Monday, August 23, 2010

The Conscientious Carnivore - The Politics of Eating Meat

This is a reprint on my article in the Santa Monica Observer, but I thought it bears repeating...

Conscience Carnivore

Animals, it’s become such a hot food button issue in the last three years. With the Omnivore’s Dilemma, Fast Food Nation, and Food Inc. opening the Pandora’s box food consciousness you now have to wonder questions about your meat and dairy that you never wanted to ask. But not every meat provider out there is totally inhumane, not every cow is soaked with antibiotics and standing in three feet of guano.

Those few rare (and local) ranchers and farmers were celebrated last Thursday night at the Santa Monica Library’s quarterly Farmer’s Market Panel Series. This event, entitled the Conscientious Carnivore, focused on an evening of farmers who are raising animals for meat and dairy in a humane way and offering concerned consumers a choice about what they eat. The event was moderated by chef and owner of Angeli Caffe, and KCRW Good Food host, Evan Kleiman. The panel included a variety of food personalities: Marcie Jimenez of Jimenez Family Farm (lamb, rabbits, and goats), Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy (raw milk), Greg Nauta of Rocky Canyon Farms (beef and pork), and Evan Funke executive chef of Rustic Canyon.

The greatness of humanely raised animals and dairy was quickly proclaimed by Funke, “it sounds cliché that ingredients speak to you, but the food of the Farmers Market is still holding the sunshine. It screams pick me!” Funke who’s Rustic Canyon is 95-98% sourced with produce from the Santa Monica Farmers Market and 95% with humanely sourced meat continued, “I get all the praise, people tell me this is amazing. Farmers have the hardest jobs, my job is so easy. Shopping locally creates accountability. Good cooking is 80% ingredients and 20% technique, in Santa Monica with our great farmers market it’s 90/10.”

Kleiman was quick to ask if there is an issue at Rustic Canyon with people expecting a corn-fed texture to their steaks. “Yes most definitely,” Funke quickly answered, “They don’t understand, this is flesh. It’s not going to all the same, it’s different. It’s an animal, it eats, it sweats. There’s a real problem with food disconnect in this country now. I taught culinary school for 12 weeks (you can tell I really liked it, he noted sarcastically) and someone came up to me and asked what tree does salad come from?”

“Fresh food matters,” noted Mark McAfee who’s Organic Pastures Dairy is one of two certified raw dairies in California. “With more people learning about the importance of their food with movies like Food Inc., we’ve increased out sales 18% this year. People are prioritizing good food in their life.“ McAfee showed a picture of an industrial dairy cow covered in feces, “this type of dairy milk needs to be pasteurized.” He continued by then showing a cow in a green pasture from his farm, Organic Pastures, where the cows are grass grazed, milked in the pasture, and given no antibiotics.
“Only ourselves and Claravale Farm, are raw. There are 1750 other dairies in California; they have the real power over California. We don’t focus on the big dairy, instead we focus on the community: moms and kids looking for probiotics.” McAfee noted even though their sales have increased in a terrible economy there is a lot of confusion over raw milk that many people believe that you will get sick if you drink it.

“Raw isn’t even defined by the USDA. We tried to help create raw milk standards. Fourteen hundred people showed up for the meeting, the FDA refused to show. They didn’t have the science to back up a lie. The CDC has zero deaths from raw milk in the past thirty years. Yes it was bad in places like in Chicago and Boston back in the 1850s, but not now. “ But even if all those 1750 other dairy farms decided to go raw tomorrow they couldn’t. “Bad milk doesn’t have the resources to produce good milk,” continued McAfee. “I bypass the big corporations. People are deciding, I’m not going to the doctor for asthma or allergies, I’m going to get it in what I eat.”

But one of the hardest issues that small time farms are having at the moment is with regulation. Greg Nauta of Rocky Canyon Farms in Atascadero, CA began farming vegetables before venturing into beef and pork explained that as of 2001 for any animal being slaughtered the USDA is required to come in and watch it being killed. “They watch the whole thing. They test the meat and age check it since you can’t get any animal over 30 months older with bones because of Mad Cow disease.” Nauta noted how he’s really lucky with his location, “there’s a USDA inspection plant locally, it used to be a horse slaughterhouse to make dog food.“

Most small ranchers don’t have the luxury of having a local slaughterhouse since now the majority of meat is slaughtered at one of five massive slaughterhouses around the country. “The government likes it because they can control the big guy farmers.” At which point Evan Kleiman interrupted to ask, “How can you even call them farmers?” Nauta paused for a moment and continued, “We’ve taken all the small farming and destroyed it. We’ve taken all the infrastructure from the little guys. You go to a big slaughter house and ask them to kill three cattle and they’ll look at you if you have three eyes.”
And it’s not like you can build new ones. “In Ventura, Monterey, San Luis Obispo you couldn’t put a slaughterhouse if you tried because of regulation,” he continued. Turns out that most country board of supervisors would prefer not to be known for building slaughterhouse inside their jurisdiction. The irony in doing so is that we’re giving all the power to the big corporations. Nauta noted, “everything is about being cheaper for them, and that includes the animals. They’ve stopped thinking of it as an animal; instead they think it’s a thing.”

Kleinman then noted how she’s on a board of directors who’s trying to combat this issue. “The mayor agrees LA needs a food policy; that all these localized county-based issues need to be resolved. We’re working hard on a local food policy in LA. Our city encompasses such huge farming communities. It’s been a really interesting process we started in early June creating documents and are going to have structure to sheparding it through.” And the issue is getting bigger. One of the questions to the panel addressed the FDA raid on Rawesome a few weeks back (Rawesome is a raw Co-op store in Venice). “The FDA is getting more stupid, which is just leading to more people getting involved,” notes McAfee. “There’s more people at Rawesome than ever before.”

But more people are speaking up. “We need to address these issues because if the government doesn’t allow in, it won’t work,” notes Nauta. “Change needs to happen and will happen, but it’s a quiet movement, this food thing. It’s better to create a ballot initiative than trying to fight a local politician. It has a bigger impact.”

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