None of our experts, vegetarian or omnivore, thought we would ever evolve into a vegetarian society—and many thought it would be a disaster for the planet if we did. But they do have advice for those who wish to push the meat industry towards sustainability. "Even if you no longer eat meat, the animals still need your help," says Diane Halverson, of the Animal Welfare Institute. "If you are aware of what's happening in the marketplace, you can be a source of accurate information to your friends and family."
"Asking questions will bring about change," says Diane Hatz of Sustainable Table, a consumer campaign developed by the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment (GRACE) to promote understanding of what is happening with our food supply. To learn what to ask, visit a www.sustainabletable.org/shop/questions and download a handy cheat sheet with questions to ask your store manager, local farmer or waiter—and the answers you should be listing for from each source.
"You can make a tremendous difference with just one phone call. You'd be surprised what happens with you speak up," says Hatz. Here's who you can call or write to effect change.
a. Write to USDA:
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns
USDA, Room 200-A Whitten Bldg
1400 Independence Avenue, Washington, DC 20250
b. Ask your state legislators (you can find them with your zip code at www.vote-smart.org) for more regulation of factory farms, and demand better enforcement of existing food safety laws from the USDA and Congress.
c. Pressure your representative in Congress to help close mad cow disease loopholes. Consumer advocates say federal proposals on what materials are allowed in animal feed are still too weak to protect us.
Know Your Terms
The USDA has defined meanings for "free range" and "no hormones" but labels can be misleading. For instance, "natural" can mean minimally processed but doesn't account for the way the animal was raised. Likewise, "free range" or "organic" does not necessarily mean family-farmed, pasture-raised meat. The USDA's organic standard requires only that the animal be fed organically grown feed (and not receive additives or hormones) and that it have access to the outdoors—not that it ever actually graze on pasture. There are also a variety of eco-labels like Fair Trade, organic, Food Alliance certified, raised without antibiotics, and humanely raised. According to Sustainable Table, these labels reflect "different criteria and varying degrees of legitimacy. While some labels indicate that food was produced according to strict guidelines enforced and verified by third-party food-certifying agencies, other labels are self-awarded by food producers." For more information about eco-labels and how to read them, visit the Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels ( www.eco-labels.org).
Buy Based on Your Values
"A non-stressed animal is good business," says Mike Lorentz, an owner of Lorentz Meats, a small independent processing plant in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, with a national reputation for its humane practices. Lorentz, an outspoken opponent of buying retail, says you should buy straight from the farm. "Find a farmer with a human ethic, drive out to his farm, and buy a quarter of cow from him, three times a year," he says. Any other method won't help much "if your personal goal is to support sustainable farming and ensure your food is raised in tune of your ethics."
Kate Roth is a news and documentary television producer in New York City.