When I first learned about CAFOs, my gut reaction was to revert to my vegetarian ways. Heck, I was close to going vegan which is saying a lot given that I could exist on cheese alone and be completely content. Still, I firmly believe that in our consumer-driven society how I spend my money speaks louder than how I cast my vote and I didn’t want to contribute financially to companies who place profits above the health of their customers, the quality of their product, and the well-being of the environment. Thankfully, veganism wasn’t necessary. What a relief!
Organic animal products are definitely a decent alternative to conventionally produced items, though they are not without issue. I’m going to focus on organic beef production, but the general principles apply across the board to organic animal products.
There are several key differences between conventional and organic practices when it comes to beef. Organic beef cows cannot be given any antibiotics or hormones. This is generally a good thing given the abuse of antibiotics in conventional husbandry, but it may be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Animals are living beings. They get sick, just like people do. You wouldn’t give a child penicillin on a daily basis out of fear that they might one day get sick, but you also wouldn’t refuse to give them medicine if they genuinely needed it. Organic standards somewhat unfairly tie the hands of farmers when it comes to treating sick animals.
The problem, of course, is regulation. Who decides when it’s OK to treat an animal? What qualifies as “sick?” How much medicine is too much? How many animals do you treat? Should you just treat the sick animal? What about the animals in the pens and stalls around it? It gets murky, so the organic standard take the “better safe than sorry” approach when it comes to medications, prohibiting any and all. While I don’t think it’s necessary, I certainly think it’s better than the conventional alternative of over medicating.
The next big difference is in feed. If you want your meat to be organic, you have to feed your cows organic food. Makes sense. However, the USDA doesn’t specify what kind of food they eat. Cows are herbivores which means they eat grass. They have an organ called a rumen, a kind of pre-stomach, which allows them to digest cellulose. Millions of friendly microbes thrive in the rumen and they do the grunt work of breaking down the cellulose so the cow can absorb the nutrients (symbiosis at its best).
Cows are not evolved to digest grains which have an acidifying effect on the body. This disrupts the pH in the cows’ rumen and kills off all those good microbes and leaves the cow with constant acid reflux. The altered pH also fosters an environment that is friendly to e. Coli and other unsavory bacteria. That is also why CAFOs are so big on antibiotics. By feeding cows grains, they’re creating an internal environment where in bacteria thrive.
Unfortunately, it is cheaper and easier to feed cows grains (i.e. corn) than it is to feed them grass and hay. Cows grow faster and fatter when they eat grain and the final meat product has better marbling which is one of the key factors in evaluating beef quality. It was feedlots who started the practice of feeding cows grain to get them to slaughter weight quickly and those companies then pushed for the marbling standards that favored the meat produced by grain-fed cows. (It was also feedlots who started the practice of feeding left-over cow parts to cows as a way to cheaply increase the protein in their feed. Just as cows are not evolved to eat grains, they are not cannibals by nature. This brilliant scheme brought us Mad Cow Disease.)
Anyways, organic cows must be grazed on pastures for “for the entirety of the grazing season in the region where they are raised” which is standardized to 120 days. For four months, cows must at least have access to grass. For the remaining eight months, cows may be confined to feedlots (though not in the concentrations you’d find in a CAFO) where they may be fed organic grains. While the are in feedlots, cows must have access to an outside area, though what that looks like is left vague.
The same short-coming befalls free-range chickens:
“USDA standards require that producers of “free-range” chicken “demonstrate that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside” during raising. However, free-range regulations do not enumerate a given amount of daily time during which the chickens must be “allowed access” to the outdoors, or the size of the outdoor space they may roam.“
If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll ask you for some milk, right? Farmers are in the business of raising food, but they are also in the business of making money. That isn’t to say that organic farmers are all out to cut corners because they aren’t.
But there are farmers who want the USDA Organic sticker for the status is conveys to their product, not because they believe in the principles behind the organic movement. These farmers do the absolute bare minimum required of them in order to get certified.
Then again, who among us hasn’t done that at some point or another? I could rattle off a whole list of required classes where I invested the smallest effort required to keep my GPA at an acceptable level. That’s why standards and regulations are important.
Being an informed and aware consumer is equally important. Organic is more expensive so when I started buying organic products, I wanted to know that my money was being well spent on products that lived up to my definition of organic, not the government’s. The best way to ensure your eggs, meat & dairy products come from humanely raised animals is to buy them locally. Visit the farm. Talk to the farmer. Meet the animals. If you can’t get out to a farm, find a farmers’ market. Ask questions. Hold producers accountable.
Wyebrook has an open-door policy and actually encourages customers to come visit. They sell their meet on-site and not in stores and farmers’ markets. That’s why they have a café in the summer and host monthly dinners. It’s all about engaging the consumer. They want people to come see what they are paying for when they buy Wyebrook meat.
I’ll leave you with these happy cows who are out enjoying some fresh grass, just as they were designed to do.