Somewhere between the farm and your table there lies a growing number of terms that can either make you feel like you're supporting a happy animal and a sustainable future in Ontario and feeling like you've been hoodwinked into buying the same old commercially produced products from who knows where. Good farmers often have difficulty articulating what they do, or a lack of opportunity, so in this section we address their industry and some of the definitions that are shaping it today.
Antibiotics are used in farming to treat infections but are also used preventively for things like E. coli O157:H7. What is important to note is that the overuse of antibiotics in farming have created, and continue to create resistant forms of bacteria, which can in certain cases be extremely dangerous to humans. Although antibiotics can be necessary, a potentially healthier and more natural method depending on the situation would be to remove the sick animal and cull it.
The term antibiotic free does not mean that an animal was actually raised without antibiotics, but what it does mean, in Ontario, is that the animal hasn't had any antibiotics in its system for a period of time before its slaughter, and therefore shouldn't have any in its body by the time it gets to the dinner table. This period of time varies on the animal; it takes less time for a chicken to push antibiotics out of its system than a cow.
A cash crop is one produced purely for maximum profits with minimal inputs, in which the farm itself is not raising/growing the product for its own use. The reason this term is important is because it also describes an attitude towards agriculture that is not sustainable and tends to use synthetic means to produce them.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, or CFIA is a federal regulatory body with oversight on burgeoning technologies in the food industry and manages best practice safeguards. They also have the ability to confiscate, or seize food items, suspend, or cancel operating licenses and issue fines to food businesses that are not compliant with the laws.
A herd of farm animals that is 100% born and raised on a single farm to ensure the health of the herd. No additional animals are brought in from the outside, or introduced into the genetic pool.
Commodity meat is described as meat that is produced and distributed on an industrial scale, and can be bought and sold on the commodity markets, hence the term "commodity". Simply put, it's an industry term for commercial, large scale production.
In farming, culling is the process of removing or segregating animals from a breeding stock based on specific trait. What this means is that farmers will look for genetic traits they find favourable such as temperament, condition of the animal's feet, or meat to fat ratio and then want to breed them while removing the animals with undesirable traits and sending them for slaughter. Culling is important because animals who exhibit positive traits will require less help from treatments such as antibiotics to thrive, but culling can also be done as an alternative to antibiotic use, by removing the sick animal and slaughtering it so that other animals don’t get sick as well.
Docking is the removal of an animal’s tail, or ears to prevent them from chewing on each other. This practice is often done when the animals are only a few days old and without anesthetic. Docking is prevalent in commercially raised animals because they are confined in close quarter with each other and is inhumane by most standards. That said, in some situations docking is considered necessary to the animal’s health; for instance in sheep the tails are docked to prevent buildup of feces which can encourage parasites.
E. coli is a naturally occurring bacteria and in most cases is harmless. It also occurs organically in a cow’s stomach, the form that is dangerous to humans is O157:H7, which can come from cows, but research is showing that it is directly related to feedlot diets and corn consumption. A quote from Michael Pollan in the omnivores dilemma sums it up well, “A concentrated diet of corn can give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn renders it acidic, causing a kind of bovine heartburn that in some cases can kill the animal, but usually just makes him sick. … Over time the acids eat away at the rumen wall, allowing bacteria to enter the animal’s bloodstream. These microbes wind up in the liver, where they cause abscesses. … In this new, man-made environment new acid-resistant strains of E. coli, including 0157:H7, have evolved … by acidifying the rumen with corn we’ve broken down one of our food chain’s most important barriers to infection”.
You may see this term in a marketing context, or on packaging. Ethical is defined by having an applied set of principles and with regards to farming this term is intended to mean that the farmer takes good care of both the land and livestock, without exploiting either. As with many terms this one is unregulated, and so does not actually guarantee anything.
A feedlot, or feed yard is an animal feeding operation in which cattle are fed corn, soy and other carbohydrate concentrates for 90 to120 days before slaughter. Feedlots range in size from less than 100-head capacity to many thousands. A lot of the cows you may see grazing on fields while you drive through the county are destined for the feedlot, to put on huge amounts of weight and fat leading up to slaughter. One of the main issues and concerns surrounding feedlots themselves is the concentration of animal waste and runoff which can cause severe environmental damage, and the release of harmful pathogens into our water system even if well managed.
Weedy or broad-leaf plants (unlike grasses) that serve as pasture for animals (e.g., clover, alfalfa).
Greenwashing is the practice of using what sound like positive terms to confuse consumers into buying things they may not actually want. These terms are most often unregulated ones used to convince or imply to consumers that they are buying a product which meets certain environmental, ethical or local standards, which is not always the case. For example, a package of pork may be labeled as hormone free, when in reality you cannot raise a pig in Canada with hormones to begin with.
All animals, plants and people contain hormones - they are the chemical signals that allow us to grow and develop. The reason hormones are talked about with concerns to meat production are that artificial hormones can be injected into livestock to make them grow faster, or produce more milk. There is no such thing as an animal that is "hormone free", but you may see products that describe themselves as raised without hormones. In Canada, artificial hormone use is banned in everything but beef.
Some producers still classify their meat as “hormone-free.” This can be used as a marketing tactic, since most meat raised in Canada is legally not allowed to be raised with artificial hormones. The exception to this is beef. Beef producers can use hormones in cattle to produce fast growing, leaner animals. The exception to this is milking cows, in which hormone use has been banned since 1999 due to concerns over animal health and welfare.
Humane slaughter is a term defined by Canadian law that states “all license holders who operate slaughter establishments under federal regulations, ensure that all species of food animals are handled and slaughtered humanely; starting with their arrival at the establishment, until slaughter in the facility.” The unfortunate reality is that enforcement of these regulations is incredible lax, which results in problematic slaughter practices that go unchecked. Because government inspectors are usually absent when animals are slaughtered, the requirements under the regulations are not always enforced, animals in larger facilities are frequently handled roughly and subjected to shocks with electric prods as they are moved toward slaughter. The farmers we choose to work with are more critical of the slaughter process and vet the facilities doing the work to make sure that the animals are as well cared for as possible. There are other ways of determining if slaughter was done humanely and at Pasture Butchery we inspect the animals we buy for signs of abuse and will cease purchase from any farm that shows them, unless they are willing to move to a different slaughter facility.
Local food, locally grown, or locally sourced are all technically unregulated terms, but the generally accepted meaning is that the food was produced no further than 50 km from where its being consumed. As with anything in the food industry it’s good to be aware of this term, and although its generally used on products whose consumers are looking to support community-based businesses, it does not speak to animal welfare, regenerative farming practices, or nutritional density.
In recent years The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has created some rules to prevent companies from abusing the them "natural". The CFIA says that foods can only be represented as natural if that food does not contain any added vitamins, nutrients, artificial flavours or food additives. It's important to note here that "natural" does not really tell us anything about the products health benefits, or welfare considerations. Products labeled with "natural ingredients" or "made with natural flavour/colour" may still appear on foods made with a number of synthetic, artificial ingredients as long as the ingredients in question fall under the "natural" claim guidelines. Those guidelines also prohibit any processes that significantly alters the original physical, chemical or biological state. Ultimately its in the hands of the consumer to research to the product in question to see if it meets their standard for something "natural".
Naturally raised is an unregulated catch all term, used to market products that we want to associate with the best farming practices. Like many of the other "greenwashing" terms, this is no guarantee of anything to do with the animal’s welfare, diet, or final processing. If anything, the term naturally raised should refer to animals that have been raised without any human intervention, like wild deer, but of course that is not at all what it actually does mean and is more often than not slapped onto products to give them a perceived higher value.
You are what you eat, and nutritional density is one of the more important facets to focus on when considering the health benefits of pasture raised meats, VS commercially produced ones. The animals living on pasture eat a varied diet of plants that help provide them a balance of vitamins and minerals, which in turn pass onto you, when you consume that animal. A great example is eggs; the average store-bought egg, even from a "free range", or "free run" producer does not speak to the chicken’s diet, but rather the environment in which it was grown. These chickens are typically on a grain feed, and as opposed to pastured eggs, in which the chickens eat a variety of grasses, bugs and grains the conventional eggs only have a quarter of the pastured chicken’s nutrients. When we talk about nutrient density we are talking about nutrients per calorie - both the egg from the conventional producer and the egg from the pastured chicken have the same number of calories, but the pastured egg can have on average three times the number of nutrients, which makes it easier to understand why the pastured eggs cost a bit more and are not only ethically produced but actually have much better nutritional value.
Organic on its own does not necessarily mean anything, but "certified organic" does have official meaning in Ontario to regulate the types of products and methods that can be used in farming. Both terms do not qualify the ethical treatment of animals, the slaughter process, or the nutritional density, but certified organic products are ones in which they were produced without anti-biotics, or chemical fertilizers. Its is often better to focus on buying organic vegetables, rather than organic meats because of this. If a product says organic, instead of "certified organic" you may want to double check for the certification seal because it may not actually be an organic product.
The pasture is the land the livestock graze on - its the wild plants in the field, insects on the grasses, animals in the woods and microorganisms in the soil. Pasture-based farming lets the animals do some of the work. The animals harvest and feed themselves on the natural grasses/plants and fertilize their pastures, overseen by the farmer in a carefully managed system. The net result is significantly less fossil-fuel consumption, less erosion, less air and water pollution and greater soil fertility. Pasture farming is not only the oldest method of animal husbandry, but can also be its future once again.
Pasture raised is another unregulated term in Ontario, with unfortunately nothing to certify its authenticity, or outline its parameters. When we use the term, pasture raised we are talking about our selected farmers, who raise their animals out on natural grass fields, and who practice regenerative agriculture. These animals eat a huge variety of wild plants, bugs and are often supplemented throughout the year on grains grown by the farmers themselves and silage in the winters from their own fields. What pasture raised animals are, is the opposite of commodity farming, or cash cropping - pasture raised animals are part of the land’s natural cycles.
Regenerative Agriculture/Organic Land Regeneration:
Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to growing plants and raising animals. As opposed to commercially used pesticides and fertilizers its focused on the natural regeneration of the topsoil, to increase biodiversity, improve the water cycle, which in turn supports native species who help increase the lands resilience to climate change, and strengthens the health and vitality of farm soil. A farmer practicing regenerative agriculture is often growing plants that are beneficial to the soil, but do not necessarily have a market on their own, because the land needs a complex variety of biodiversity and not just cash crops for sale. Any good farmer will tell you that what they really farm, is healthy soil, because that is where responsibly grown, and healthy food comes from.
This is a term that refers to how an animal is killed before final processing. A well cared for and considered animal is not only humanely raised through its growth, but also in its last moments. An animal that is happy, is not only more "ethical", but tastes better because when an animal is under stress it releases hormones that effect final taste and texture. More consumers should consider asking about the slaughter process and not just the animal’s diet and where it was raised, if they’re interested in animal welfare and higher quality meat.
Sustainable is another unregulated term and is not held to any accountability. It is meant to denote that a product has been grown or raised in a manner that requires little to no impact on the land and is therefore a practice that can be done without damage to our land. Products labeled as sustainable should be held in question as to what makes them sustainable, and the answer cannot be satisfied with other unregulated terms, like "grass-fed", or "local", but rather should be related to regenerative agriculture.
You see this term a lot, and especially in the meat industry, but this means absolutely nothing. Signage often will make statements such as “purveyors of quality meat and seafood”. Quality could be high, or low, or one pretending to be the other. When we use the term quality, we are generally referring to the products attributes, which could be either good or bad.