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HORMONES IN BEEF: part one of three (exerpted from my book)

8 Mar

One of the flashpoints in any discussion of beef consumption is the use of hormones; or more specifically, growth hormones. Exactly what are they and why are they used?  And more to the point, are they as dangerous as some people claim?

Language is an interesting thing. You can use words to create emotional responses. Like “hormone-free” beef. There’s no such thing. It’s impossible.

Why? Because all animals—like all human beings—produce natural hormones in their metabolisms. In fact, every multicellular critter (cattle, people, dogs, birds, vegetables, whatever) creates its own natural hormones. If you’re worried about hormones in beef, what you need to look for is are the terms no added hormones or no hormones administered.

What exactly is a hormone? It’s a chemical released in one part of your body that affects another part. Hormones like estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone (aha, those “low T” ads) are naturally present in beef, and also in pork, poultry, milk, eggs and fish. But guess what? Plant foods like potatoes and wheat contain significant levels of progesterone, and some oils and plants also contain testosterone. Milk products provide about 80% of the progesterone, 30-40% of the testosterone and 60-70% of the estrogens in our diet. Meat and fish, about 5% of the progesterone, 20-30% of the testosterone and 15-20% of the estrogens in our diet.  

When people talk about when they talk about hormones in beef is really the administration of a growth hormone to stimulate weight gain in young cattle. There are several reasons for this. People who eat beef prefer (and have come to expect) tender meat. This means eating the meat of younger animals, because the meat of a younger animal is naturally more tender than that of an old animal (obvious, really). For this reason, beef cattle are usually slaughtered at a very young age (from about 18 months to two years). Most male cattle are neutered when they’re young (a process that turns bulls into steers); female cattle (heifers) are spayed. Neutered steers and spayed heifers produce fewer natural hormones than older animals (same with humans), so small amounts of certain hormones are given to them to help them grow.

Most cattle finished in the conventional way are given growth promotants via ear implants. These are small pellets placed underneath the skin in the middle one-third of the ear—a place where there’s no way they could accidentally be included in products intended for human consumption, and no risk of hormone residues entering the meat. The pellets dissolve gradually over 60 to about 120 days, and must be completely depleted before slaughter. Feedlot operators must verify that the pellet is “dead” at least 30 to 45 days before the animal is killed.

Ear implanting

Ear implanting

After the pellet is implanted, its active ingredients are slowly released into the animal’s bloodstream, increasing its blood hormone level just enough to stimulate additional growth in muscle. Implanted animals grow faster, are leaner, and use feed more efficiently. Since the conventional cattle feeding business is defined by very narrow margins affected by seasonal swings in feed costs, the use of implants more than pays for itself in delivering larger, leaner cattle. Note this comment, however, from an implant information sheet: “All growth implants . . . show the greatest improvement in gains and efficiency on higher energy diets.” So the type and quality of feed is critical.

Implants increase weight gain by 5 to 23 percent and improve feed efficiency from 3 to 11 percent. Essentially, the animal grows larger faster, and so can be slaughtered younger. The hormones used are identical (either natural or synthetic versions) to the hormones cattle naturally produce. Today, both the United States and Canada have approved three natural hormones (estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone) and three synthetic hormones (zeranol, trenbolone, and melengesterol) to help cattle feed efficiently, bulk up faster, and develop leaner meat. Note that melengesterol is administered via feed, not implant.

Implants work by speeding muscle growth and reducing fat deposition. Comparing an implanted animal with an animal of the same weight that has not been implanted, the implanted animal will be leaner. But since beef grades are primarily based on the degree of marbling (measured as the amount of internal fat in the rib-eye muscle), implanted cattle will generally need to be fed longer, so that they have time to put on more muscle and marbling.

In the United States, hormone implants are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The Food Safety Inspection Service of the USDA tests for synthetic hormone residues in meat, but they don’t test for natural hormone residues. It can’t be done . . . animals produce natural hormones throughout their lives. It’s simply not possible to differentiate between hormones occurring naturally, and those from implants. This means that to some extent, the use of growth-promoting hormones cannot be regulated.

Next post: Part Two – Are Hormone Implants Safe?… The Politics

The Livestock Conservancy

17 Feb

Those of you who’ve bought my book will notice that a quite a few photos in the animal breed sections were taken by Jeannette Beranger of the Livestock Conservancy. Super shots of cows, pigs, sheep and chickens you’ve never heard of before.  Like these…

White Park

White Park

Ossabaw hog

Ossabaw hog

Dorset Horn

Dorset Horn

Buff Cochin

Buff Cochin

PIneywoods

PIneywoods

Jeannette really helped us find these rare or heritage breed images, so I thought you’d like to know more about the organization she’s with. It’s interesting…and important.

The Livestock Conservancy was formed in the 1970s, when people began to realize that traditional agricultural livestock breeds were rapidly disappearing as meat production became more industrialized. And I’m proud to say that the organization began in my home state of Vermont when (quoting from the org’s website), “a handful of concerned citizens gathered at the Vermont Department of Agriculture to sign incorporate papers for the American Minor Breeds Conservancy (the original name of The Livestock Conservancy).” 

Now based in North Carolina, the Livestock Conservancy’s focus is on making sure that our agricultural future is secure by saving endangered breeds from extinction, building up their populations and promoting them to the public.

Why? ‘Cause much of the reason why these breeds were kept viable by farmers for so long is that each brings something special to the table. Things like especially delectable meat, or superb milk, or extraordinary fertility, or – like the Florida Cracker cow – the ability to prosper in challenging environments. Many of these breeds were early contributors to the gene pool of commercial meat animals – endowing them with qualities that make our food taste better, or adding genetic traits for increased fertility or soundness or… 

As some of you will know, genetic diversity is increasingly endangered through the practices of large-scale agricultural production. If we lose diversity, then we place ourselves at greater risk. This – as most of you know – is not only important in the case of meat animals, but also the plant world, which continues to give us treatments for many diseases. Look up “yew” and the cancer drug “taxol” and you’ll get the picture. Or “willow” and “aspirin”. 

Back to the Livestock Conservancy. Their website is fascinating, with pictures of many animal breeds you won’t have heard of. The list includes goats, donkeys, horses, cattle, chickens, sheep, rabbits, ducks, geese and turkeys – a page for each breed, with photos!

Why not support them by becoming a member?

Toot. Toot.

22 Jan

… tooting my own horn here. So reader warning – the following post is unabashed promotion (after almost two years of work,  hey, why not?)

and here it is!!!

and here it is!!!

My book is finished! Published! Available to all! Three hundred and twelve pages of juicy meat-ness, with chapters covering:

  • The real definition, work, and role of a culinary butcher;
  • The roots of butchery from pre-history to today;
  • Meat: selecting your breed, grading and aging, tenderness, storing, and reheating;
  • The truth behind meat marketing claims of “organic”, “natural”, “free-range”, “grass-fed”, “pasture-raised” and more;
  • How meat gets to the table: farmers, slaughtering methods, stress and animal welfare, the role of meat inspectors, cut sheets, what’s legally allowed/not allowed when purchasing meat for further processing, keeping integrity in the local meat movement;
  • Understanding the commercial meat food chain and what goes on behind the scenes at meat markets large and small;
  • Processing your own meat: what you’ll need, tools, safety, and preparation;
  • Beef: domestication, terminology, how cows work, raising methods (grass, grain, etc.), meat-safety issues, hormone growth implants, antibiotics and feed additives, carcass yield and marbling scores, cutting up a beef forequarter and hindquarter, and a partial list of beef breeds;
  • Pork: domestication, terminology, raising methods, grading and inspection, cutting up a side of pork, and a partial list of pork breeds;
  • Sheep: domestication, terminology, raising methods, cutting up a whole lamb, and a partial list of sheep breeds;
  • Chicken: domestication, terminology, how to cut up a whole chicken;
  • How to make sausages;
  • Value-added products: what they are and how they can help increase your bottom line;
  • Your own butcher shop: size, equipment, display, marketing; and,
  • A better way of thinking about meat: including a holistic overview and some conclusions.

 

BUT WAIT! THERE’S  MORE!

“The Gourmet Butcher’s Guide to Meat” comes with a CD with my complete butchery course –  over 800 photos that show you exactly how to cut up a side of beef, side of pork, whole lamb and chicken. Every step described and illustrated.

So how’s them apples? 

 

And just to prove it’s real, here are a few early reviews:

“Is there a bible of meat? There is one now. Cole Ward’s book demystifies the whole process of how animals are raised, slaughtered, and eventually make it to your plate.  From learning about breeds to cutting up your own side of beef, you will be a more empowered meat eater once you read this book.”
                     Rebecca Thistlethwaite, author, Farms with a Future

“This comprehensive book is far more than a guide to cutting meat – it’s for anyone who want a better understanding of meat (and we all should). Engaging, informative, and yes, fun!”
                     Nicolette Hahn Niman, rancher and author, Righteous Porkchop

“Cole Ward has done an extraordinary job of balancing the widely diverse components of meat production, marketing, and quality in this comprehensive and uniquely informative book. The author has taken every effort to present even the most contentious issues surrounding meat production from a balanced and accurate perspective. His through treatment of thse issues provides the reader the opportunity to make a well-informed decision as a matter of personal choice, unencumbered by emotion or innuendo.  However, the real value of the book is in the articulate way Ward connects the reader to both the science and the artisanship of gourmet butchering.  His comfortable style and incomparable knowledge of gourmet butchering make this a valuable resource for quality meat aficionados and a must read for chefs, butchers, and meat lovers everywhere.”
                       Mark Boggess, PhD, animal scientist and meat-industry expert

Seasonal Thoughts

22 Dec

wintertrees

There was a time in my youth when it was common to hear my parents, aunts, and uncles talk of how hard things were during the Great Depression. If anyone would know, they would: My mother was one of seventeen children, and my father one of thirteen. 

My mother and father divorced when I was eight years old. Things were pretty tough for a single mother of 10 with 7 children still at home. The food budget was very limited and waste of any kind was not even thinkable. We used every scrap of food. Dessert was a luxury reserved for holidays. Often for days at a time a meal consisted of bread and gravy. Mealtime was a time for family and a time to give thanks for what we did have to eat.

The labor my mother went through to make a dozen loaves of bread on a wood cook stove did not go unappreciated. Today my family honors her memory for all of the effort, hard work, and love that she put into providing for her children. 

Food is the bedrock of our lives, and those who produce it deserve to be honored. In my early days, respect was bestowed on the art of butchery. That seemed to vanish during the 1970s, and my aim – as by now you all know – is to bring it back.  

I have a bumper sticker on my truck that says No Farmers, No Food. I believe that seeking out and supporting local agriculture has terrific benefits. Consumers become more knowledgeable about the food they eat and develop links with the land—a spiritual as well as practical benefit. Farmers benefit through exposure to larger markets and often better prices for their animals. Small local shops that carry local meats develop stronger ties with customers and have a wider range of exciting products to advertise and sell. 

I’m tired of seeing “Oh, that’s good enough” owners who take no pride in what they offer their customers. This is the sort of thing that disgusts a butcher of my generation. If I put time, energy, and expense into raising an animal for meat, I want the best that animal has to offer. I want to honor it by masterfully cutting it to maximize every ounce and use every edible part. I want my cuts to be beautiful and uniform as possible—laying the meat out as though I were painting the Mona Lisa.

So my conclusion? It’s time for a change.

How about this? Let’s not accept second or third best. Let’s not condone cruel and unethical practices. Let’s learn about where our food comes from and teach our kids. Let’s support the farmers who feed us and stop pretending that what happens outside cities doesn’t matter. Let’s try sitting down as a family around the dinner table to give thanks for the food and its producers. And let’s thank the animal it came from, too.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

 

PS: And a special add-on for the person who emailed me about lamb butchery courses. Of course I offer them – occasionally. Just call me at 802 372 – 0681. See what a pushover I am?

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

23 Nov
Well, why?

Well, why?

To get into your backyard. And now what???

OK, chickens are becoming popular. No secret there. You probably know this because of the guy across the street who keeps four chickens in a shed. Or… you live in a rural area and have your own small flock. If you’re not into this groovy new hobby for eggs or avian companionship, it’s probably for meat. Chicken whose quality you trust, ’cause you raised it yourself. 

I often get asked about the legality of slaughtering one’s own chickens. (Pathetic, really. There I am, nicely dressed, holding a glass of wine at a party, and nobody wants to know if I’m free later… they only want to talk about meat provenance.) 

Anyway, IS it legal? Can you kill and eat chickens without the weight of the law falling upon you? What about selling your own chickens to friends? Do they have to be inspected? (the chickens, not the friends) 

The following is a summary of the USDA regulations regarding this thorny issue… but (reader beware) it gets kinda complicated. And may also have changed in the last ten minutes. 

Short answer? Yes, there are conditions under which poultry slaughter and processing are excempt from inspection. In fact, there are many. Keep in mind that by “inspection”, the USDA means continuous bird-by-bird checking-out by inspectors who are onsite during both slaughter and processing. Obviously, this isn’t possible for small operations, nor was it ever intended to be. 

First, a definition: the terms “processed” or “processing” are specific terms which refer to the defeathering, gutting, skinning, cutting, boning of poultry, including things like canning, salting, stuffing, etc. 

There is one absolute requirement: anyone who kills and processes birds for use as human food must produce a product that is neither adulterated or misbranded

An adulterated product is one that either contains substances that make it unsafe to eat (remember the melamine in Chinese baby formula?)… or one processed under unsanitary conditions. To learn more about proper sanitary conditions for processing, browse the USDA website or try this link (which worked when I tried it, but no guarantee!!!) 

A misbranded product is just what it sounds like. Thus, claiming that your chicken has been inspected if it isn’t is misbranding it. Exempt poultry cannot bear any official mark of inspection. In addition, there are specific labeling or identification requirements for exempt product. 

Now let’s take a gander at a few of the more relevant exemption categories. 

PERSONAL USE

If you’re going to slaughter your own chicken and eat it yourself, inspection is not required. To paraphrase the USDA regulations: 

The slaughtered and processed poultry must be for the private use of:

  • the grower, producer or owner (who are not necessarily the same person)
  • members of his or her household, and
  • his or her nonpaying guests and employees (notice the word “nonpaying”?) 

Slaughter and processing must be performed by the grower, producer or owner (that’s you). 

The poultry must be healthy when slaughtered. 

The poultry must be slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions that result in products that are fit for human food. 

The exempt poultry can not be sold or donated for use as human food. 

Notes:

  • There’s no limit on the amount of birds you can slaughter and process for your own private use.

 chicken 

CUSTOM SLAUGHTER

A custom slaughter facility kills and processes birds that belong to other people; in other words, it provides a service. If you’re a little squeamish about killing your own birds, you can bring them to a custom slaughterer, who’ll do it for you. 

Again, back to the USDA: 

A custom slaughterer cannot engage in buying or selling poultry products capable for use as human food (remember, this is a service); 

The poultry must be healthy when slaughtered; 

Slaughter and processing must be conducted in accordance with sanitary standards, practices, and procedures that produce products that are fit for human consumption (not adulterated); 

The poultry must be for the personal use of the grower or owner. In addition, the grower/owner of the poultry may not sell or donate the custom slaughtered poultry to another person or institution. 

Notes:

  • A custom slaughterer who is also a poultry grower may raise and sell his or her live poultry to businesses not associated with his or her custom slaughter business.
  • Selling live poultry to a customer does not necessarily disqualify a business from the Custom Slaughter Exemption. For example, a custom slaughter facility may sell live poultry to a person and then custom slaughter the bird for them. However, a person who custom slaughters poultry may not buy or sell poultry products. (You may need to read this paragraph again; note the distinction between selling a live bird to someone and then slaughtering it, compared to selling an already slaughtered bird.)
  • A custom slaughter business is allowed to use a mobile slaughter/processing unit.

red chicken  

PRODUCER/GROWER – 1,000 LIMIT EXEMPTION

Poultry raisers who slaughter no more than 1,000 poultry in a calendar year can distribute the poultry without mandatory inspection under the following criteria: 

The poultry grower can only sell poultry products produced on his or her own farm;

Slaughter and processing must be conducted under sanitary standards that produce products that are fit for human consumption (not adulterated); 

The producer must keep records necessary for the effective enforcement of the Act [Title 9 CFR 381.175]; and 

The poultry products cannot be transported across state lines. 

Notes:

Records necessary for the enforcement of the Act will include slaughter records as well as records that list sales of poultry products to customers. 

USDA/FSIS or State employees will review the records to determine compliance with the requirement of the sale of no more than 1,000 poultry in a calendar year.

 

PRODUCER OR GROWER – 20,000 LIMIT EXEMPTION

If you raise more than 1,000 birds and are considering getting into chickens in a bigger way, you may be eligible for this exemption, providing you meet the following criteria: 

You slaughter and process no more than 20,000 poultry in a calendar year on your own premises. You cannot use your slaughtering facility to kill or process anyone else’s poultry (unless you’re granted a special exemption by FSIS.) 

Your poultry can only be sold/distributed within your own state. 

Your poultry must be healthy when slaughtered.

Slaughter and processing are conducted using sanitary standards that produce products that are fit for use as human food (not adulterated); 

You can only distribute poultry you have produced under the Producer/Grower Exemption.

 

OTHER EXEMPTIONS (which I won’t go into in detail) 

PGOP EXEMPTION:

If you slaughter/process no more than 20,000 birds per calendar year for sale only to private homes, restaurants, or hotels for use in meals they serve to customers, then you’re eligible for what the USDA terms the “Producer/Grower or Other Person (PGOP) Exemption”. Under this exemption only you can distribute your products, and only within your own state. You cannot sell your products to a retail store or to another producer/grower. 

 

SMALL ENTERPRISE EXEMPTION

You may qualify if a) you’re a producer whose processing of exempt poultry is limited to cutting up; b) you buy live poultry for slaughter and limit processing to cutting up; or c) you buy poultry and distribute it as carcasses.

 This exemption gets complicated, and is probably outside the interest of most of my readers, right? So I won’t get into it, since I doubt that you’re keen to go into business cutting up poultry carcasses.

… and as for the initial question (Why did the chicken cross the road?), here are some answers from a few famous people:

The Sphinx:  You tell me.

Ernest Hemingway:  To die. In the rain.

Buddha:  If you ask this question, you deny your own  chicken nature.

Capt. James T. Kirk: To boldly go where no chicken has ever gone.

images

Mary had a Little Lamb… No! Make that a Thousand.

19 Nov

An excerpt from my upcoming book “The Gourmet Butcher’s Guide to Meat”…

There are several methods of raising sheep, depending on what the farmer’s aim is, the size of the flock, and the local environment. Large commercial sheep operations are either range band flocks or farm flocks. Very large flocks are often called mobs. As in, a mob of sheep (I now have an image of masked evil sheep in my head.) 

Huge range band flocks are managed by shepherds and sheepdogs, who often live with the flock as it moves. Photo by Stephen Ausmus. Courtesy USDA.

Huge range band flocks are managed by shepherds and sheepdogs, who often live with the flock as it moves. Photo by Stephen Ausmus. Courtesy USDA.

Range band flocks are generally groups of over 1,000 sheep grazing in large fenced or open-range pastures. Since the areas are so large, the sheep eat only what they find in the natural environment. Range band management is the main type of sheep operation in the United States and places like Australia and South America. 

In these large bands and in rugged terrain, it’s obviously extremely difficult for the shepherd to keep track of his sheep, so a black sheep is often added according to a ratio of 1 to 100 or 1 to 50. That way the shepherd only has to count the black sheep daily to know that the flock is intact (is that cool or what?). Since high-quality nutrition isn’t necessary for the production of wool, wool sheep are often kept in poorer climates or arid regions than are meat sheep.

Farm flocks are typically found in places where large tracts of open land are less common.

Farm flocks are typically found in places where large tracts of open land are less common.

 Farm flocks differ in that they’re kept in much smaller fenced pastures. Often farm flock sheep are fed supplements like grain, but they also thrive on well-managed and intensively grazed pastures.

There are also other kinds of flocks: for example, flocks comprising only purebred sheep, hobby flocks, fiber flocks (sweaters!), domestic pets (sheep instead of lawn mowers), and so on.

Shaun the Sheep, from the Wallis and Gromit films

Shaun the Sheep, from the Wallis and Gromit films

 

And now for a delectable recipe, just in time for Thanksgiving…

Lamb, Ginger, and Fruit Sausage

4 feet of sheep or small hog casings (sheep casings will give you a smaller sausage)

2½ lbs. lean lamb, cubed

½ lbs. pork fat cubed

1 tablespoon of kosher or coarse salt

1 tablespoon of ground black pepper

2 tablespoons of finely chopped dried apricots

2 tablespoons finely chopped dried cranberries

1 tablespoon of finely chopped crystallized ginger

2 tablespoons lemon juice or white wine

 

Where did that supermarket chicken come from?

2 Nov

Ever wonder where that supermarket chicken came from? As in, how it was raised? The answer may surprise you.

In the US (and many other countries), meat chicken production is vertically integrated; all production steps are handled by different subsidiary firms owned by one company. 

What this means is that the majority of commercial broiler chickens are produced by only three  companies: Cobb-Vantress, Aviagen, and Hubbard. Each sells a variety of different branded crosses in the form of chicks, which are distributed worldwide via their own specialized fleet of environmentally controlled chick trucks or by commercial airline carriers. 

Courtesy Tim Daniels, poultrykeeper.com

Courtesy Tim Daniels, poultrykeeper.com

Each company owns breeder farms that produce hatching eggs, a hatchery where chicks are born, a broiler grow-out facility where they’re raised, a feed mill to produce the chicks’ food, a processing plant where they’re slaughtered, a rendering plant and a distribution system that delivers products to store warehouses or individual stores.

With this degree of control, you’d guess right in assuming that the elements of a commercial meat chicken don’t just happen, but are carefully designed. Each company produces millions of pedigreed chickens a year. As the birds are grown, they are assessed for “best traits”; only the top three percent are kept for use as pedigree breeders.

In general, poultry breeders select for growth rate, feed efficiency, health and disease resistance, feather development, carcass confirmation, and meat characteristics. Modern poultry breeders work with molecular biological (genetic) markers associated with economic and consumer-important traits. But no genetic splicing, modification, or cloning takes place. In other words, there’s no such thing as a GMO chicken. All strains are developed through genetic selection and crossbreeding.

The birds are raised in what are called free-run systems. They live in barns that vary in size according to the size of the flock. The chickens are not de-beaked (a practice that relates to egg production), or caged. Instead, they roam around on a floor covered with wood shavings or straw (termed a deep-litter system). Water and feed are always available, there’s good airflow, and the temperature is carefully controlled, ’cause chickens don’t like being too cold or too hot. Space per bird is determined by the size of the bird being grown and ranges from about half a square foot per bird for small birds to 1 square foot or more for large birds. The chickens are free to roam throughout the litter floor house, take a dust bath, and find a comfortable spot. Nest boxes or perches are not needed for broilers. 

Their lives aren’t long. Birds are slaughtered when they reach the appropriate size for the product being produced. This ranges from about 28 days for “Cornish” chickens (2.2 pounds) to about 62 days for the largest broilers used for deboning (8 pounds) Broilers between these weight ranges are used for eight-piece cuts, portion-controlled operations, or for sale as roasters. 

As soon as the chickens are slaughtered, they’re chilled to take the carcass from its live temperature to the proper “meat temperature” of about 32°F (0°C). Chilling is done either via a cold-water bath or an air-chilling procedure. Most chickens in the United States are water-chilled—placed into a vat of ice water. In air chilling, carcasses are blown upon with cold air as they travel slowly along a track, a process that takes longer than water chilling. Many people prefer air-chilled chicken, claiming that the taste is better or that the chicken loses less water during the cooking process. You’ll have judge for yourself.

Generally, chicken is shipped from the slaughtering facility to its various destinations (restaurants, supermarket distribution centers, et cetera), on the same day it’s slaughtered. As for the recommended time to consumption, this, too, like everything in meat and life, varies.  

So – you ask – are there any other options?  Sure there are.  You can buy your chickens from an individual farmer, in which case it is very unlikely to be a commercially developed and distributed bird.  Instead, the chicken will be one of several meat breeds commonly used for small operations.

Or you might decide to raise your own birds by purchasing eggs or chicks from a hatchery that deals directly with individuals and small farmers, like the Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa.

Pastured Pigs and Garbage Pigs

17 Sep
Courtesy Heidi C. Normand, Mosefund Farm

Courtesy Heidi C. Normand, Mosefund Farm

You might translate “pastured” as free-range. In the old days, pigs were released into meadows of forests to fend for themselves. Since pigs will eat everything (making them omnivores like us), that meant things like mushrooms, roots, worms, bugs, nuts and even meat like birds and mice.

This worked out well for colonial farmers. Their pigs roamed free, squeezing through crude post-and-rail fences and wandering through neighboring farms and forests. They became such a nuisance that laws were passed to identify which pig belonged to which farmer. The cliché image of the ring in the pig’s nose dates from these early days; rings prevented the pigs from rooting up farmers’ crops. See how much you can learn from a butcher?

The term for pasturing in a forest—practiced for centuries in Europe—is pannage. In the Middle Ages, the owners of forests made more money selling mast rights than wood. Mast refers to the nuts or fruit of forest trees like beech, oak, and so on, which are eaten by wild animals—and pigs—as they forage.

The second method of swine raising involves bringing the food to the pigs. One of the earliest—and still going—uses of the pig was as a garbage eater. Our garbage. The garbage pig has been kept by many civilizations. Its role was to eat a family’s leftover scraps, as well as waste from mills and garbage from hospitals and large institutions. Pretty much anything we didn’t want. In the days before municipal sewage systems, it was the pig that took care of things. In early China and Korea there was a “privy pig” that ate—oh, yuck—human excrement. And then was eaten by the humans. I’ll let you  ponder that a little.

I wonder… was it this association with garbage that led to the avoidance of pork by certain cultures? No other animal is saddled with so many “no-nos”. About a fifth of the world’s population won’t eat pork. That includes Muslims, Jews, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and many Buddhists and Hindus.

 

POULTRY. Free Range? or Free Run?

8 Sep
Yes, this is a free-range chicken.

Yes, this is a free-range chicken.

Yes, there is a difference.

First, free range. You’ll be interested to learn that this label can only be used for poultry. There is NO SUCH THING (well, officially) as a free range steer. But if you change “free” to “open”, you get open range and yes, there are open range cattle. Open range is the cattle-raising system mainly practiced in the west of the US and Canada, where animals roam free across vast rangelands.

Back to birds. According to the regulations of both the US and Canada, free range is a term referring to a bird that has “access” to the outdoors. As in, can get outside. This may only be for five minutes a day. I suppose if the farmer opened the chicken coop hatch to give the birds a glimpse of the yard, they’d qualify as free-range chickens.

On to free-run. This is the term used for the way conventional chickens are raised, living in barns that vary in size according to the size of the flock. The chickens roam freely inside the facility on a floor covered with wood shavings or straw (termed a deep-litter system). Water and feed are available and the temperature is controlled, ’cause chickens don’t like being too cold or too hot. Space per bird is determined by the size of the bird being grown and ranges from about half a square foot per bird for small birds to 1 square foot or more for large birds. 

What Grade of Beef is Best?

11 Aug

Frankly, I’m not sure that grade matters much. This somewhat surprises me. I used to be a firm believer in premium or choice beef. However, long involvement with the local movement has given me the opportunity to sample a lot of local meats (often as the farmer was cooking it to serve for lunch as I cut his carcass up). I’ve done some rethinking about the importance of grading, particularly in beef.

steak

I’m now more convinced that – where beef is concerned – quality has more to do with the breed, the type and quality of its feed, the soil it was pastured on, how humanely it was raised, how it was slaughtered, how it was aged and how it was cut and processed. I have had very lean meat that was surprisingly tender and I have had extremely marbled meat that was chewy.

Keep in mind that different breeds of animals have different attributes. Some are more efficient at converting feeds like grass to meat and fat than other breeds. Some breeds do better in harsher climates than others. There are just too many variables so it is important that you do your research.