The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

How Can You Be a "Conscious Carnivore?" Family Farmed Expo Offers Some Answers

By Anthony Todd in Food on Mar 21, 2011 7:20PM

One of Durand's slides at FFE
Less than 1% of the pork produced in the United States is sustainably raised. As more and more of us begin to care about sustainable meat production, that number becomes scarier and scarier - but what can be done? Last weekend, during the Family Farmed Expo, I attended a workshop that I wish the entire city of Chicago could have seen. Paul Kahan (Publican), Rob Levitt (Butcher and Larder), Bartlett Durand (Black Earth Meats) and Herb Eckhouse (La Quercia
) told us how they - carnivores all - help to make our meat production system more sustainable, and offered tips to consumers who care.

First, a depressing note. The AP and other sources reported that the Agriculture committees in the Iowa State House and Senate have approved bills making it illegal to "secretly" film animal abuses. Many different documentaries and books have used shocking stories of conditions in feedlots and CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) to try to change the industrial meat system, but that apparently doesn't sit well with lawmakers, who argue that the bill is designed to stop people from becoming employees of animal operations for the express purpose of exposing abuse. So, let's be clear - no one is denying that abuse is happening. It's just better if it happens off camera. Since Chicago eaters consume much of that Iowa-farmed meat, this is worth paying attention to.

The panel, moderated by Ellen Malloy (Restaurant Intelligence Agency) wasn't just interested in exposing horrors - almost everyone in the room already knew about the problems with meat production. They were more concerned with concrete, affordable steps that you (the consumer) can take to promote change. "We aren't doing enough, and we aren't convincing our friends," said Durand, who calls himself the only Buddhist meat processor in America. Change isn't about becoming vegetarians - everyone on the panel eats meat. But Durand demanded that we "Own our Karma" and know every step of the way that something is dying for us to live. That fact demands our respect, and also forces us to use the meat that we do eat more efficiently.

A few other facts - those beef tenderloins and strip steaks you love? Not very sustainable, at least in large quantities. A cow, after processing, weighs about 1100 pounds. Approximately 85 pounds of that weight is in traditional "steaks." If you order 100 filet mignons for a wedding, you may be killing off 25-30 animals, and the rest of that meat is not being well used. Think about the meat counter at the supermarket - how many cows were killed for that huge freezer full of prime cuts? And... where is the other 1000 pounds? If you're interested in sustainable meat, don't just buy organic - try some unpopular cuts. Levitt stressed the importance of creativity. Don't come into the butcher shop demanding a strip steak. Instead, tell him (or another butcher) what you are trying to cook. They will likely be able to help you, you will probably get a cheaper deal and you'll be introduced to a new product, all at the same time. Levitt also pointed out that the most important factor in the entire process is flavor. "At the end of the day, the food just tastes better." Sustainable meat is one of the only arenas in life where the "right" choice is also the tastiest, and, if you are willing to be creative, the most economical.

Other options? Buy an entire animal, or a piece of one. If you purchase a 1/4 of a cow (or an 1/8, for a small apartment) you will have meat for a year, and you will be forced to use interesting cuts of meat. Try joining a meat CSA or a buyer's club to get a lot of meat at a good price. I am currently a member of Grass is Greener Gardens meat CSA, which delivers a bag of sustainable, farm-raised meat to me each month. Support restaurants and butchers that offer sustainable meat, and constantly be asking those that don't where their meat comes from. I had dinner last Thursday at a fairly nice restaurant, owned by a celebrity chef, that bragged about their 22-ounce pork chops. When I asked where the pork was from, the server looked completely indifferent; why should she (or I) care? We have to care, and we have to ask, if we want that 1% to keep growing.