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Guest Post from Farmer Mary Kathryn Barnet

April 11, 2014

In the catering industry, we believe it is important to know where your food comes from. Our efforts to be environmentally sustainable have lead us to source locally whenever possible. Our partner farms organically and humanely raise their animals and grow their produce, giving us peace of mind in the kitchens.

In the same respect, we know that our clients are equally invested. People want to know about their food! So, occasionally we will ask guest “speakers” to shed some light on some consumer questions. While these opinions do not necessarily reflect those of La Prima Food Group, we do believe in sharing a number of different perspectives to help our clients make informed decisions.

This week, we’ve asked Farmer Mary Kathryn Barnet from Open Book Farm in Myersville, Maryland to share her standpoint on the meat industry.

Have you ever wondered why some farmers use antibiotics and hormones in meat? Looking for an alternative to what is sold in your grocery store? Read on:

It is an unfortunate truth that food marketing (at least in most grocery stores I frequent) is all about buzz words: “natural,” “artisanal,” “humane,” or “free range.” As farmers ourselves, my husband Andrew and I are always hyper sensitive to the tricks that marketers can use to try to separate a consumer from his or her dollar. We raise livestock outside, on grass, with minimal stress and maximum nutrition. I think I can safely say that your mental image of our farm is probably a fair approximation of what it actually looks like: happy, healthy, clean animals. They don’t wander freely wherever they want (the chickens would all be eaten by foxes and hawks, and the pigs would quickly decimate our vegetable garden), but they have lots of room, frequent moves onto fresh grass, and ample opportunity to do their pig/chicken/turkey/cow thing.

Our farm’s name, Open Book Farm, is meant to be an invitation to customers to come see it for themselves and verify that we are what we say. When you shop at the grocery store, however, you don’t always have the same opportunity for first-hand quality assurance. Without a clear understanding of what food labels actually mean (rather than what they imply), it can be easy to pay extra for something you think is “better,” “greener,” or more “natural,” but which is, in fact, nothing special in the world of Big Ag.

Meat labels, for example, often advertise “no added hormones.” Unless you are buying beef, lamb, or milk, this means a whole lot of nothing. The FDA prohibits farmers from feeding pigs, chickens, turkeys, and other fowl hormones. I’ve heard the rumors of 10 pound chickens with enormous breasts, but I have to admit, this is the result of breeding, not Frankenfood.

If you are buying beef, lamb, or milk, I would personally avoid any meat that did not explicitly state that it had no added hormones, mostly because I believe that the use of hormones in animal production is indicative of a focus on growth at all costs which tends to include a host of (other) practices that are stressful for the animals. I doubt that the hormones a cow receives will have a significant effect on the hamburger eater. My understanding is that the jury is still out on that question, and that if there is an effect, it is likely a small one.

Antibiotic use, on the other hand, is in my opinion a much more significant issue. Certified organic farms are prohibited from using antibiotics at any point in an animal’s life. An organic dairy would probably treat a sick cow with antibiotics, but they would then need to sell the cow, as she would be prohibited from rejoining the milking herd. On a conventional dairy farm, a sick dairy cow would receive the same antibiotic treatment, and her milk would not be kept until it tests negative for any antibiotic residues. In other words, you will never drink antibiotic-laced milk, whether you buy Organic Valley or the cheapest stuff in town. Unless you buy Organic, however, you might be drinking milk from cows that have been treated with antibiotics in the past.

While dairy cows are only ever given antibiotics when they are demonstrably ill, meat animals on conventional farms are routinely given low doses of antibiotics in their feed, whether healthy or sick. This is because someone noticed that medicated animals grow more quickly than unmedicated animals under the same conditions, and the number one goal of animal industry is a faster pork chop or chicken nugget. The exact mechanics of this faster weight gain are not fully understood, but one theory which has lately garnered attention is that the antibiotics affect the microbiome of an animal’s stomach, altering its metabolism so that it gains weight more quickly. Some have even wondered if the antibiotics that we are feeding to animals to fatten them for slaughter may be carrying through into the meat, and similarly fattening all of us.

Regardless of whether we can blame our nation’s expanding waistlines on antibiotics in farm animals, we do know that overuse of antibiotics leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibiotics are amazing tools in our fight against human disease, and it would seem rather short-sighted to squander that resource in the name of cheaper meat. In my totally subjective opinion, antibiotics in animal production are a crutch which permits farmers to cut corners in hygiene and husbandry. A healthy, unstressed animal will not need antibiotics. Disease in a flock or herd is a signal to the farmer that the animals’ needs are not being met. If antibiotics are automatically included in the ration (or administered liberally in the name of “prevention”), a farmer will not be forced to give his or her animals the highest possible standard of care. For this reason, while it may seem counter-intuitive, I would argue that administering antibiotics on an animal farm can be less humane than raising animals without them.

There are all sorts of other weird and disturbing things that go on in the world of industrial meat: pig blood plasma fed back to pigs, arsenic in chicken and turkey feed, or the drug ractopamine, which helps pigs and cows put on lean muscle mass but can also lead to hyperactivity, trembling, inability to walk, and even death. Not everything fits on a label. You have a right to ask questions, and sometimes you have to ask the right questions.

Meat often gets a bad rap in the press as being inhumane, environmentally unsustainable, and unhealthy. I sincerely believe that while it CAN be all three, it does not have to be. There are many farmers both big and small who are working hard to raise healthy animals. They would love your support.

Mary Kathryn and Andrew Barnet operate Open Book Farm, a small, diversified livestock and vegetable farm nestled in the Catoctin mountains northwest of Frederick. They practice regenerative agriculture by focusing on soil health, livestock well-being, and direct-to-consumer sales.

Using the CSA (community supported agriculture) method, they strive to provide affordable, clean, delicious food. Visitors are always welcome to come check out the farm for themselves. Mary Kathryn and Andrew are happy to field questions about our growing practices and farming in general; please ask.

To learn more about Open Book Farm, please take a look at their website – www.openbookfarm.com or give them a call at 240.457.2558.

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