March 6, 2011

common misconceptions

Broilers on pasture - Summer, 2008

This has been on my mind a lot lately. There are so many buzzwords in the food world today and unless you do your homework, it's all just a recipe for confusion. It's a common misconception that just because chicken or eggs are 'free-range' or 'organic', it's healthy and humanely-raised. I hope that for the few souls who stop by this space, I can help to clear a few things up.

I have learned a lot about alternative medicine in the last 9 years and while I'm not here to preach, I can tell you, without any doubt in my mind, that food is medicine. Simply put, you are what you eat. Our food system is spiraling out of control, as is the health of Americans. You can no longer purchase food from the grocery store and assume it's safe to eat. You have to be educated, you have to read labels and you have to be aware. If you do your research about the health effects of high fructose corn syrup and still choose to feed it to your family, that's more than fair. You would be making an educated decision and I can respect that.

Our government is making it harder and harder for small farms like us to offer you healthier choices. The rules and regulations are becoming stricter and stricter for us and soon, a day may come when it's no longer legal. You're going to have to put forth more of an effort to seek out healthy food. You may have to go further than farmers markets and be willing to make a trip out to the farm. Know your farmer, look around, ask questions. Ask what the animals eat and how your meat is processed or better yet, ask if you can observe.

It's worth the effort.

Aside from the benefits to your health, each time you support a local farmer, you're opting out of the industrial food system. You're making it known that you don't agree with that system and aren't going to support it.

Pastured or Pasture-Raised means the animals are raised outdoors on grass. The poultry eat the grass and scratch for bugs while fertilizing with their manure. Cattle and other ruminants can (and should) live on grass alone and would be considered 'grass-fed' but poultry need to have their diet supplemented with some grain. It's the grass consumption that makes for such an exceptional, nutrient-dense product. Pasture-raised meat, milk and eggs are lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and higher in Omega-3's, cancer-fighting CLA, and many other vitamins and minerals.

This is a good definition found here: "Pasture-raised animals roam freely in their natural environment where they're able to eat nutritious grasses and other plants that their bodies are adapted to digest." Farmers do this several different ways; using field shelters, portable coops, portable fencing, livestock guardian dogs, etc. Portable is key here. The idea is to keep the birds moving along, as they would in nature. They get the freshest grass this way and their manure is spread evenly over the farm. This is our fertilization program. On our farm, the egg layers sleep in an eggmobile at night and free-range during the day within a temporary fence to protect them from predators. The eggmobile and fencing is moved every 1-3 days to a new spot. Our turkeys are raised a lot like the layers and our broilers (meat chickens) live in bottomless field shelters that are moved several times daily to fresh grass. Our poultry feed consists of organic grains, vitamins and minerals. While the vegetables we grow here are certified organic, the poultry is not (yet) so we can't call our chicken, turkey or eggs organic . . . even though they are. To do that we have to pay to have a certifying organization come out, inspect our system, look at our feed ingredients and check the certifying paperwork that goes with the grain we purchase just to be able to say it's organic.

Organic means poultry are fed grains that have been grown without the use of chemicals, have not been genetically modified (GMO) and that no antibiotics or hormones are administered to the animals. The animals may not necessarily live in individual cages and they're required have 'access' to the outdoors. This may simply be a window or a door to a small run that may not be open all day. Most likely, there is no grass involved. The birds can still be raised in inhumane conditions shoulder to shoulder in their manure.

Free-Range/Cage-Free means pretty much the same thing as organic as far as housing, but DOES allow the use of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and genetically modified grains.

Conventional applies to all meat and eggs you'd find in the grocery store, unless otherwise specified. Poultry are raised in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) either in confinement cages (egg layers) or shoulder to shoulder on the floor (broilers and turkeys), in their manure in large buildings. These buildings often house anywhere from 20,000-100,000 birds each. The use of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and genetically modified grains are standard practice. In many cases the birds are fed arsenic to stimulate their appetites and the lights are purposely left on 24 hours a day to encourage them to eat more. Medications are then necessary to keep birds alive in these unhealthy and unnatural conditions. Birds are often de-beaked to discourage cannibalism which occurs when animals are kept in confinement. The arsenic, medication, hormones, antibiotics and pesticides that the animal ingests makes its way into the meat and eggs that are consumed. I wont go into the fact that the mistreatment of the animals also makes it's way into the food. That, of course, depends on your beliefs.

I would encourage you to learn more about factory farming and CAFOs, just google it.

When it comes to buying eggs from a grocery store, rumor has it that eggs are often at least a month old before they make it to the store shelves and that they re-box and change the dates on the eggs that haven't yet sold. If you want to check the freshness of an egg here's a trick: Fill a large bowl with water and place the egg in the water. If it sinks and lies horizontal, it's fresh. If it sinks somewhat but seems vertical, with one end floating up, it's old but may still be edible. If it floats, it's definitely old and should not be eaten. If you've never tasted a fresh, pasture-raised egg, you honestly don't know what you're missing.

I wont even begin to get into the processing of the meat(in this post!) but I will say that even certified organic chicken can go through chlorine baths before packaging. I'll bet you're dying to know why . . . and I'll tell you next time.

Read more about the benefits of pasture-raised here and also find local producers near you:

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