This isn't meant to be a book review. But let me say a few words about Jonathan Safran Foer's newest book, Eating Animals. Entertaining. Disturbing. Motivating.
Mr. Foer knows how to entertain. His freshman book, Everything is Illuminated, humerously followed a young Jewish kid on a trip to the Ukraine to see the land of his ancestors. Foer won awards and landed a movie deal. HIs sophomore book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, explored a young child's learning to live without a father lost on 9/11/01. It was a touch less humorous and a notch more touching.
Eating Animals is something altogether different. Its not a novel, although he brings along his brainy, anecdote-filled writing style. Rather, this is factual look at the depraved and disturbing world of factory farms in the United States. His message is clear--if you think you're eating humanely produced meats in the United States, think again. According to Mr. Foer, up to 95-99% of meat raised in the United States now comes from factory farms, where animals are often raised in boxes and cages and butchered, sometimes while still alive. He includes just enough details to disturb even the most die-hard meat eater.
But as a call to action, Mr. Foer leaves readers a bit stranded. How do I seek out the 1-5% of farmers that are producing meat ethically? And how do I find them while living in Northern Manhattan. That's what this blog entry is about.
My first stop was the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency's website defines the terms of the meat industry, such as "fresh," "natural," "hormone-free," "organic", etc. Visit the agency's website at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/Meat_&_Poultry_Labeling_Terms/index.asp. Keep in mind that, from an ethics standpoint, these labels may have little meaning. For example, a "free-range" chicken may have access to a 10 foot by 10 foot yard that it shares with 10,000 other chickens. A hormone-free pig may live most of its life confined to a metal box. And the natural, grass-fed cattle may be brutally slaughtered at one of the industrial slaughterhouses that now dominate the agricultural sector of our economy. The agency's labels are mostly focused on protecting human health, not ensuring animal welfare.
My second step included visits to my local supermarkets, Frank's Market on 187th Street and Associated on Fort Washington Avenue. Most of the beef, chicken and pork products in each store contain the stores' labels only--no indication of free-range, hormone-free, etc. Both stores carry several brands of pre-packaged sausages with labels like "all natural" or "humanely raised," which sound nice but are not verifiable.
Frank's Market, however, carries a limited selection of fresh meats that carry the label "Certified Humane." This label intrigued me so I did a little further research.
"Certified Humane" seems to carry some real weight. It is a trademarked label of Humane Farm Animal Care Inc., a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) corporation dedicated to promoting the humane and ethical production of meat in the United States. Its board includes officials of the ASPCA and Humane Society. Farmers must comply with the corporation's standards for raising and slaughtering their livestock. The corporation's website is extremely useful and lists farmers that produce meat according to allegedly rigorous standards as well as restaurants that sell "Certified Humane" products.
At Frank's Market, I found Murray's chicken and Heartland Meadow's beef. Both products are "Certified Humane" and are listed at www.certifiedhumane.org. I purchased both products and they tasted great. Murray's chicken in particular had a genuine flavor that is completely absent in your average supermarket poultry (I'm eating it as I write this). I strongly recommend a visit to that website to identify the limited number of local farms that produce certified products.
My third and final stop was my local farmer's market, the Inwood Market that takes place on West 211th Street from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. There are a wide range of farmers at this market. Check out http://www.grownyc.org/inwoodgreenmarket for a listing of weekly vendors that come from around New York and New Jersey--even in the winter. The products on display at the market look great. But are they humanely produced? None of the farmers are listed at www.certifiedhumane.org.
Dipaola's Turkey Farm in New Jersey sells all kinds of tantalizing turkeys, turkey sausage and turkey chopped meat. The farmer's booth displays photographs depicting free-range turkeys roaming happily across the farm's six acres. The vendor assured me that the poultry is free-range.
New York Beef Company of Dutchess County has a wide array of steaks for sale. All beef is allegedly "100% grass fed," which suggests that the cattle spend a good deal of their lives grazing happily in the Hudson Valley. The vendor at the market told me the animals are slaughtered in Queens at one of New York City's few remaining local slaughterhouses. (The company also does mail order at www.newyorkbeef.com, although the online ordering system doesn't seem to work properly.)
The bottom line is that there are options for buying and eating humanely produced meats in Northern Manhattan, in particular given the close access we have to great farms in New Jersey and the Hudson Valley. The meat costs more, but the flavor and peace of mind are well worth the expense. My next stop will be local restaurants and I will continue to update this blog entry as I learn more about the issue.
-Chris Rizzo, email@example.com