A Closer Look At Animal‐Based Foods
To those who have hunger
And to those who have bread
Give the hunger for justice.
— Latin American meal blessing
You don’t need to be a sensitive animal lover to be moved by the gruesome violence inflicted on animals by typical farming operations. Even Julia Child, a staunch classical French chef, was moved to renounce veal when she was invited to a farm and saw the conditions firsthand. Most people would prefer to reduce animal suffering, including those of us who still choose to eat animal-based foods.
Reassuring But Misleading Meat and Dairy Labels
Many concerned omnivores intend to support animal welfare with their purchases, but would be surprised to learn about standard practices on most “humane” farms. Reassuring but misleading labels such as free-range, humane, cage-free, naturally raised, and even organic allow for conditions that are rarely better than on the average industrial factory farm.
For example, most cage-free chickens live their entire lives inside grossly overcrowded barns. The term free-range is not much better; the range can be as paltry as a gravel courtyard accessed by a small door that most of the birds can’t even reach through the sea of excrement and other chickens. Both labels allow painful beak cutting and forced molting through starvation. Organic labels require outdoor access, but the duration, quality, and amount is up to the farmers. There are no regulations for free-range cattle or pork. These, and organically raised cows, spend much of their lives in severely crowded feedlots, endure painful mutilations, and end their lives at the same high-volume slaughterhouses as conventional cows. These facilities are certainly not the pasture-grazing farms that compassionate consumers are hoping to support.
For the time being, pasture-raised, grass-fed, and grass-finished are more reliable labels for decent farm conditions. Grass-finished is important, because as the term grass-fed gains popularity, some farms are using it but finishing their cattle on GMO grains in factory farm feedlots. Certifications are helpful guides too. Animal Welfare Approved has the highest standards for humane practices, and Certified Humane is next best but does allow for beak cutting and indoor only farms. American Humane Certified is fairly misleading, allowing for more painful procedures and small cages opposed by nearly every major animal welfare group in the US. If you buy animal foods and want to make a difference with your purchasing power, do a little research so you can make your own choices about what is acceptable to you.
The term natural is one of the most misunderstood and misleading marketing claims on meat. It simply means that no artificial ingredients or preservatives are added, which is true for any fresh meat product. Naturally raised has a little more meaning, limiting hormones, antibiotics, and animal by-products in feed, but makes no mention of living conditions, so this often tricks well-meaning consumers into buying factory-farmed meat.
Truly Natural Animal-Based Foods
More humane farming conditions make for healthier animals, and healthier animal-based foods. Grass-fed and pasture-raised meat and eggs are leaner and contain more nutrients. The unnatural industrial diet of corn and grain — not to mention the unsanitary conditions of overcrowding — requires ongoing antibiotics to ward off disease. Conventional corn, soy, and alfalfa fed to most farm animals are virtually guaranteed to be genetically modified, which is proving harmful to animals and humans. The price of eating cheap, low-quality meat is just not worth it. More humanely and naturally raised animal foods do cost more, but we should eat them less often. In the long run, the health costs of cancers, diabetes, allergies, and other diseases will truly outweigh the grocery bill. The higher, fairer price of better farming conditions should compel us to eat fewer animal-based foods in the first place, which would be beneficial for most Americans’ health.
Grocery stores rarely sell truly pastured animal foods, but you can often find them at farmers’ markets, from the farms themselves or online. I still ask about their practices too, because even small farmers often cut beaks, horns, or tails, castrate, and apply third-degree burns for branding. These are painful procedures, all performed without anesthesia. The websites www.eatwild.com and www.localharvest.org can help you locate sources for sustainably grown animal foods.
Eggs and dairy products may be the cruelest of farming industries. What could be harmful about taking eggs, especially from a small, pasture-based farmer? To answer this, you must look back to where the chicks come from. Since egg-laying breeds are differentiated from meat chickens, male layer chicks are useless. Commercial hatcheries kill a quarter billion newborn males each year, and the standard practices are incredibly brutal. Farms of all sizes get their hens from these hatcheries, from the largest industrial operations to the smallest backyard farmers. Small, independent hatcheries do exist that sell the males to pasture farms for meat and do not painfully debeak the chicks, but they are rare. Some farmers still hatch their own chickens and raise the males for meat, but unfortunately a certain level of mistreatment is simply inherent to the production of animal-based foods, even despite the eventual slaughter.
Milk and cheese production also creates a surplus of male calves, which provide for the notoriously cruel veal industry. Even small farmers with only a few milking goats usually kill most newborn males, because they have no value. Female dairy animals don’t have it any better, living to adolescence so we can exploit their procreative capacity. Within hours or days, CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, i.e. factory farm) farmers remove calves from their mothers, who bellow and search for their calves after they are separated, just as any human animal would in the same situation. Their lives are spent perpetually pregnant or milking until they are sent to slaughter when they cannot reproduce and give milk anymore. Industry slang crassly refer to the devices used to impregnate cows as rape racks, likely giving a good impression of the experience.
Those motivated by compassion for animals will probably want to consider all of this when choosing their diet.
Follow Your Heart Wish Burgers
Yields 6–10 burgers
A wish granted for meat-free burgers. Make these from leftover beans and grains and serve them with all your favorite trimmings. Be sure to read through the entire recipe, including the notes at the end, to become familiar with the process.
Combine in a wide pan:
1 Tbsp oil
1 onion, diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 tsp salt
Cook over medium-low heat about 10 minutes, until onions begin to color. Add:
2–3 cloves garlic, minced
1–2 cups vegetables, chopped or grated (carrots, mushrooms, corn, peppers, etc.)
Continue to sauté until vegetables are cooked. Add:
1–2 tsp seasoning (cumin, chili or curry powder, Italian seasoning, etc.)
¼ cup fresh herbs
2–4 Tbsp water, wine, or juice
Deglaze the pan by adding some wine, chopped tomatoes, lemon juice or other acidic liquid to loosen the bits and juices from the bottom and cook a few more minutes until nearly dry again. Place in a bowl with:
1 cup cooked beans, mashed separately
1/2–1 cup nuts or seeds, toasted and ground
1/2–1 cup cooked grains, slightly ground in food processor
1/2–1 cup uncooked rolled oats, partially ground
Combine well with a spoon or spatula, using enough oats to make the batter sticky. Adjust salt to taste. Form patties with your hands and fry on the stovetop until browned on both sides, or coat in oil and bake in a 375° oven for 10–15 minutes each side.
Additional Wish Burger Notes
- You may chill the batter for 1–2 hours prior to cooking to make a firmer patty.
- For a crunchy coating, coat the burgers in cornmeal before cooking.
- Freely exchange quantities of beans, grains, nuts or seeds, and rolled oats. The oats and cooked grains particularly help bind the batter, but a decent burger can be made without them.
- The main purpose of rolled oats is to make the batter sticky, but often the grains are enough to achieve this. You may also use flour or breadcrumbs in place of the oats.
- Any beans, grains, nuts, and seeds can work. My favorites are chickpeas, lentils, millet, short grain brown rice, walnuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds.
- If you eat them, cheese or eggs may be added to help bind the batter.
Mielle Chénier-Cowan Rose has been a natural foods chef and advocate for natural living for over 15 years. Her latest book, Veganish: The Omnivore’s Guide to Plant-Based Cooking, was released in 2014. Visit www.pieceofmyheartkitchen.com.