Wednesday, February 12, 2020

A Guide to Ethical(ish) Meat, Eggs, and Dairy at Grocery Stores


Most of us know that modern animal products are raised in less-than-ideal conditions, and we love animals and don't want them to suffer. However, most of us also walk into a grocery store, stare at a refrigerated aisle full of confusing buzzwords and claims, and simply give up on trying to interpret them.

In the past couple years I have learned a ton about animal agriculture, and I've come to the conclusion that the only ideal way to purchase animal products is from a very small company or a local farmer. However, not everyone has access to these options, and want to know if grocery stores carry anything that is good enough. 

Can you buy ethical meat, eggs, and dairy at an ordinary grocery store? The answer is yes… sort of. 

In a typical grocery store, it is very difficult to find products from animals who spend their entire lives in spacious fields, indulging in their natural behaviors. However, you can find animal products from companies that have set high standards for themselves, get third-party verification for livestock welfare, and/or make commitments to the well-being of their animals. It's not ideal, but it's worlds better than the pitiful USDA standards that so desperately need reform.

So far, I only have a few items listed, but I will continue to research and keep the page updated. Scroll down to the end for some general guidance about buzzwords, labels, and certifications.

NOTES:

1. None of these options are ideal, and many of them still involve animals living in close quarters and environmentally destructive ways. These options are just more humane than typical conditions.

2. My ratings are focused only on animal welfare: I don't take into consideration environmental issues, or factors such as steroids and antibiotics.

3. All these opinions are my own, and you may disagree with them. I try to give as much information as possible to help you make an informed choice that meets your own standards. 

4. At the beginning of each entry, I list the grocery store(s) where I have found the brand, to help fellow Midwesterners look for similar brands in stores near you. Obviously, availability will greatly depend on your location.

KEY:

Recommended: Not ideal, but products I consider good enough to confidently buy for everyday use.

Pretty good: Products I would still buy for everyday use, although I would choose a better option when possible.

Solid: Problematic in many ways, but still a clear step above the conventional standards.

Not great: Products I wouldn't necessarily recommend for everyday use, but would buy in a pinch because they are marginally better than their conventional equivalents.

Do not recommend: Products that look as if they take animal welfare into consideration, but do not.


The Lists! (Updated 2/12/2020)


MILK

Recommended:

Farmer-owned, fairly small-scale, animal welfare standards that are regularly audited on the eight farms that make up the co-op. Not third-party certified, but on such a small scale the potential for abuse is very limited. 


Schnucks: Oberweis Milk, half and half, cream, butter, sour cream, etc. 
Fairly small-scale, all their farmers pledge to "Treat their cows humanely." I contacted Customer Service for more details on what that meant, and got this reply:
"Based on 3 generations of experience, only well-treated animals in well-managed small herds will produce the quality Oberweis relies upon to produce the best quality bottled milk that our reputation is built on. It is a long-term two-way commitment –Oberweis purchasing all the milk they produce in the year at a premium price which, for any farmer in today’s market, means a lot. The family farms that provide milk to our dairy are visited regularly with planned and unannounced visits to ensure everything is always up to Oberweis standards of integrity. However, they are not also audited by third-party accrediting organizations who focus specifically on the animal welfare aspect alone.
"The farmers take pride in the excellent care they provide, which is reflected in the pledge you see posted. Please rest assured, there is nothing in common between these select family farms’ operations and those of the corporate mega producers that have been featured in the news of late!"


Pretty good: 

Aldi: Simply Nature Organic Milk (with Validus certification)
The milk is certified organic and also has a Validus certification for animal welfare standards. Likely still raised on large farms, but audited regularly for animal treatment.

Schnucks: A2 Milk 
Has a Validus certification for animal welfare standards. Likely still raised on large farms, but audited regularly for animal treatment.


Solid:

Schnucks, Walmart: Horizon Organic milk, butter, etc.
Horizon has recently faced controversy for including non-organic-certified ingredients, which puts into question their integrity as a brand. However, these concerns (as far as I can find) didn't have anything to do with animal welfare. They are certified organic and some items have a certified American Grassfed label, which means the animals are never confined. These are their stated standards: https://horizon.com/our-farmers/animal-care/ Here is the Cornucopia Institute scorecard: https://www.cornucopia.org/scorecard/dairy/horizon-danonewave/


Not great:

Meets organic dairy standards, but very opaque sourcing.



EGGS:

Recommended:

Walmart: Happy Egg Co. (organic or regular) 
The chickens are raised large-scale, but with stringent animal welfare guidelines. They are American Humane Certified, which isn't the strongest welfare certification, but give their hens meaningful access to the outdoors through pasturing. For a thorough summary of this company's animal welfare treatment, check out the detailed Cornucopia Institute Scorecard. 


Pretty good:
— —

Solid: 

Aldi: Goldhen Eggs Free-Range Eggs
Although the buzzword "free-range" is not a meaningful term (see below), they are Certified Humane Raised & Handled, which covers some very solid humane standards. Still a factory farm, but one that is vetted for hen health with clear standards.


The organic certification has some very bare hen welfare guidelines, but they are also Certified Humane Raised & Handled, which covers some very solid humane standards. Still a factory farm, but one that is vetted for hen health with clear standards.


Aldi: Goldhen Eggs Cage Free Eggs
Although the buzzword "cage-free" is not a meaningful term (see above), they are
American Humane Certified, which covers basic hen welfare (although this certification is less stringent than the Certified Humane Raised & Handled). Still a factory farm, but one that is vetted for hen health with clear standards.


Not great:

—— 


BEEF

Recommended:

Pretty good:

Solid:

Certified organic, but opaque standards otherwise. The label claims "100% Grass Fed," and the website claims that it is also "Grass-finished," meaning that the cows are not fattened with corn. However, the term "grass fed" does not have an official legal status anymore, so it's good to take these claims skeptically.


Certified organic, but opaque standards otherwise. The term "grass-fed" doesn't have a stringent legal definition, but likely indicates that the cows spent at least some of their lives on pasture.



Not great:

The term "grass-fed" doesn't have a stringent legal definition, but likely indicates that the cows spent at least some of their lives on pasture. Difficult to verify anything about animal treatment or standards beyond that.


CHICKEN

Recommended:

Pretty good:

Solid:

Not great:

PORK

Recommended:

Pretty good:

Solid:

Not great:

CHEESE

Recommended:

Pretty good:

Solid:

Not great:

Certified organic, but opaque standards otherwise. Cornucopia Institute rating here. 


OTHER DAIRY

Recommended:

Pretty good:

Solid:


Not great:



Certified organic, but opaque standards otherwise. Cornucopia Institute rating here. 



PROCESSED MEATS

Recommended:

Pretty good:

Solid:



Not great:
Aldi: Simply Nature Organic Chicken Sausage and other products
Certified organic, but opaque standards otherwise.


Certified organic, but opaque standards otherwise. The label claims "Made with 100% Grass Fed," but that term does not have an official legal status anymore, so it's impossible to verify what it actually means in practice.


________________________________

TERMINOLOGY

Labels that indicate nothing about animal welfare:
• "Natural/All natural/Naturally-raised" (no legal definition)
• "Humanely-raised" (no legal definition)
• "Non-GMO/No GMO ingredients" (no relation to animal welfare)
• "Antibiotic-free" (animals who can't be administered antibiotics are likely in slightly healthier living conditions, but it's not enough of a difference to clearly relate to animal welfare)
• "Steroid-free" (little/no relation to animal welfare)
• "Hormone-free" (little/no relation to animal welfare)
• "rBST-free" (little/no relation to animal welfare)
• "Free-range" (simply means they aren't in cages, but they are often crammed in horrendous living conditions)
• "Cage free" (simply means they aren't in cages, but they are often crammed in horrendous living conditions)
• "Inspected for Wholesomeness by the U.S. Department of Agriculture" (a mandatory label saying that it is the product it claims to be and has passed safety test; no relation to animal welfare)
• Any brand name that makes you want to feel happy and nostalgic, such as "Happy Farms" or "Fair Life" (no correlation to animal welfare)
• Pictures on the label that depict a beautiful farm or a red barn (marketing tools that are fictitious 99% of the time)

Labels that actually mean something:

USDA Certified Organic: The organic label has some very basic animal welfare requirements, and I view it as a step in the right direction, even though a lot of certified-organic farms are still very much industrial, with thousands of animals living in close quarters. The animal welfare standards of this label basically boil down to giving the animals access to the outdoors (although this is often only a token gesture), and making sure they have freedom of movement (no cages). For more information, check out this link: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Organic%20Livestock%20Requirements.pdf

Other Certified Humane labels: All of these have different meanings, but in general, they all boil down to the same thing: third-party certification to ensure that animals are not suffering and have a bare minimum of space to move around in. See "Helpful Resources" below for more information. 

HELPFUL RESOURCES

List of certifications/buzzwords and their meanings:

"Scorecards" for organic brands from the Cornucopia Institute:

Is there a brand you would like me to research? Leave a note or picture in the comments and I'll check it out!

~~~

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

This Month: Swapping, Skillsharing, and Sunchokes


Celebrating Imbolc by hiking on an obscenely-warm February 2nd in my cute new thrift-shop dress: it haaaass pockets!


January began quietly, and quickly snowballed into a very full schedule… but it was all good stuff, so I'm coming into February energized instead of drained, which is a wonderful feeling.

A few notable things from January…

Two swap meets

I hosted a "Swap n' Shop" party at my house, and had a lot of fun giving away stuff I no longer needed and picking up a few items in return! (Most notable: a copper candle holder and a book titled "How to Stay Alive in the Woods.") The next day I attended a seed swap hosted by StL Seeding Frenzy, and in return for a bag of sunchokes, some kale seeds, and other miscellaneous seeds I'd saved, I now have packets of seeds for tomatoes, peppers, turnips, radishes, Italian dandelion, wormwood, marigolds, cosmos, heirloom melons, and more! 

As if that weren't enough swapping, I'm also co-organizing a swap meet with my church later on in February! My local friends will get more details about that soon.

Skillsharing classes

Zach and I co-taught two different classes in January: one about sauerkraut, and one about milk kefir, water kefir, and kombucha. We had a ton of fun hanging out with friends, discussing ferments, and poking at blobs of symbiotic colonies of bacteria and yeast! Moments like this remind me how much I love teaching. (I mean, yes, I teach for a living, but teaching online isn't the same.) It's my goal to offer about two in-home classes a month this year, and hoping I can stick to it.

Sunchoke bread! 

As mentioned in a previous post, I did in fact dig up sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes) from our backyard, scrub and clean them, blend them into a slurry with water, dehydrate them, then grind them into flour in a blender. We made our usual whole wheat bread, but substituting 10% of the flour with sunchoke flour. The result is a complexly-flavored loaf that was slightly denser than usual (I think I'll add some white flour next time for extra gluten in hopes of getting it to rise a bit more): overall, a success! It was a ton of work, but I'm proud of it.
The sunchoke slurry after I dehydrated it


I used the blender to blend it into flour. Here it is on top of the whole-wheat flour for bread-baking
Loaves ready to go into the oven! Of course I forgot to take a photo after
they came out of the oven, and now both loaves are eaten. #badblogger


My first "zero-waste" grocery shopping

Because of our linear economy (materials become goods become waste), living with "zero" waste is literally impossible. However, I use the term because it's become mainstream enough that it's the name of a movement of people trying to create less waste in their lives. So I finally did one of the basic ideas of zero waste: brought my own containers to a local grocery store (Local Harvest in Tower Grove), had them tare the containers, and then filled up from the bulk section. It was a bit more time-consuming than usual, and I didn't get much since I was schlepping it all home on a bus and a mile-long walk from the bus stop, but it felt good to be able to support a local grocery and bring my own containers.


Some notes on this: I would never drive all the way across town to Tower Grove just to buy groceries; the fuel I would burn (even in an electric car) would not be justified, in my opinion. But, my best friend now lives right by the grocery store, and I will justify burning fossil fuel to see her. So I get the grocery store thrown in for free!

Eco anxiety, eco action

Mid-winter is always a tough spot for me to get through, and this year a lot of my feeling bad centered around eco anxiety, as I wrote about in this blog post. I was heartened and encouraged by several responses to that post, ranging from simple sympathy to a detailed analysis of community psychology as it relates to environmentalism.

Now that the days are lengthening and Celtic spring has begun with Imbolc on February 2nd (their seasons line up with St. Louis's far better than the North American seasons, anyway), I can look back at January and see the things I've managed to set in motion to help me keep fighting for the planet even when I feel exhausted or discouraged. I'm finding ways to share what I've learned, whether that's waxing eloquent about sauerkraut or putting together an upcoming blog post about how to make more ethical buying choices with grocery store meat. I have a lot of goals and plans for the rest of 2020, and I'm excited to see how many of them I can reach.

What have you been up to this month?

~~~