A rare treat: The perks of local beef

I haven’t had a reaction to animal rights as vivid as I did this weekend since I converted to vegetarianism on my 13th birthday. My family has never really done steak, so for my 13th birthday I asked if we could go to a steak house as a rare treat (no pun intended).  My parents complied, and one spring evening in the nineties we sat outside on the patio of the steak house in Ottawa, the sun reflecting off the high glass wall of the restaurant.

Then – thud! thud! Unbelievably, a sparrow landed on the left side of my plate, then another on the right.  Twitching and bewildered from their surprise collision with the reflective glass, the sparrows blinked their last.  I picked them up in my napkin, almost as dazed.  We complained to the manager, got free dessert.  Somehow, I felt the death of these birds was a sign from above, and that was that:  your classic teenaged vegetarian was born, and I didn’t eat beef again for probably fifteen years.

After about a decade and some international travel, I made the switch to eating local, ethically-raised meat, mostly from farmers I knew.  I also made the decision to “receive hospitality” – in other words, not to reject meat that was cooked for me with love (something I learned during my travels).

So this Thanksgiving I ate mouth-watering turkey at my parents’ place from a friend’s farm in Dundas, Ontario.  She raises free-range, grass-fed highland beef cattle, turkeys and chickens as well as farm-fresh eggs from her free-ranging flock, a side project at the sunflower farm. She sells by word of mouth.  She also recently got to introduce Feist at the Greenbelt Harvest Picnic.  Being a farmer has its perks!

So back to my vivid reaction to animal treatment: in addition to eating free-range turkey, this weekend I had the chance to visit a dairy farm with a friend who is milking there.  The barn was clean, the cows were healthy, the operation a perfect example of modern efficiency in farm production.  But a sense of unease began to build inside me that reminded me of that steakhouse sparrow fiasco.

As a new mother, I found myself pitying the cattle we passed.  “This is the stall for cows who just gave birth a few days ago.”  Not a calf in sight, of course — and was that sadness I sensed in the cow’s big eyes as they moped about?  I shook it off.   After all, those cows were milked for their nutrient-rich pre-milk, colostrum, which was then bottle-fed to their baby calves who are housed in another barn.  It could be worse.

The cow barn was full of quite beautiful Holstein cattle; this pen for pregnant cows, this one for “fresh” cows that have just started producing milk, another for cows who haven’t yet been pregnant, and another for older calves, presumably just waiting around until they’re old enough to mate.  But my sense of unease grew again as I realized that these cows never go outside.  They just move from one concrete pen to the next, to the milking station, and back again. I didn’t ask what pen they end up in when they’re too old to milk.

A family member loaned me a Montessori school basics book this Thanksgiving (Montessori is an alternative schooling method).  The first chapter talks about how the industrial school model, based on the efficiency of factories, isn’t working for kids.  Insert child at one end of the system, move along conveyor belt, relocate child every 50 minutes at the sound of a bell, eject at the other end complete with training and education.   The author argues that this way of thinking is out of date, but that the system is hard to change.  Obviously, schools aren’t the only systems modeled after factories that value efficiency first — and they’re not the only systems that are hard to change, even when they’re not working.  Large-scale farms also follow this model.

Certainly, one of the drawbacks of factory farming, in the case of producing meat on such a large scale — where large factory farms bring their cattle to a common slaughterhouse to be processed — is what we’ve witnessed this last month in terms of contamination at the XL Foods meat processing plant in Alberta.  From Vancouver Island to Newfoundland, ten people and counting have been infected with the potentially deadly stream of E.coli, O157:H7.  And 1,800 products have been recalled across Canada in the largest national recall of beef in Canadian history (you can find the info on specific stores and products here).  Although meat from the plant was stopped at the U.S. border on September 13th, it wasn’t until two weeks later that The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) suspended XL’s license, a delay which some are blaming for the outbreak.

A couple of families and I recently got together to order a quarter of a cow from a local beef farmer who’ll be renting land from a local acreage. The cows are pastured and grass fed, the meat processed at a local plant.  Small farms and small meat processors certainly aren’t immune to bad handling practices resulting in contamination – some might worry they are less reliable. But the amount of meat recalled and wasted under the same circumstances would be a fragment of the animal life disposed of in the case of XL Foods, a result of poorly following health regulations on a massive scale.  To add insult to injury, not only were these cows raised and slaughtered in a factory setting, but because of the far-reaching impact of contamination of a mammoth processing plant which processes fully 40% of Canada’s domestically consumed beef, if something goes wrong with one cow, or one person forgets to wipe the counter in one corner of the plant, potentially hundreds of cows need to be disposed of.

And if I’m going to eat beef again, that’s a good enough argument for me to find and support local producers.  All I need is an annual thanksgiving visit to a conventional farm and a borrowed book to keep me in line.