The Prices We Pay for Protein

Seafood catches a lot of scrutiny from the media and environmental groups about sustainability, over fishing, and mercury content. Shoppers turn away from the seafood section of their grocery stores because they are confused and overwhelmed by all the contradictory information they have been bombarded with. Pretty much everyone is in agreement that fish is an important part of a healthy diet, but many people are worried about eating the “wrong” fish and unknowingly consume mercury or contributing to the over-fishing of a species.

And while all these concerns are valid, I don’t see the same degree of scrutiny being turned on other forms of protein, namely beef, pork and chicken. The Beef/Pork/Chicken “holy trinity of meats” has been a staple of American cuisine and culture since… well since there has been American cuisine and culture. But animal production and farming has come a long way (just not in the right direction) since the farming days of our ancestors.

At this point in my blog post I am going to make an assumption that all my readers are aware of the horrifying nature of factory farms, and that I don’t need to describe in detail the cruel treatment of animals. If you need an example (and you have a strong stomach), watch this video below, which shows the production of pork in some of the largest hog farms in the country.

It is not just pork being produced in this manner. It is a similar story for poultry and beef. Animals are crammed together in spaces so tight, their teeth, beaks and claws have to be removed so the animals don’t kill each other in reaction to the stress. Not only are these animals living in fear and pain for their entire lives, they are also pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, treated with pesticides, and fed low quality feed. At the ends of their lives they are often too weak and sick to even walk themselves to slaughter and the dying creatures have to be bulldozed to their death.

File:Confined-animal-feeding-operation.jpg

cows in a "confined animal feeding operation"

The goal is to produce as much meat for the least amount of money. Does this method of farming produce a high quality meat?  Absolutely not. But this is how most of the meat in the united states is produced.  When I say most, I mean almost all of it.

Before I bore my readers with too many depressing facts, I think it important to add that factory farming also has a detrimental impact on the environment. Enormous amounts of fresh water are used in the production of meat, starting with the irrigation water required to grow the grain to feed the animals. The waste from these “farms” creates methane gasses and toxic run-off that leaches into groundwater and pollutes rivers, lakes, and eventually oceans. Citizens who are unfortunate enough to live next to factory farms face higher than normal rates of illness and cancers.

Oftentimes the same consumers that are worrying about whether they are eating the right fish, or if they might be getting too much mercury, or if certain fishing methods are damaging the oceans, are turning around and grabbing a Styrofoam tray of chicken breasts, not realizing the horror story that was that chicken’s life, the drugs it contains, and the impact it had on the environment.

File:Florida chicken house.jpg

chickens being raised for meat

And I don’t mean to sound like I’m writing from some morally superior high-ground, because I am often guilty of this very crime.  I admit that I have been more concerned about the origins of seafood than the origins of the other animal I eat, probably because of my family’s involvement in the fishing industry.  I don’t hesitate to ask a restaurant or grocery store where their seafood comes from, but I rarely ever ask about the source of their meats.  If I can ask about the salmon on the menu, why wouldn’t I ask about the steak?  Sure, I try to only buy “free range” chicken or “natural” beef, but in the research I’ve been doing lately I’m discovering that these terms mean very little.  I have been so shocked by the information I have gathered about factory farms that when I went grocery shopping today, I passed the meat section feeling literally queasy.

As a result, I think I have changed my views on seafood a little.  I think any wild fish is improvement over factory raised meats.  A wild fish lives out its entire life as nature intended. It swims free, grows strong, eats the same things fish have been eating for millions of years, and is subject to the law of “survival of the fittest.”  Some fish may accumulate very small quantities of contaminants like mercury in their systems, but compared to the antibiotic/hormone/pesticide cocktails that are pumped into most meats, well… I just can’t say I’m too concerned about the minuscule levels of contaminants in fish.    I still won’t touch a farmed fish, or a fish from another country, but the fisheries in the United States are so carefully managed (sometimes overly managed) that any wild fish caught in US waters is a pretty safe bet.

In short, when it comes to eating protein, I CHOOSE FISH!!!

wild salmon in Alaska, photo by Lauren Godfrey

No, I’m not going completely pescetarian, but from now on, if I eat meat it is going to be from a small local farm.  I don’t want to eat any more mystery meats.  If you would like more information and advice for avoiding factory meats and dairy products, read this article from The Huffington Post.

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6 thoughts on “The Prices We Pay for Protein

    • Thanks Mel,
      It is a subject that I feel pretty passionately about, so it was hard not to rant on for pages about the evils of factory farms and rave about the wonders of wild seafood. There are just so many things wrong with the way food is produced in this country!
      By the way, I’ve really been enjoying your blog. Although I’m not a skier, I love fish and wine, and I’m learning a lot from you about pairing seafood and wine. Thank you!
      -Robin

      • We try to eat game meat when we don’t eat fish. Organic too if it’s available. Michael Pollan’s work has been pretty enlightening.
        It means a lot to know to me to know that you are learning something about wine and food pairing from my ramblings.

    • Thanks for the links Grant. I admit I have been intrigued by open ocean aquaculture, and I’m happy to see fish farming taking big steps to increase sustainability, like organic feed and less crowding in pens. I’m not completely opposed to fish farming, but I would like to see it taking place in closed containment tanks on land, where there can be no risk of contact with wild salmon and no chance of escape. Organic and open ocean are great, but there is still a big possibility of pens being damaged in storms and farmed fish interbreeding with wild species and weakening the gene pools. I think that wild salmon are one of our most valuable natural resources and putting them at risk in any way is just unacceptable. I’m really hoping that technology will be able to eliminate these risks eventually. Thanks for your input and your point of view, I really appreciate the dialogue!
      -Robin

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