It started with this article on Fox News. Truthfully, I thought I'd been eating happy food for at least three and a half years now. I buy almost all of my meat from Whole Foods, who has what I thought were reasonably strict guidelines regarding the raising and slaughtering of animals that they sell in their meat section. But, once I read the article on Fox News and did more research on the subject, I realized that even buying meat at Whole Foods does not guarantee that I'm buying happy food. What do I mean by "happy food?" I mean that I don't want to eat animals who lived in squalor. I don't want to eat animals who grew up in circumstances that made them crazy (literally). I don't want to eat animals who were dragged around by their ear, had their snouts beaten because a ranch worker was having a bad day, or who were transported to the slaughterhouse in a hot, overcrowded truck where animals were getting sick and dying because of the conditions. I definitely do not want to eat animals who were slaughtered in a slaughterhouse that processes so many animals that it cannot guarantee that all of the animals are unconscious before they are killed and/or dropped into boiling water to remove their hair or feathers. I don't even want to eat most farmed fish - most fish farms are toxic to their environment as well as producing fish that are far less beneficial to our health than wild fish. I realize that doesn't exactly fall into the category of "happy food," but I wanted to mention it anyway.
Some (like PETA) would say that there is no way to guarantee that animals you eat were humanely raised and slaughtered and they would contend that eating meat is unnatural and unhealthy, anyway. While I do not agree with the latter (see Real Food and Weston A. Price for more on why I think humans are "supposed" to eat meat), I do agree that in modern America it is very difficult to guarantee that you are eating happy food. Unless you're raising it yourself or buying your meat directly from a rancher, guaranteeing that you're eating happy food probably is impossible. Since I'm not willing to give up meat, I've made it my new year's resolution to do everything possible to ensure that my money is only supporting ranchers who humanely raise and slaughter their animals.
So, here is what I've learned thus far: basically, unless you can visit the farm/ranch yourself, it's impossible to know whether or not you're getting happy food. But, you can increase your chances of getting happy food. Here are some suggestions from what I've learned thus far in this process:
1. Buy meat raised and slaughtered by a small operation. If it's a small operation, it's more likely that the animals were humanely raised and slaughtered. You want to buy animals that were slaughtered by a person rather than a machine, which might miss knocking them out before slitting their throats or cutting off their heads.
2. Buy meat raised and slaughtered by a local operation. If it's local, it is more likely that the person/store you're buying from has done the research and visited the farm or ranch themselves. If it's REALLY local, you can go visit the place yourself. We have a small local dairy farm that sells eggs from hens that live on their farm. They also sell meat from small local ranches - their meat and eggs are more expensive and it's a heck of a drive to get out there, but you can bet I'll be visiting them and buying from them as often as I can.
3. Buy from an operation that processes the animals themselves instead of sending animals to a huge slaughterhouse. It doesn't really matter how happy the cow is growing up on a picturesque ranch eating fresh grass every day if then the cow is sent to the same slaughterhouse that also slaughters the not-so-happy cows. The happy cows will be treated just as inhumanely as the rest.
4. This one should be obvious, but maybe it's not to everyone...buy from an operation that does not treat their animals with added hormones or routine antibiotics. It would be even better if you could buy from one that doesn't breed their animals to be oversized. One of the biggest issues with the poultry industry today is that birds are bred to grow larger (and faster) than their legs and organs can handle, resulting in leg injuries and deformities as well as heart attacks and other health problems that are not present in properly-proportioned birds.
5. This one also seems a little obvious...buy free-range meat. While there seems to be a debate over whether or not free-range meat is what we imagine it to be, if you're buying from a small, local rancher who claims to be free-range, you're likely to get happy food. If you're buying from a huge operation that raises their animals thousands of miles from where you live, it is less likely that the lable "free range" really means what we hope it does.
Clearly, I still have a lot to learn and this new lifestyle will take some adjustment. I ordered PETA's free vegetarian cookbook, because while I get this all figured out we will probably not be eating meat as often as we used to. But, I think I've made some headway already. I've found a few small local stores and one co-op that sell locally-raised meat or meat raised at least in our region (Colorado, Wyoming, Montana) with strict rules for humane treatment and processing.
Through this new year's resolution I am beginning to recognize the benefits and importance of buying locally produced meat, produce, and other products. I really never would have thought I could get so much local produce here, or even local meat, for that matter. Once you start looking for this stuff, it's amazing how much of it you come across. I would have predicted that finding happy food would be relatively easy in Seattle or Boulder or Berkeley, but not in Colorado Springs. I love our city, but it is clearly not the most progressive city in the country. So if I can find happy food here, I believe it can be found anywhere...and really, it's not all about being progressive; maybe it is more about being regressive. Going back to how food was raised before food became a big business. Also, you should know that happy food is not just for people with money...natural doesn't have to mean expensive. Finding it at the right price or buying in quantities that fit your budget just takes a little work and a lot of determination. We'll see how long I last. Next on the list...happy dairy. That might have to wait until next year, although I'm aware of the possible contradiction between trying to eat happy food but not concentrating on dairy. I'm doing the best that I can right now! :)