What does free range mean?
In my recent post on my Food As Medicine blog over at Urban Diner, I make the argument that eating meat is not only a normal and natural part of our human diet, but that meat can also serve as a medicine to treat specific diseases. For example, bones and marrow bones can be boiled to make a medicinal broth that supports the health of the joints and nervous system, whereas liver is an excellent food to promote and support detoxification.
While meat and animal products serve as a valuable food and medicine, the challenge for many consumers is to make sure that they are getting a reliable source. The term “grass-fed” and “free-range” are bandied around quite a bit, but as neither of these terms are certifiable, they may not mean very much either. In fact, in a survey of egg producers in the US by the Cornucopia Institute, many brands scored well below what I would call an “ideal” measure. In my own research trying to source egg and meat producers here in Canada, I have come to find that the many brands stamped “free-range” are clearinghouses for a variety of local producers, all whom may or may not adhere to the same standards in production. Instead of being on the product itself, sometimes the term “free-range” is found on the grocery store label, but once again this may or may not be significant. For example, my wife called me today and asked if I wanted a Turkey for Thanksgiving, as she had apparently found a free-range one for $3.98/lb. Being a little skeptical about the price, I did a quick search for the producer on Google, and soon realized that this was a typical poultry farm, with no access to grass or fresh air. And more than a few local shops engage in this practice, I suspect, not just for terms like “free-range” and “grass-fed, but other non-certifiable terms such as “free-run” or “wild”. Here in Vancouver as in other districts look for commercial products that have the SPCA logo on them, as a baseline against buying inhumane and unsustainable animal products.
There is no substitute for knowing your meat. The ideal approach is to reduce the degree of separation to one or two. Although not intimately familiar with the animal, a good butcher knows his meat and has a personal relationship with the farmer, and is usually a better source than your local grocery store. It is heartening to see the return of the local butcher shop, but I think we have a long way to go. One of the best butcher shops I’ve ever been to is Horizon Meats in Calgary, AB, where I used to buy my elk, ostrich and yak along with farm eggs, lamb and even wild fish. Here in Vancouver I frequently source our meat at Windsor Meats at 4110 Main Street (604-872-5635), or The Butcher on West 10th Avenue in West Point Grey. Across the water in North Vancouver is the Ethical Kitchen, which not only has a giant walk-in freezer filled with local meats, but offers some tasty food in their cafe. I also know a few local Halal butchers on the East side that have local goat meat, but if I’m stuck for a local source I will often default to the New Zealand lamb products, as all their lamb is free-range and grass/forage-fed.
When eating meat the best of all options is to reduce your degree of separation to one or less, which means having a personal relationship with the farmer and buy it from them, or raising your own animals. And since like most people I’m busy with other things, I will continue to rely on small producers for our meat. The Eat Wild website has been around for more than a decade now, and has a comprehensive listing of local producers all over North America. Here in the Lower Mainland of Vancouver, which encompasses the fertile delta of the Fraser River, we have some of the best farm land in the world and I believe it is crucial to our food security that we stop building malls and suburbs and retain this land for our mutual benefit. This means adding more value to the land by supporting local producers. Although I know there are a few more, often only found at local farmer’s markets, I personally only know of two that are within easy driving distance, which is kind of scary when you think about. Home on the Range is a dairy and meat producer in Chilliwack that has come under recent fire by the local health board, but are still providing their products in defiance – more on this in future posts. This year I am getting our grass-fed beef and chicken from North Valley Farm in Abbotsford at a very reasonable price. The key thing however is to make sure you have at least an apartment-sized freezer, which can easily store 1/4 side of beef (minimum order) and maybe a whole lamb and a few chickens. We recently got a slightly bigger one for free off of a friend, but if you’re short on cash, you can often find them on craigslist for next to nothing.