This year I am turning thirty. It sounds relatively terrifying as a number. I definitely thought I would be in a completely different place in my life at thirty. However, the more I have agonized over it, the more it has become clear that these ideas are total bullsh*t and that whining about it makes me sound exceedingly ungrateful. I love my life. I feel as though I have been blessed, even on the most difficult days. I have an incredible family comprised of wonderful individuals who have all taught me something, loved me, supported me. I have a job that I love. I have the loveliest of friends who put up with me. I have an amazing husband who makes me believe in soulmates, makes me laugh everyday, makes me better. I won’t allow myself to hate some number anymore just because it is attached to my age.
These thirty years have been a testament to my blessed life and I look forward to continuing on this path, but more than that I want to push myself in the next thirty years to be better, to do better. Here is where it starts: Diet. I know, that does not in any way seem groundbreaking. A woman turning thirty who wants to slim down, big whoop, but that is not what I am referring to.
Over the last few years I have become very cognizant of what I eat, particularly the animals I consume to nourish me. I have even cut some out completely and I have felt like a better person for it, not to pat myself in the back or anything. Still I continue to eat most others, beef, chicken, turkey, and a plethora of dairy products. I consciously upgraded to things labeled “cage-free” and “free range” believing that what I was consuming was humanely raised and that I should feel okay with my consumption because I am an omnivore and it is a necessity of my diet to have the habitual burger. Now, I don’t proffer to know if we are really omnivores or were just “opportunistic feeders” trying to make sure we got enough nutrients in our diet or if at this point we don’t really need to consume other animals because we can get the necessary vitamins from other things, I honestly don’t even know for sure if in an ideal world where farm animals were humanely raised and slaughtered I would feel a-okay about consuming their flesh. But here we are, at a turning for my diet.
When I first started reading about USDA standards I was pretty horrified at what people were allowed to do to animals. I immediately felt sick and swore off animals products completely. I will refrain from posting the absolutely horrifying information, but I will share a little bit of the Humane Society’s “How to Read Egg Carton Labels”:
First of all, virtually all hens in commercial egg operations—whether cage or cage-free—come from hatcheries that kill all male chicks shortly after hatching. The males are of no use to the egg industry because they don’t lay eggs and aren’t bred to grow as large or as rapidly as chickens used in the meat industry. Common methods of killing male chicks include suffocation, gassing and grinding. Hundreds of millions of male chicks are killed at hatcheries each year in the United States.
Hens laying eggs labeled are uncaged inside barns, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. They can engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. Beak cutting and forced molting (losing feathers) through starvation are permitted.
While the USDA has defined the meaning of “free-range” for some poultry products, there are no government-regulated standards in “free-range” egg production required to make the claim. Typically, free-range hens are uncaged inside barns and have some degree of outdoor access, but because there is no regulation of the term, there are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed and no requirements for the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access. Because they are not caged, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted.
The USDA has not defined the meaning of “pasture-raised” for egg production, and therefore no government-regulated standards in “pasture-raised” egg production are required to make the claim. Typically, pasture-raised hens are kept outdoors for most of the year, on a spacious pasture covered with living plants, and are kept indoors at night for protection. While on the pasture, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as dust-bathing and foraging. However, because there is no regulation of the term, there are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed and no requirements for the amount of time spent on the pasture, the amount of space per bird, or the quality of the pasture. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted.
The birds are uncaged inside barns, and are required to have outdoor access, but the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is undefined. They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Beak cutting and forded molting through starvation are permitted.
These birds’ feed does not contain animal byproducts, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions. In fact, this label often signifies that the hens spend no time outside foraging.
I, for one, feel cheated not only of my money but also of my peace of mind. So going vegan was the only answer to my nauseous and unsettled feeling. But a vegetarian lifestyle is difficult to maintain, let alone a vegan lifestyle! First of all I don’t really like vegetables and second I love dairy. I struggled, I drove my husband crazy, and I researched. Eventually I came to my step one: cutting back, choosing some substitutions, making well-informed decisions.
Thinking and learning about my food led me to find out that there are non-profit organizations involved in the third party certification of farm animals. The Animal Welfare Institution (which offers an Animal Welfare Approved certification), for example, makes yearly visits to certified farms to ensure continued compliance and on the Certified Humane website you can read the standards and policies in place for farms to receive the Certified Humane certification. Food Alliance Certified also has some information on their website about their standards, but I did not find it as thorough and I could not find information about products they certify, however the Humane Society notes that they have very specific standards for egg-laying hens:
The birds are cage-free and must be provided with at least 1.23 square feet (177 square inches) of floor space per bird. Access to outdoors or natural daylight is required for at least eight hours per day. If an outdoor area is provided, it must have living vegetation. There are specific requirements for perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. No meat or animal byproducts are permitted in feed. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are specific requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes.
For these third party certifications the facilities must meet precise and objective standards established with the help of doctors, veterinarians and the like and they often employ well-qualified third party inspectors. This is the well-informed decisions element, the meat, dairy and poultry I consume will come from farms and facilities that have received independent certifications from organizations I can learn about. For example I learned about White Oak Pastures on the AWA website and my supportive husband pointed me to a recent article about White Oak published by the New York Times. After reading the article, which focused largely on its chief cattleman Will Harris who I found to be charming and smart, I felt comfortable with the thought of buying their products, for the first time all week I didn’t feel nauseous. Harris thinks and operates like a true farmer “With two of his three daughters and about 100 cowboys and meat cutters… [h]e grows vegetables and raises 10 species of animals, most of which roam around in a model of farming based on the way animals graze on the Serengeti plains. Goats goof off near a pile of sleeping hogs. Chickens wander past cows. Sheep hang out with ducks. The idea is that together, the animals make a stronger ecosystem. Some eat certain plants but not others. Some species eat the feces of others. All totaled, the animals and pasture are healthier for it.” He built his own slaughterhouses on site with the help of Temple Grandin, “We are professional herdsmen. We do all that we know to do to show our cattle dignity and respect and give them compassionate care every day of their lives, including the day that they are slaughtered to become food for me, my family, and for my customers.” He may have the heart of a farmer, but Harris saw a growing market in the practices he believed in so he took risks and incurred debt to grow his farm, but keep his practices “we never let even one animal within the herd suffer if I can prevent it. I am their steward and they are my responsibility.” It looks like it is paying off and he can add my few dollars to his pot; I will be going to Whole Foods today to pick up some White Oak Pastures products instead of our usual Greenwise from Publix.
Lastly, I had to consider substitutions. So I googled recipes for meatless meatballs and vegetarian enchiladas, I read about vegan butter and milk and made a shopping list. I feel better for having taken the time to understand the effect my careless choices have had on the world, I feel better equipped to make well-informed decisions, I have started to ask questions and find answers and I will go into my thirties trying to be better. I read somewhere that 29 is a year of major changes and it definitely has been so far, this will just be the last one before the big three-oh and tonight it starts with tofu stir fry.