Sustainable, ethical, humane, organic, pastured, local…
These are just a few of the descriptors that you will find when seeking out the best possible food for you and your family members. We know that it can be incredibly confusing and also that it takes a lot of research and effort to source foods REALLY produced in a manner that honestly reflects these ideas and concepts.
It can be confusing to know if these labels actually mean anything at all — is that label or phrase defined, regulated or established by third-party certification and auditing? Perhaps it is part of a state or governmental program; or designed by private or industry certifications?
No matter how a product is labeled or described, it IS possible to find food that is in alignment with what your own values and standards are for ethical, humane and sustainable — it can be certified and verified or not — being certified does not always guarantee it is in alignment with your own personal values for what you want to support. The best you can do is to know your producer — visit the farm, learn about what they do and how they do it. This is not always possible, however, so most people need to rely on online or local guide/rating system or suppliers that you can trust to do this research for you.
One of the best places to learn more about these issues and the meaning behind these words is the Sustainable Table website. Their page titled, “These Labels are So Confusing” is a great place to start to better understand the various catch-phrases used within the food industry. The website is dedicated to the larger issue of sustainability and all this encompasses; doing a fairly good job making an incredibly complicated and complex number of issues related to sustainability and our food system in the US, understandable and digestible (pun intended!) Two related websites are the “Eat Well Guide” and “The Meatrix” (check out the original Meatrix video below):
When I first started SFRAW in 2003, my primary goal and focus was to seek out meats and related animal-derived ingredients that were raised humanely, outside of the unhealthy and cruel industrialized food system (“factory framed”) in order to provide species appropriate nutrition to the carnivores under my care.
At the time, it was very difficult to source a variety of proteins that were in alignment with my personal values for sustainability, animal welfare, and wholesomeness. Certifications and industry programs that related to these issues were not nearly as abundant as they are now. For example, in 2003, grass-finished beef and pastured lamb were not difficult to source but pastured poultry or truly pastured eggs were not commercially available in CA yet; pastured pork was just getting started here — thanks to Liz Cunningham — and because supply for this was so limited, the best option was Niman Ranch’s pork products from the mid-west.
I was on a constant hunt for suppliers and the industry was experiencing a lot of change (mostly for the good; but also included a lot of small operations not making it – saw many come & go – reliability was – and to some extent, continues to be – a serious challenge). Over time, I developed relationships with small-scale producers that were putting in a genuine effort to bring food to market with far more care and consideration for the animals, environment, and people involved throughout the supply-chain and from “farm to table”. Some foods I could find locally, others I had to get from a distance (and consider the carbon-footprint and economic impacts of making such a decision). It was (and still is!) vitally important to support those producers doing things differently — they are working incredibly hard to change, and do things in a better way. These producers are brave, dedicated, and resilient visionaries that are dedicated to producing wholesome, healthy foods in a manner that aligns with their ethics and ideals — they are in it for the love of the work, the animals/environment, and to provide a better, healthier future for all, not for greed or financial gains at any cost.
My goal continues to seek out sources that allow for me to:
- honor the animals under my care for their true nature and nutritional needs; food raised in this manner are typically much more nutritious/nutrient-dense, wholesome and safer.
- honor the animals being raised for food in a manner that was respectful to their true nature, in how they were allowed to live & how they were handled and cared for during their lifetime;
- honor the environment and health and well-being of the entire planet (air & water quality are local issues that have a global impact!);
- honor the human beings involved with producing these foods for us; this includes every person involved along the supply chain: the workers that raise their animals with care and kindness (doing this work 24/7 with a lot of inherent challenges associated with food production and working with living beings/ecosystems: draught, floods, illness, etc.); those working in the processing plants; and the local independent wholesale distributors that bring these products to market and make them available at your local grocery/butcher, restaurant, and yes, your freezer at home! Supporting the local economy, and the health and well-being of the people involved in this industry is a part of the sustainability landscape when it comes to food – this aspect is never overlooked.
Over time, the options available to me here in California broadened and the standards of my suppliers/producers have not only maintained (for the most part) but a few have even continued to improve upon their already fine programs! Those that have succeeded in doing so have earned my respect — these companies or individuals are willing to look objectively and critically at what they are doing, identify opportunities where they could improve and have worked hard to make things even better.
For example, non-ruminant animals being certified as GMO-free, soy-free or corn-free were much harder to find than they are now — while still not easily available, change is happening! More and more producers are making efforts to elevate their practices and improve what they are doing every single year. While it is heartbreaking to learn of yet another small-scale producer that is doing a beautiful job with the food they produce not making it/shutting down or struggling to survive (trust me, the struggle is real for every single producer doing things in a way that falls outside “the norm”); from my vantage point of focusing on these topics and sources for over 10 years, it has been an encouraging and hopeful experience to see how much special individuals within the industry as a whole has pushed for change, and how much we continue to learn about sustainability over the past decade.
The first place I went to find sources for SFRAW, was Jo Robinson’s Eat Wild site. This website continues to be an excellent resource for learning about pasture-based food production, and for sourcing excellent grass-finished, truly pastured meat and poultry.
If your goal is focused on sourcing meats raised humanely to specific animal welfare standards, the Humaneitarian website provides good information and suggestions on sourcing “humane” meat/poultry.
Another place to find a great collection of resources that focus on a variety of food related concerns, check out the CivilEats website.
IT’S OUR MISSION
As a vegan for close to 35 years and raw feeder for over 25 years, the troubling and ethically difficult aspect of sourcing when feeding raw was the number one reason why I started San Francisco Raw Feeders (SFRAW) — to source meats/ingredients that had been raised and produced in a manner I consider honorable (honoring the animals for their true nature; treating them with dignity and respect).
Since 2003, these objectives have remained unchanged and our focus has stayed true to our founding principles:
1) To give thoughtful consideration to and conduct business in a manner that honors the health and wellbeing of all species (human, wild, farm and domestic animals);
2) To be a discriminating purveyor of high-quality, ethically produced, truly wholesome & pure, genuinely natural foods & lifestyle products;
3) To develop and produce the best wholesome raw pet foods and truly natural pet products with a focus on using pastured, organic, local, sustainable, wild-crafted ingredients;
4) To provide these products and services at a fair cost to both the consumer and supplier;
5) To support outstanding ranches, farms, small businesses and individuals that work hard to produce products with integrity and honor;
6) To unite a diverse community that share a common interest in wholesome foods & Natural Rearing;
7) To cultivate a compassionate and informed community that educate, inspire, and support one another;
8) To mentor through education about feeding whole fresh food diets to pets and Natural Rearing principles.
OUR RATING SYSTEM: SFRAW STANDARDS
The vetting/rating system I’ve developed for SFRAW is vigorous and my personal standards are high — not many producers “meet the grade” to be represented by SFRAW. I take sourcing very seriously. Each new supplier is given very careful consideration and involves the building of strong personal relationships because trust and KNOWING your producers personally is, in the end, our best insurance policy for buying from those doing things we can support and feel good about.
One of our favorite producers has a saying, “my animals have just one bad day in their entire lifetime” — it is, of course, sad to think about the harvest/slaughtering of sentient beings, but he makes sure this is handled with reverence, respect and in as stress-free a manner possible up to the very end (they personally walk with their animals and handle them up until their last breath), and every single day of their lives leading up to that point are VERY good days for the animals raised under his excellent care.
BN Ranch Bolinas
These producers are rare and may not be easy to find. It takes a lot of work and diligence to establish mutually beneficial programs that are sustainable for all involved, and to maintain these relationships, because things inevitably do change over time.
It is upsetting for those “in the know” when companies green-wash their products or use catch phrases that do not translate to the reality of what is actually happening on the farm/ranch or at slaughter.
For example, in stark contrast to our Gold Standard producers, I was once proudly assured by a potential supplier that all of their beef was, indeed, “100% ranch raised!!!” — yep, “ranch raised” was the best he could provide to describe the beef he wanted to sell to me.
Oh my goodness…after that, I can only remember after that call just laughing to tears for about an hour! Ranch raised!? Seriously? Where else is beef being raised? On the moon? In the ocean? As if that phrase meant anything at all and was going to really impress me to want to work with them?!
“Ranch raised” (and I have actually seen this used/promoted by raw pet food producers!) is an utterly meaningless term with regards to domesticated livestock (for wild game meats, it may possibly lead to a discussion and further exploration about their program with a lot more Q&A…but tell me that your beef is ranch raised and I’ll promptly lose all interest!) Phrases such as this do not provide anywhere enough information at all about the standards of a supplier’s program — we want to know a lot more about the operation of that ranch to determine the quality of your program.
TAKE AWAY: “DO BETTER” BY DOING THE BEST YOU CAN
There are a number of standards in the US created by industry, by federal agencies and also by third-party organizations that can help consumers “do better” by looking for specific certifications that are meaningful.
Of course there is also a lot of misleading marketing catch-phrases (“ranch raised”) that do not necessarily translate into anything meaningful about how the ingredients or meats are being produced/raised at a genuinely higher standard.
In the end, everyone must do their best to procure and provide healthy, wholesome unprocessed food to our loved ones. It is not always easy to find producers that do everything you would hope for, and it usually costs quite a bit more for food provided by those that do.
For me, the most valuable thing for any person buying and eating food (for themselves or their loved ones) is that they at least give some thought and consideration to where the food is coming from/how it was raised. That’s a start and it can make a difference! Even big national retailers like Whole Foods now have standards that consumers can use to help guide them to making better buying choices.
But don’t stop there, keep on digging, and keep on learning – soon, you will be amazed at how much you know and that you actually CAN find foods that are in alignment with your unique values.
Do the best you can with eyes wide open, be mindful of what you are supporting with your dollars, and aware of what we’re putting in our bodies and how we are nourishing our loved ones. Efforts made on a daily basis really do make a difference on the larger scale, I have seen it happen in the agriculture industry and I know change is possible – it all starts with you!
Believe me, I know it is not easy and compromises sometimes need to be made to acquire certain foods with availability or budget constraints, but it is important to at least know what you are really buying = what you are voting for with your dollar, what actions and practices you support when it comes to food, animals, people, and the environment. And from a producer/supplier viewpoint, it is just as important for those in the industry to be as transparent and truthful about the standards of whatever they are selling/producing/representing, as possible.
IMPROVE THE HEALTH OF THE INDIVIDUAL AND SUPPORT THE HEALTH OF THE WORLD THROUGH FOOD!
As consumers, we have a choice every day to make a vote for what we want to see more of in the world through our purchases in the marketplace. Food/eating is something most people/animals do daily and so it provides a unique and profound opportunity every time we attain or provide sustenance to do the best we can with regards to this, whatever our circumstances are.
As providers, we’re all just doing the best that we can to care for our loved ones to the best of our abilities. The big companies that use marketing to “green wash” and misrepresent are doing their best to make as much profit as they can by appealing to consumers’ concerns and exploiting the good intentions most people have; to acquire greater and greater market share for the health of their company, whatever it takes.
But you can counter this through knowledge and informed purchasing decisions. Utilize the resources listed above to do your homework and find great sources for food. Don’t get overwhelmed – just take it one choice at a time. Soon you will become an informed consumer — create your own standards that align with what you care and value most!