware, the taste of good meat is different than store-bought meat, and it does cook differently, too. It’s not going to be exactly the same every time, either. With commercial meats, especially ground meats, bits from many different animals from all over the country are mixed all together to create a homogenous, graded meat that is the same every time (fat content, taste, etc.) That’s really dangerous if one of the animals happens to be contaminated because a ton of the meat all over the country can be affected. But with small farm buying, typically you are getting meat from just one animal at once, and the meat can vary based on the animal’s breed, size, age, etc.
Grass-fed meat also tastes more “gamey” (some say) than corn-fed meat does. It is definitely different. But most find it preferable. It is usually naturally lower in fat, so it needs gentler cooking methods. Stanley Fishman has written an excellent book all about how to cook grass-fed meat, which is a very good starting place. He also has a blog (linked above). Read it before you cook with any nicer cuts, like steaks, because they are easy to ruin! (I haven’t tried yet, honestly, I’ve only prepared ground beef or roasts, but I’ve talked to several bloggers who have ruined meat.) In general, the less you cook the meat, the better. Rare meat is completely safe when you know your source! Even raw meat is safe (though, I’m told, an acquired taste).