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SPOTLESS MAMA: Spotless meat

by Anne on December 1st, 2011

The production and consumption of factory-farmed meat is an issue we should all take seriously. Intensively farmed meat is detrimental to:

  • our health
  • the environment
  • the livelihoods of small farmers
  • the lives of farmed animals

Cheap meat does in fact have a hefty price tag, one we are paying for in our deteriorating health, our degraded environments, and our strangled economies. Our unfortunate fellow creatures, intensively farmed livestock, are paying even more, with their tortured lives. Cutting out meat from our diets and our kitchens is one response to this situation that is both caring and responsible, but I’d like to talk about another: how to include meat in one’s cooking and eating, should you choose to, while still dealing with, and confronting, the issues.

Very simply, I am talking about choosing with great care the meat you buy and eat. In this way you will be supporting the kind of farming, preparation and distribution of meat that is better for all, and eating better too. Eating meat that is of a high standard both ethically and in terms of health, is expensive in its direct cost per kilo, but the benefits are valuable. This meat will deliver much more in both taste and nutrition. Because it it so densely packed with flavour and goodness, good quality meat can also be extended to provide more tasty meals than just the initial one.

Here are the guidelines I use to make sure that my family and I enjoy truly good meat:

Meat is a treat

Do not eat meat every day. There is no doubt that eating mostly plants is the healthiest way to eat. Meat is a highly concentrated food source and while it contains much of value to our bodies, it is also harder to digest. A lot more natural resource has gone into providing a piece of meat for your plate than into the largest vegetarian meal. Meat is a feast food, and eating too much of it puts a strain on your body and the earth. It is far better to occasionally enjoy high quality meat than to eat cheap meat often.

Buy meat that lived well

This means looking for meat that is free range, preferably organic (in spirit, not neccessarily certified), and local. Eating meat from animals that have suffered cramped and miserable lives eating unnatural foods, pumped with hormones and antibiotics to grow quickly and survive their stressful conditions, is a recipe for bad health and environmental strain. Animals are living, feeling, intelligent beings. They should be allowed to range freely in the environment they are naturally adapted to, eating their natural foodstuffs and growing at a rate determined by their own bodies. This in turn produces meat that is tastier, better textured, and far more wholesome to eat. Transporting animals over long distances is stressful to the animals; transporting meat uses energy both in fuel and in cooling.

Know the source of your meat

A supermarket sticker saying “free range”, “natural” or “organic” is no guarantee that the meat you are buying has been farmed well. These terms are often used extremely loosely as selling points, and can often be a mere mirage. To take a commitment to good meat seriously, you need to know where, how and by whom your meat is farmed. This does not rule supermarkets out, but you will need to ask a lot of questions and check your facts before you buy. Better is to buy your meat as direct as possible – if possible from the farmer. This reduces the energy footprint of meat and keeps things transparent. It is also the most inexpensive way of getting great meat, with more of your money going directly to the farmers you know are farming in the way you like. Smaller scale enterprises are much more likely to be truly free range and good quality, but you still need to ask questions and perhaps even go and look for yourself.

Apply the same rules to other animal products

Animals are farmed for many other purposes than meat, and often in the same unwholesome ways. To be consistent in this, you need to extend the care and consideration you take in hunting out good meat, to products such as eggs and dairy if you consume these. All the same issues apply. And again, the benefits in flavour and goodness make it worthwhile.

Fish is also meat

Fish populations are collapsing as huge factory trawlers continue to pillage the oceans and quotas are ignored. Farmed fish bring their own set of problems, not least the quantities of fish-meal needed to feed them. Fish is a delicious, healthy food, but great care is required if we are to continue enjoying it. The health of the oceans is of paramount importance to our world environment, and it is severely threatened by our greed. Our rule is to only ever eat fish with healthy populations, preferably line caught, and not more than once per week. Again, buy as direct as possible and find out the facts of how, where and by whom your fish was caught.

Move towards nose to tail eating

Use a wide range of cuts, not just the most popular ones. There are many sound reasons for expanding your repertoire beyond the ubiquitous chicken breasts, fillet steak and leg of lamb. Using more of the animal means that the high cost (in money and in earthly resource) of producing it is extended further. There are many cheaper cuts of meat that may require more preparation or lengthier cooking, but will deliver very tasty as well as economical results. Just about every part of the chicken has better flavour, texture and nutritional value than breast-meat, and what could be a better family meal than a whole roast fowl? As for pork, beef, lamb and venison, the savings when you look further than the most popular cuts of meat are significant. The high demand for certain cuts and lack of markets for others is a major problem for the meat industry, and one which becomes very daunting to good farmers who are producing high quality meat (and happier, healthier animals). Farming well costs more and it becomes even more important to use all of the animal.

Learning how to prepare and cook a wider range of meats is very rewarding, but you will need to look further than the pages of most glossy cooking books and magazines and the TV shows of most celebrity chefs. Often a look back to an earlier time when thriftier cooks knew how to get the best value from every meal is useful. More currently, I can highly recommend Rose Prince’s “New English Cooking”, as well as “Nose to Tail Eating” by Fergus Henderson, who observed that “if you are going to kill the animal it seems only polite to eat the whole thing.”

Make stock or soup from carcasses and bones

When you need to pay more and/or search harder to find your meat, and when it is of a higher quality, it becomes highly worthwhile to make it work harder and go further for you. This means making sure that you use up all leftovers, and in particular, do not discard bones or any unused bits and pieces without first making a stock, or using them to flavour and beef up a soup. The rich, hearty broth you will get out of good quality meat is nothing at all like the manufactured stuff you get from cubes or powders, and costs next to nothing compared to buying expensive, good quality stock. It is also fabulously easy. Although it takes a long time, after you have put everything in a pot and brought it to boil, there is nothing more you need to do but let it simmer until it is ready, while you do something else. (I’ll write more about how to make stock another time, but it is easy to look up in the meantime.) Your butcher will also be very happy to give you extra bones to use in your soups and broths. Making stock or soup from bones or a carcass also gets the meat you bought for one meal to form the basis of another, such as a delicious risotto.

Never waste meat

This is pretty self-explanatory. Research or invent ways of using up leftover meat and scraps in other meals. After having been cooked into a soup or stock, and with most meat removed, bones and carcasses can be safely added to a compost pile or compost bin. This is a far better use for them than to be sealed in plastic till garbage day, then tossed in a landfill. Adding raw meat, or larger bits of cooked meat, to your compost will quickly smell terrible and attract pests. Bury your cooked debris in plenty of aging compost and you should have no problems. Cooked bones will assist with aeration and slowly release nutrients into your soil.

Tell sellers of meat that you want

If you cannot find meat that lives up to the standards you are looking for, tell vendors what is missing. Your wallet is the most powerful weapon in the fight for ethically sound, healthy and delicious meat, and you will be listened to. Remember that while good meat costs more, it delivers more too, and that we pay dearly for cheap meat in compromising on our health, our environment and our conscience. I went several years without buying meat because I could not find any that satisfied what I was looking for. But with local farmers’ markets (and occasional rare supermarket finds) I am now able to enjoy and serve up real treats with peace of mind. If more of us voice our concerns and back them up with support for the kind of farming we want to see, things can change for the better.