Are Humane Farming Practices Entering Into the Public Conscience?

I asked Chef Jared Van Camp on the November 2012 Dinner Party if we would ever have food in grocery stores like the food that we have in restaurants: food from small farms with the emphasis on humane standards. Produce in stores has been organic for years, but we haven't been seeing meat from small farms emphasizing the humane treatment of the animals. Indeed it seems that no one can even agree on the terminology of what signifies humane treatment. Cage-free? Free range? Pasture-raised? And what about processing? Processing and the conditions therein are rarely mentioned. Seemingly unfathomable, many animals are transported up to 1,000 miles in horrid, cramped conditions on top of each other to be lead to a processing plant where hundreds at a time are forced to slaughter within earshot of each other. I wondered when humane conditions in farms would become a topic people cared about.

Jared's response was interesting. "It is considered the Top Chef vocation of our chef culture to disseminate information." This is why so many small farms are listed on menus, even if not yet in grocery stores. The chefs are providing information and supporting their local growers and producers of vegetables and meat. Jared predicted a trickle-down effect from restaurant to grocery store. He may be right, but there is still a ways to go.

At the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Chicago this spring, artist Douglas Gayeton talked about his work visiting small farmers across the country and his project highlighting the way we discuss our farming practices and food, as well as working with high school students to persuade Washington to reconfigure factory farming practices. He spoke immediately after Executive White House Chef Sam Kass furthered the First Lady's message of "Let's Move!"

At the Good Food Festivals, during the same weekend in Chicago, over 60 small family farms were represented. Although not all had gone through any sort of certified humane inspection process, when interviewed all explained animal conditions that were free roaming in open air and pasture raised. Processing happened by driving small batches to processing plants less than two hours away. While this is still more than I was hoping for -- Gayeton spoke of mobile processing units that go to the farms, rather than the other way around -- it is much better than 1,000 miles.

Taking things one step further, Whole Foods, a sponsor of the Good Food Festivals this year has invested in the Global Animal Partnership Program, which was implemented in stores as of 2011. They have established a 5-step program that allows larger farmers to start ameliorating farming practices at a pace which can happen gradually enough to not be financially impossible, and yet be significant enough to affect the animals' quality of life. Much like turning the Titanic, Whole Foods is smart not to ostracize farmers and build a ladder which will help them get to the humane treatment of animals while also elevating the knowledge base of the consumer at the same time.

For example, below are the 5 steps for humanely raising pigs. Whole Foods suppliers must at least meet Step 1. They also carry suppliers from the other steps. The consumer can see which meat is from which step and can choose accordingly, thus, allowing farmers to start gradually, entering at level 1, while allowing consumers to know what they are eating and how that meat has been raised and handled.

Step 1: No crates, stalls or cages
Step 2: Enriched environment
Step 3: Enhanced outdoor access
Step 4: Pasture centered
Step 5: Animal centered: No physical alterations
Step 5+: Animal Centered: Entire life on same farm

In short, Whole Foods is using their corporate might to do the right thing and bring us all along with them.

In Chicago, restaurants from all over city offer meat and fish from small farms because the meat and fish is so much better. Erling Wu-Bower, Executive Chef of Nico Osteria, who did a cooking demonstration with fish at the Good Food Festivals, was clear. "Freshness has to do with how the fish is killed, handled and raised, as well as time."

While it is difficult to have this discussion without talking about price (corn subsidies make factory farming less expensive than pasture farming), rationale (since when did super-sized meal portions become a divine right at breakfast, lunch, dinner, in our drinks, in our ice cream, in our doughnuts, in our chocolate and in our pancakes?), obesity and food deserts, the assistant Manager of Publican Quality Meats, Darin Latimer, said it best. "Factory farms can't hide anymore."

Jim Slama, President of Good Food Festivals, now in its 10th year, explained that through public awareness and pressure, small changes are coming down the factory farm pipeline. "Gestation crates have been banned," he noted, and companies like Chipotle and Whole Foods are demanding better.

On the consumer spectrum, any pricing increases for small farm meats, which tout benefits like no antibiotics or growth hormones, as well as not hacking off chicken beaks due to small living quarters, doesn't seem to hurt Chicago's booming restaurant business. Last time I went to Publican Quality Meats, specializing only in artisan small farm meats, pâtés, charcuterie and more, it was packed on a random Tuesday around 11 a.m. The line was sizeable and everyone seemed pretty happy.

Perhaps this bodes well for future animal conditions and thank you to Whole Foods and the restaurants that support small farmers. There might be hope that the public conscience forms around this issue, for humane reasons and human health reasons -- do you really want to eat meat with injected hormones and bruised, tough and pumped high on anxiety from abusive living conditions? -- and that things start to change en masse for the better.