As purchasers we depend on labelling and signage to tell us all about a product: nutritional information, its provenance, where it may have been made.
We rely on regulatory frameworks to protect all participants: from the land and animals involved, to us at the end who eat the product. But what about those items which don’t come in a packet as such? Sliced, diced and then cling film wrapped or purchased loose, often the only hint we have is the country or state in which your morsel has been grown. And this is only a recent development.
In all cases, what indication do we have of the processes the raw materials underwent before getting into your pantry? We have so much literature available on the US methods of farming, their corn based agriculture, and their factory farms. I’m sure Australia does have a lot in common with the US in the way we farm, but there is just not much readily available information out there. And I really want to know the impact of what I eat, and how I can make a difference for the planet, the farmer, and their animals and plants.
It’s no use tarring all in an industry with the same brush as this doesn’t lead to change or the creation of an ethical market where a consumer can trust a product to have certain qualities.
So, I thought I had better have a chat to some farmers about how they produce their vegies or tend their livestock to find out more. I sat down with owner of a butchery to discuss farming generally, and how his business works. The dentists have Rob the Dentist, so think of my farmer person as Rob the Farmer.
Nothing goes to waste
I wondered about how much of an animal goes to waste after slaughter. In the supermarket we see shelves and shelves of prime cuts, free from fat and skin and organ meat. There are no bones here. I wondered just how much of an animal went to waste and what a terrible waste that might be.
I’m told that for the business I have asked about all leftovers which does not get processed for human consumption goes to local pet meat makers, such as VIP.
I also wondered if the Paleo movement, with its focus on eating organ meat and bone broth, had seen a spike in demand for either of those items: there has been no spike there for this business.
This doesn’t mean that all of the animal gets eaten: 20% of what Australians purchase to eat ends up wasted. Whatever business owners do to minimise waste, it’s up to us after we buy it to ensure it is used.
Animals in Australia are, by and large, pastured on grass.
We read in all the health magazines that grass fed animals are better for us as the omega fat balance is so much better. This is true: those fed on corn or grains do not have an optimal balance of omega 3 to omega 6 fats, whereas grass fed animals have this fat balance in proportion. For we who eat these animals, there is a negative effect for our health when we eat products that do not have this omega fat ratio in good balance.
An animal pastured on grass is eating what it has evolved to eat, and is healthier in itself. Animals fed grain will be fattier. This is sometimes the point, as for Wagyu beef where a fatty marbled flesh is the desired end result. Animals fed grass will be leaner as their fat proportions are more healthy. We also need to consider the greater resources required to first grow grain to feed it to animals rather than pasture on grass.
I’m told that food animals in Australia are largely fed on grass. I mean, think about it. You go for a drive through the country and everywhere you’ll see sheep and cows eating grass in big paddocks. This is not to say that we don’t have factory type farms in Australia or that our livestock is never fed grain. During drought, for example, no grass means that grain may be fed to livestock.
We do also need to consider which animals in particular we are talking about. Sheep and cattle are supposed to eat grass whereas a pig is supposed to have a much more varied diet, including grains and vegetables. Sometimes even meat.
Farmers pushed to cheaper production because of demand
We eat significantly more meat today than ever before. The amount of meat eaten by each person in a year has leapt from around 22kg in 1961 to 40kg in 2007. The norm was roast on a Sunday, leftovers, then meatloaf, then broth made from the bones. This is not the case today.
Margins for farmers are pretty slim. There is so much pressure to move to lower cost production models because the return is that little bit better. Creating a premium product is one thing, but there needs to be a market for that product. It’s a rare person in this world produces anything at cost for sheer pleasure.
We as consumers have the privilege of creating more ethical markets by demanding products that are ethical. This may mean that we need to do the work to find those products and their producer, look behind labels, and pay a little more. That’s an investment I am willing to make.
One label you may have seen on your meat is the MSA sticker The MSA involves the whole supply chain to ensure consumer expectations are met. These qualities will be compromised by overcrowding or stressful slaughter. An animal welfare benefit that comes out of these measurements that they are treated more humanely in life and in death.
For example, the costs for hiring a truck for the transport of animals to slaughter is quite high and there is therefore a financial incentive to put more animals on the truck to decrease the cost per head. But because the price achieved for MSA certified meat is that bit better, such crowding is disincentivised. Whilst the MSA sticker is primarily an indicator of quality of meat by certifying a range of practices, is can be viewed as a de facto certification of a more ethical treatment of food animals.
But then: the farmer is the most important indicator of quality
Despite the labels and regulation available, the best thing we can do is get to know who grows and raises our food for us. Certifications can be prohibitively expensive some operators, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that their product is inferior or that a certified product is superior.
If you get to know your farmer and find one whose values and production resonates with what you value, then you can help to grow their business and they can supply you with food you can have confidence in. A shorter and accountable supply chain can benefit everyone.