In September 2013, I made a big lifestyle change: I went paleo. It started as a personal 30 day experiment motivated by the desire to conquer some lingering health issues. I was so impressed with how I looked and felt at month’s end, I stuck with it. I’m no paleo perfectionist, but here we are eight months later, and still going strong.
In some circles, paleo is a controversial diet. Personally I hate the name and the ‘caveman’ references it conjures up. Despite what you may have heard, paleo eaters are not obsessed with meat. In fact, vegetables make up a bigger portion of my diet than ever before. Still, animal protein is a central tenant (though it is possible to be a vegetarian paleo), which, in today’s food system, means making some tough choices.
(At this point let me clarify that the purpose of this post isn’t to convince anyone to be paleo or even to eat meat. I believe that we are each different, with different nutritional needs that guide our dietary choices. I have nothing but respect for vegetarians and vegans. I understand the ethical and environmental arguments made by both camps. At the same time, I acknowledge that some of us will never shake our omnivorous nature. And some just don’t want to. This post is for those who eat meat, but would like to do so in an ethical manner.)
One thing that many people (myself included) don’t realize is the importance modern paleo eating places on sourcing high quality animal products. A major part of the diet is giving up foods full of additives, artificial/refined ingredients, and chemicals, which also means giving up animals who are fed these things.
Ask any paleo expert and they’ll tell you that a huge portion of the “conventional” meat in grocery stores is off limits. Even though I was an omnivore before going paleo, the diet has helped me to drastically re-evaluate my animal protein choices. I’m much more selective about the brands and labels I trust, which pushes me toward the most ethical choices in any situation.
My 3 Questions: Where was it raised/kept? What was it fed? How was it slaughtered?
Led by those questions, I’ve created a type of hierarchy when shopping. Here it is along with some ideas for those who want to buy high-quality meat from companies with ethical standards that actually mean something.
1. Local and Pastured/Pasture-Raised
Knowing the farm (and the farmer) is always best. When your meat is local, there’s no guess work. You see where the animals are kept, what they’re fed, and where they’re slaughtered for yourself. Supporting local farmers is good for the environment and the economy, not to mention that it’s often cheaper because you can buy in bulk directly from the producer. Not sure if there’s a local option near you? Search www.eatwild.com for information about pasture-based farming and a state-by-state directory of local farmers who sell directly to consumers.
2. Online and Pastured/Pasture-Raised
Unlike the term “free-range” which rarely means what you think it does, pastured or pasture-raised is meat that has been raised outdoors on actively managed pasture (grass) using the techniques of rotational grazing on nutrient dense forage crops. This means concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) and gestational crates are out of the question. Since this type of meat is hard to come by in conventional grocery stores, retailers willing to ship pastured products have become popular. See US Wellness Meats, Grow and Behold, Burgundy Pasture Beef, Good Earth Farms and many more.
These animals eat only organic feed (by definition, organic feed, even when mostly grain, is non-GMO and not sprayed with chemical pesticides or herbicides unless they are on the OMRI ‘acceptable substance’ list). Organic animals are not given hormones or antibiotics for any purpose. These animals must also have “access to the outdoors, including access to pasture for ruminants.” However this doesn’t always mean green fields in which to romp and forage. “More often than not it means a door on the side of a barn. While it may be open, animals may never be encouraged to use it,” explains Grow and Behold. Also keep in mind that some organic meat is finished in feedlots. Again local is best so start with your farmers market or food co-op. After that, consider Applegate Farms, Organic Prairie, or other brands with well-documented ethical standards.
This label is regulated by the USDA and means animals eat only forage grasses after they are weaned. Ideally it’s also combined with an organic label, but not always. Grass-fed animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. However, as we’ve seen with the term free-range, “access to pasture” can be a subjective term. In some cases, grass-fed animals can still have precious little exposure to fresh air or room to roam, especially when they’re “finished” on grain in feedlots.
Are you a meat eater? What criteria do you use to make healthy, ethical choices? Share your thoughts and ideas in a comment.
Image via booleansplit