Farm Fresh Perspectives: Eating ‘happy steak’ is possible

There is a lot of information out there about the evils of our meat and poultry production system here in the U.S. Sources range from aloof professional publications analyzing the effects of high-nutrient loads from animal waste on surface water to impassioned propaganda from advocacy groups that graphically display mistreatment of livestock caught on tape. Factory farms and feedlots and massive slaughter facilities with exploited workers have all gotten a lot of press.

Still, I want you to realize it’s not all gloom and doom in the livestock business. There are still family farms with animals grazing green pastures, breathing fresh air, and cooling themselves in the shade of old trees. As a matter of fact, I grew up on one, and it hasn’t changed much. The animals are plump, curious, and content, living about the most comfortable lives for which they could hope. Consumers can find meat and poultry that was raised conscientiously.

I am not trying to claim the production and consumption of animal meat is inherently right or wrong. That must be a personal decision shaped by one’s own beliefs and philosophies, and there are a huge variety of reasons people choose not to eat meat. I know this because I always ask, curious to find out what makes vegetarians and vegans choose to commit to their dietary lifestyle. However, more than once I have found myself debating a person who tells me his choice stemmed from the idea that all livestock live confined, diseased, miserable lives.

There is no doubt there exists a large number of animals whose existence is inhumane, but, as a consumer, there is no good reason why you would have to choose to eat animal products raised in this way. Now, more than ever, there is a profusion of animal products raised in organic, natural, drug-free and pastured production systems. They may be more expensive in the grocery store, but if you value that animal’s happy existence more than bargain-hunting, you should be happy to shell out the extra dollar or two.

If labels on store shelves don’t convince you, buy from local growers. An organic farmer I know likes to say his cattle, hogs and birds live a wonderful life with just one bad day, and I know he is telling the truth. Go to farmers’ markets, visit farms, ask about production practices, inspect facilities, and then choose which animal you want on your dinner table. It may sound callous, but someone is going to eat that happy animal. It all comes back to knowing your food.

My family never butchered on the farm when I was growing up, so the first time I ever fully appreciated the sacrifice that animals make to feed us was in grad school. As part of his master’s degree, a good friend of mine was raising heritage breed chickens on pasture in mobile coops. These chickens were broilers—meat birds—that ate pasture grasses, high-protein legumes and organic chicken feed grown and milled by a local farmer. They got to exhibit all their natural behaviors: scratching for grubs and insects, dust-bathing and fraternizing with comrades. However, after eight to 10 weeks, the birds were at market weight, and it was time for “processing” (our sugar-coated word for slaughter that we hoped would induce less cringing among our vegetarian friends).

We caught the chickens carefully, and placed them upside down in an inverted cone with an opening at the bottom. This immobilized their wings and claws while their heads poked out the bottom. Their were no hatchets, no headless bodies running around, just a smooth draw of the knife and a quick, quiet, and respectful passing. Some of our vegetarian friends even helped us out.

That night, despite a twinge of guilt, I ate the freshest chicken I had ever experienced, and I made my peace with it. And, to my surprise, some of my vegetarian friends became omnivores; they must have made their peace as well.

Animal flesh as food is not an absolute dietary necessity, nor is it a right to which we have unfettered access. It is a luxury of which we partake as comparatively wealthy consumers, and it should be enjoyed in moderation.

The husbandry and the life that have transpired to bring you that tasty entrée should be understood and appreciated. If you cannot justify such sacrifice for your food, then don’t eat it. But animal production for food is a reality, and if you do choose to participate in this supply chain, once again, I encourage you to vote with your dollars to support the production systems that your conscience and your taste buds encourage you to support.

Eat with understanding; eat with respect.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the May 31-June 6, 2006, issue

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