What’s for dinner has never been a more confusing topic. The food we eat nowadays is hardly food at all. Once harvested, it is processed and preserved with such ferocity that it is now more accurate to call what we ingest “food-like-products” than food. This has not gone unnoticed. There has been a recent outpouring of information, particularly in the form of books and documentaries, to uncover the practises of the food industry. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Inc., Fresh, the Future of Food, Fast Food Nation, and Vegucated (to name a few) all arrive at the same conclusion – we have become irrevocably detached from food. A short meander to the grocery store tells us nothing about our food – where it came from, how it was preserved, or how fresh it is – and this is especially concerning when the lives of food animals are involved.
Indeed, to cope with the ever-increasing demands of consumers (i.e. us), the food industry has resorted to treating food animals as food units. They are used, processed and discarded with minimal regard for their suffering, let alone their dignity. They are treated so because it is the only way that the industry might cost-effectively sate our lust for meat, dairy, and eggs. Allowing animals the conditions and treatment that would be considered humane is not feasible when the most recent statistic for meat consumption among Americans is 276lbs per person per year (see Economist article).
As an Alberta girl raised on a regular staple of delicious, melt-in-your-mouth AAA Alberta steaks, it took me a long time to stop feigning obliviousness. But there came a point when I had seen enough covert videos taken inside farm factories, and the evidence was sufficiently piled at my feet. I finally relented and admitted that I had bought in to a conspiratorial industry that was providing me with products that were cruelly harvested and sub-optimal for my health. Still, admitting there is a problem and solving it are two very different things.
It’s interesting that food has become as much of a hot button as religion. What a person chooses to eat or not eat is an extremely personal decision. Food is cultural, it is pleasurable, it reminds us of home. For many, food is synonymous with happiness. Above all, no one wants to be chastised for consuming something they find tasty. This is what made the struggle the hardest for me. Not to mention my acute sense of taste, I felt I was losing part of my personal freedom – to eat whatever I pleased without retribution – and so I fought tooth and nail to suppress what I already knew. But really, as a hypocritical animal lover sneaking steaks on the side, it was only a matter of time.
So I tried becoming a vegetarian. That lasted one month. Then I was lured in again by the smell of bacon, the weakness and lethargy I suffered, and the general distaste I had for meat-less meals. I had very little interest in eating meat-like substitutes – I was trying to avoid overly processed foods, so eating a burger patty that looked like meat and smelled like meat but wasn’t meat seemed the opposite of the goal I strived to achieve. I ended up eating an endless, uninteresting tirade of salads and stir-frys. Without question, I hadn’t done it right. Of course vegetarian meals can be delicious, and of course you can prepare them in a manner that satisfies your body’s daily requirements. But despite my general guilt at being a hypocritical meat-eater, the temptation of all the delicious meat options that pervade everyday life made giving up meat entirely an unlikely option. So the best I could do, given my weakness for meat, was reduce my burden by making better decisions as a consumer.
The first thing to do was my homework. I can easily say that in all my days, I have never encountered a topic as thoroughly engrossing or as complicated as this. And I do research for a living. This should have been second nature! But despite months of searching the issue, products, and companies, there was simply no end to this rabbit hole. I thought I could subvert the largest of the dilemma by simply purchasing organic products. But to my dismay, the more I read, the more I unearthed articles that pointed accusatory fingers at both the sustainability and viability of the organic food market. Some critics denounce organic food because of the relative burden organic crops and farms place on the environment – they take more land, use more water, require more resources. In many cases, organic food and sustainably produced food are two very different and potentially irreconcilable things. If the majority of organic food is really produced at the expense of the environment and its resources, it might make sense to choose organic if you’re trying to be more health-conscious, but not necessarily if you’re conservation-minded. And there is still no mention of ethical treatment in organic crops, unless by virtue you assume that a cow that is allowed time outside is happier than its farmhouse-imprisoned counterpart.
Then there are the organic food critics who are skeptical about the entire industry of “certified organic” labelling. Indeed, while the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is ultimately responsible for accrediting organic status, the actual agency does not conduct the accreditation – that is done by for-hire, for-profit certifying agencies that often collect revenue from the producers they certify. If more producers certified means more money, then there is nothing stopping these agencies from certifying everything organic. To make matters worse, there is virtually no testing on to verify the status of an organic product, and when there is, results have reinforced the claim that these products may not be up to the standard we assume they are (see CBC news article).
After the crushing blow to my organic-food-only plot, I walked down to my local IGA, and I opened my eyes to what I had seen every day but had never thought of from the perspective of making food decisions. When I looked for it, I was shocked by the marketing approach taken by the brands I’d grown up with. Eggs wrapped in cartons portraying red farm houses peppered with happy, running chickens; dairy products with pictures of smiling cows on pastures. Yet it was unlikely that the chickens and the cows actually producing these products had ever set foot on real grass. After all this, I was totally overwhelmed. In a surfeit of food, I could find nothing to eat.
Eventually I had to snap out of my macabre mentality and admit that there was no easy solution to the challenge, but that doing nothing was still the worst option. I ranked the characteristics of food that were most important to me, and now that is my criteria for my food choices. Most important is the humane treatment of food animals. Followed closely by local production. Thankfully, for like-minded individuals, Montreal has a few options. Here are my two favorites:
Ferme Morgan – The best possible option is picking your meat directly from a local farm, and Ferme Morgan allows you to do this. Go to their beautiful website, and you can choose the products you’d like, order them by email or phone, and they will be delivered to a drop off point. There are five in the greater Montreal area, and you can choose the one closest to you. The real testimony to the farm’s good work is that you can go and visit them directly. Clearly, they’re not hiding anything.
Saint Vincent Bio – a slightly more convenient alternative is Saint Vincent Bio. The farm is located in Saint-Cuthbert, but there are two locations in Montreal’s biggest farmer’s markets – Jean Talon and Atwater, so you can go and purchase your meat 7 days a week during regular hours. They have everything there, from eggs, to pheasant, to steaks, to sausage. It all tastes really good, and they explicitly state their mandate on the treatment of food animals. They also let you visit their farm.
Here are some others:
Porcmeilleur – These Jean Talon market butchers are famous for their delicious pork, and in fact they only sell pork. I know that they get their pork directly from a farm in St. Madeleine, so at least it is local, but there is no news as to their treatment of animals. They are, however, recommended by humanefood.ca – a very good sign.
Ecollegey – Owned by two local health-conscious folks, you have to be a bit more careful shopping here, but they have some good stuff. The really nice thing is they will deliver straight to your door, although they also have a shop you can also visit in NDG. A lot of their listed meats include information on its origin, and in some cases, they’ll link them to the website of the farm they acquired them from. They stock bison from the free ranged herd of Takwanaw farm (http://www.takwanaw.com/), and humanefood.ca also supports them.
In all, the struggle to find ethical food was far more burdensome than I ever could have expected. But I really think that it was worth it. I feel better – both physically and mentally, since making some changes. I appreciate the delicious meat that I prepare. Most importantly, I no longer need to wonder where the dubious package of grocery store chicken breast has come from; I know where the location and mandate of the farms that prepare the products I purchase, and in some cases, I’ve visited them. Many organisations will tell you that veganism or at least vegetarianism are the only solutions to the food problem. I disagree. While they are steps in the right direction, most of what I have found relates to produce as well as meats. Cutting meat out isn’t the solution – it’s wiser purchasing altogether. In an economy of supply and demand, we can demand products that corroborate our principle beliefs. And that, I do believe, is a step in the right direction.
To begin your own research, some great resources:
Humanefood.ca – all about what goes on in Canada, what is allowed by law, and includes some pretty graphic and emotionally wrenching videos of what is still considered “legal treatment” of food animals.
Ethicalfoods.com– a really great website, including lots of blogs and answers to many of the questions you may have. I particularly recommend the article on organic meat, and what the organic label really means.