Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Meat Beat

I don’t know if you follow foodie news sources with the same obsession…er…rigor… as myself, but if you do, this whole sustainable meat business probably caught your eye. It started a few weeks ago (well, it really started much longer ago, with the likes of Michael Pollan et al, but, ugh, I don’t want to go there) when Nicolette Niman (yes, that Niman) published an editorial in the New York Times arguing, basically, that vegetarianism doesn’t do all that much to help with global warming. She argues that meat can be farmed and butchered sustainably, and, in these cases, the act of producing meat does not contribute much to carbon dioxide and methane emissions. Obviously, she acknowledged the harm that industrial meat farming has on the environment and health and … the list goes on; however, the gist of the article is that you can be a meat eater and a tree-hugger, too.

Not surprisingly, the editorial proffered a flurry of debate in the food press–prestigious and otherwise. Many derided Niman’s claims of meat’s inner innocence and I am sure there are many vegetarian/vegans kicking and squirming at the very thought of responsible carnivores. There is still a lively debate going on over at the Atlantic’s food site, and I recommend that you check it out before tossing in your two cents.

But–what does this have to do with me?

I recently got to write up a short piece for WW on a couple of up-and-coming butchers in the Portland area. Both are making their names for themselves with a badge of sustainability, and both have given me a lot of food (heh) for thought surrounding this issue.

The younger of the two, Berlin Reed, came back out to Portland at the end of the summer after spending a stint working in the Brooklyn (NY) food scene. Most recently, he held the post of butcher at Greene Grape Provisions, a store that seems to be doing a lot right. He basically taught himself how to cut up animals, how to cure bacon (including lamb! bacon! yes!) and how to source the most ethical meat possible. Best part about Berlin, though, is that he used to be a vegan. Militantly. He was so vegan that he wouldn’t even sit next to, let alone have a legitimate conversation with, meat eaters. For him, it had always been an ethics issue. He knew about the horrors of industrial meat production and wanted nothing to do with it.

Once he found good meat, though, his veganism was gonners. His first bite of flesh in 14 years was rib-eye, and he hasn’t looked back. In the last year, he has penned himself The Ethical Butcher, writing a blog, networking with farmers, making insane bacon* and being an advocate for sustainable omnivorism. But all of this is in my story. You should read it.

The part of his story that got left out of editing, and what really got me thinking, was his derision of pescatarians. I know a lot of pescatarians. In fact, most of my vegetarian friends eat fish regularly. I’ve always been a bit confused by that choice, but I never understood why I couldn’t accept it as reasonable. After Berlin and I got to talking, I remembered some images I had seen of shrimp farms in god-knows-where Asia and thought, those look just like the shots of Tyson chicken farms that made me so ill. And then Berlin brought up migration patterns and worldwide oceanic ecosystems and dwindling populations and shipping and … oh yeah, fish and other seafood are just as unsustainable as meat. There just aren’t evil corporations like Tyson for us to shake our fists at. Sure, there is sustainable seafood out there. Programs like the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch do a great job listing safe products, and even give you a really easy color-coded system to check on tomorrow’s future dinner.

Yes, it’s tricky to keep up with fish sustainability. Today’s green light will be tomorrow’s red flag, but really, if you think about it, it’s not that much harder than remembering peaches are not seasonal in December or that there are no winter squash in July. Some seafood (farmed shrimp) will never be sustainable to eat, just like New Zealand kiwis will never lose their giant carbon footprint. So pay attention. If you do choose to eat only fish, do it with the same responsibility you attribute to avoiding meat. Think local. Think seasonal.

Speaking of local seasonality, let’s talk giant Oregon animals. Let’s talk grass-fed beef and heritage-breed pigs.

It turns out, there are way more Oregon ranchers raising these awesome animals than it seems when I walk into New Seasons and look for my bi-weekly meat purchase. Many of these ranchers, it turns out, don’t show up in New Seasons because it is way more lucrative to send their animals clear across the country than it is to wrangle the financial hardships of selling to small local shops. Since USDA regulations require that all meat products sold retail in the United States be slaughtered and processed in USDA-certified facilities, and since these certified slaughterhouses are gigantic and inhumane and few and far between, it is hard for local ranchers to maintain the level of sustainability required to pass muster financially and ethically in Portland’s picky foodie market.

But there’s a loophole. If you sell a live animal to a person for personal use, you the farmer are allowed to slaughter the animal however you choose. This loophole has allowed the formation of what are called meat CSAs–consumers can contact a farmer and request a whole or half animal, which is then slaughtered and processed on site to insure humanity and sustainability. Most of the time, this huge hunk of flesh will get divided among friends and stuck in meat freezers all over town. The problem is, most people don’t know the first thing about getting involved in a CSA like this. And, most farmers don’t have the time to meet potential customers.

Camas Davis is trying to fix this. Since returning from a summer spent learning the craft of pig butchery on a small family farm in France (um, so jealous), she has been working to form the Portland Meat Collective (PMC). By becoming a member in the collective, you will enter into an organized and streamlined version of the meat CSA system. Camas will act as liaison between farmer and shopper, enabling many more people to be involved in the process. In addition, and this is the most awesome part, PMC members will get to take butchery classes with Portland butcher-chefs, learning the best way to break down and eat their animal. This is my idea of a Saturday afternoon.


My take on all of this sustainable meat dialogue is a bit mixed. I am obviously not a vegetarian. I take great care in selecting the meat and fish I do eat, and I feel like I am very aware of the way in which my purchases affect my place in the whole global warming/good health/ethical eating system.

However. The problem I have with the argument that, “yes, meat is okay because there is sustainable meat out there” is that, yes, there may be sustainable meat out there, but it’s not everywhere, and it’s certainly not affordable for much of the country. I can afford to buy expensive meat because I only do it so often and I am only feeding myself. I am also lucky to be surrounded by so much good meat here in Portland. Laurelhurst Market. Tails and Trotters. The Eastmoreland Market. New Seasons. To consumers in, say, Vidalia, Georgia, this is not the case.

I think that we live in an exciting time foodwise. There are so many young people out there who are devoted to Slow Food and organics and locavorism that we really do have a shot at changing the food system in this country. It is starting to change, and I think the poor economy actually helps (of course it’s cheaper–and better!–to eat food grown in your own backyard), but we’re going to need more people out there growing beautiful produce and raising happy animals.

The only way we can get better food more accessible to more people is if we have more people out there growing it. We need more farmers.

With any luck, I’ll be out there doing my part in the next couple of months. Keep your fingers crossed.

*If you have a couple extra bucks, you really should contribute to Berlin’s quest to get his bacon in the Portland farmer’s markets. He’s currently part of a funding program called Kickstarter, which helps young and creative entrepreneurs get dollar bills for their projects. Participants get a certain amount of time to get a set amount of money in pledges. If they meet their goal in the allotted time, they get the money. If not, no dice. In Berlin’s case, if you pledge $20 or more, you’ll get a tee shirt. If you shell out the big guns ($50 or more), you can get the opportunity to design your own bacon flavor and get it named after you.


  1. It's definitely feasible to sell bacon for a living. That's what I did post-Reed for 2 years. I made more money than I ever have at any other job. PDX is bacon crazy to be sure. Multiple flavors and custom curing is the best way to make it work, too. I had lists miles long of people who wanted wacky flavor combinations. I'm sure Berlin has the same. I'm glad someone is hitting the farmer's markets--I was on the waiting list as well prior to returning to school--because there's a lot of money to be made.

    If you like lamb bacon, try suckling pig guanciale. It's heaven.

  2. Pescatarians are not vegetarians. If you do not eat fish or meat, you are a vegetarian; if you eat one or both, you are not a vegetarian. Simple.

  3. @Anonymous: I agree with you.However, since the idea of pescatarianism being an outgrowth of vegetariansim seems to be more of a self-identification thing, it makes sense to talk about them in the same way.