The day begins beneath the sacred cliffs of Kaʻaʻawa Valley and Hakipuʻu Valley. The ridges look like earth raining down on Kualoa, a 4,000-acre working cattle ranch. Owner John Morgan, descendant of Dr. Gerrit Judd who bought the first 622 acres of the ranch from King Kamehameha III in 1850, oversees about 1,250 acres of cattle raised here for grass-fed beef.
After a grass-fed beef burger for lunch, it’s back on the highway toward Haleiwa. Across the street from Chun’s Reef is Tin Roof Ranch. Hundreds of chickens roam freely here, listening to classical music on NPR. Owners Luann and Gary Casey provide the community with free-range chicken. The day ends with free cooking lessons from chef “Mama T” at Down To Earth, Hawaii's only all-vegetarian health food store chain.
The goal of this journey: To meet Hawaii’s local meat producers and decipher once and for all if meat is necessary for a healthy diet. This is not a polarized issue. Many of us simply want to eat meat in a more conscientious way, or perhaps just eat less meat. Certainly all of us would rather eat meat from a local, sustainable source. But we are disconnected from where our food comes from. It’s time to reconnect.
Let us fast-forward through the obligatory visions of conventionally produced and processed meat: Hormones and steroids used to grow animals bigger, faster; Antibiotics in feed and injected in animals to control disease caused by overcrowded, feces-filled lots and cages; Feed containing hazardous additions like dead animal parts, manure and GMO corn; Industrialized processing, which means that the ground beef of today contains meat from thousands of different cattle, increasing the odds of and spread of pathogens; and the label “natural” qualifying all fresh meat, regardless of farm practices, according to USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) guidelines.
In 1970, the top five meat packers controlled only 25 percent of the market. Today, the top four control 85 percent of the market. There were thousands of slaughterhouses in the U.S. in the 70s.
Today there are only 13, according to the documentary, FOOD INC. The centralized purchasing decisions of the large restaurant chains (McDonald’s is the largest purchaser of ground beef in the U.S.) have given a handful of corporations an unprecedented degree of power over the nation’s food supply. Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation reveals how independent farmers and cattle ranchers essentially became hired hands for the agribusiness giants, fundamentally changing how cattle are raised, slaughtered, and processed into ground beef.
Schlosser uncovers that these changes have made meatpacking—once a highly skilled, highly paid occupation— now the most dangerous job in the U.S., and usually performed by immigrants whose injuries often go unrecorded and uncompensated.
In a sentence: Even if you don’t eat fast food, but you eat meat from the grocery store, you are eating meat produced by a system lacking integrity and accountability.
A review of the current and active recalls posted on the USDA’s FSIS website shows that more than 60 million pounds of beef, pork, chicken, and turkey products were recalled in 2011 for contamination with Listeria, E. Coli, and salmonella. After an establishment completes a recall, it’s removed from the current recalls listing and archived. Archived cases from 2012 so far show 1,670,099 pounds of meat recovered. One of the most recent reports from late October listed Honolulu’s Higa Meat & Pork Market, which had to recall approximately 4,100 pounds of ground beef products that had been distributed to restaurants on Oahu due to possible E. coli O157:H7 contamination.
While it’s permissible by USDA guidelines to use hormones and steroids to promote growth in cattle, 80 percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. are reportedly used in livestock, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The group recently brought suit against the FDA, alleging that livestock producers have used popular antibiotics penicillin and tetracycline in feed for more than 30 years for purposes other than treatment of illnesses. The indiscriminate use of antibiotics in animal feed can lead to growth and spread of drug-resistant bacteria that are harmful and even deadly to humans.
Persuasive evidence has emerged pinpointing bacteria from poultry are the cause of a growing number of women, and some men, who have become infected with antibiotic-resistant versions of E. coli, the intestinal bacterium that causes urinary tract infections (UTIs). More precisely, the E. coli is coming from poultry raised with the routine use of antibiotics, which is most of the 8.6 billion chickens raised for meat in the U.S. each year, according to published research by Dr. Amee Manges, an associate professor of epidemiology at McGill University in Montreal who has been studying resistant UTIs for a decade.
Excessive consumption combined with an industrialized food system has made meat eating problematic. Americans eat more meat than any other population in the world. Not only is the American hamburger—cornerstone of the Western Diet—arguably the cheapest convenience food around, ground beef is the most popular beef item for consumers preparing meals at home. In the beginning of the 20th century, Americans ate 120 pounds of meat annually. By 2007, that figure was no less than 222 pounds. As fast food consumption has risen since the 1960s, so have the rates of cancer, heart disease and diabetes—of which causal links to animal-based foods are abound. As awareness spreads, carnivores look to safer sources for their meat.
WHAT, YOU LIKE BEEF?
Proponents of grass-fed beef contend that it’s healthy and lean, with half the total fat of grain-fed beef and up to six times more omega-3 fatty acid and substantially more Vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. Grass-fed is billed as a more sustainable agricultural practice since cattle ranchers use the naturally occurring grass in the ground for feed and pasture rather than depending on fossil fuels for feed and transportation. There are seven federally inspected cattle slaughter facilities statewide so transport to the mainland for processing is not necessary.
High grain and oil prices make it costly for Hawaii ranchers to feed cattle grain or send cattle to the mainland for finishing (grown big enough for slaughter). Our climate and isolation basically demand that cattle here be grass-fed. Concurrently, local restaurants and grocery stores are seeing more demand for high quality meat that's considered leaner, healthier, and local.
Labeling is tricky however; as "USDA Grass-fed" is based on a definition that is not verified by any third party and simply means the animals did not eat grain.
The American Grassfed Association (AGA) definition “AGA Grassfed" includes the prohibition of antibiotics and hormones during the animal’s lifetime and is verified by a third party. Federal law does not yet back the AGA label.
Whole Foods Market carries both “grain finished” and “100% grass-fed beef.” Some grass-fed beef producers will send their cattle to be finished on grain. In order to merit the 100% grass-fed label, all ranches that supply Whole Foods Market with grass-fed beef must sign an affidavit to substantiate their claim, which includes commitments to an exclusively grass diet throughout their lifespan and continuous access to pasture, states Claire Sullivan, Whole Foods Hawaii Coordinator, Purchasing & Public Affairs.
“We have a partnership with Maui Cattle Company and this past fiscal year, 39 percent of the
beef that we sold at the three Hawaii stores was local Maui beef, which demonstrates both how excellent this beef is and how committed our customers are to purchasing local grass-fed beef,” Sullivan says.
Six independent family-owned ranches spanning over 60,000 acres of prime grazing land on the Valley Isle founded Maui Cattle Company (MCC) in 2002. The ranchers seek a sustainable ranching industry by keeping livestock grass-fed and free of growth stimulants or antibiotics. The local food movement has fueled increased demand for MCC grass-fed beef.
“During this surge in demand in a market that now utilized all of the cattle grazed on our operations, drought conditions that started back in 2009 persist and continue to intensify,” says MCC President Alex Franco. These conditions forced cattle held for the MCC market to be shipped to the mainland and have reduced product availability to their customers by 60 percent.
“Normally once you’re not able to supply a growing market you will lose that market,” Franco says. “We are hopeful that our customers who truly support the local food movement and its importance to Hawaii will continue to work with local agriculture as we face such challenges.” Franco, also the president of the Hawaii Cattleman’s Association, points out that there are generational grass-fed beef operations on each island that supply their immediate communities.
While there are several cattle ranches on Hawaii Island, Parker Ranch, located in Waimea, is one of the oldest and largest cattle ranches in the U.S. In 2011, Parker Ranch sold 1,279,976 pounds of grass-fed cattle to local beef processors, which was then processed into mostly hamburger. “Parker Ranch is strongly committed to the transition of the Hawaii cattle industry from a cow calf export industry to a sustainable industry with increased local beef production and less dependency on transportation to the mainland,” says Parker Ranch Livestock Operations Manager Keoki Wood.
Wood recalls that in the 70s the Hawaii cattle industry fed and processed all the cattle that were produced in the state and met about 30 percent of the total demand. “Today we probably produce less than five percent,” he says. That means Hawaii likely imports 95 percent of its beef currently. Specific numbers are not available because the local Agricultural Statistics Service does not collect or track imports and exports. “The Commerce Department collects export and import data from other countries, but not to and from the mainland where considerable beef does move,” says Mark Hudson, Hawaii Field Office Director for USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.
“We do not have a demand problem,” Wood continues. “Our goal is to find ways to finish cattle here locally.” In order to expand local beef production, Wood says ranchers need to have access to high quality lands, affordable irrigation so that the cattle can have a high level of nutrition, and more capacity and efficient beef processing with competitive prices paid to produce market ready animals. Parker Ranch is also currently exploring production methods using fertilizer and irrigation in order to achieve this.
On Oahu, Kualoa Ranch started selling their own grass-fed beef hamburgers for lunch in their restaurant about four years ago. Folks have been able to order and pick up grass-fed ground beef at the ranch for the last two years. Owner John Morgan reports that drought conditions have not impacted their location. “Our cattle are in good shape,” Morgan says. “We hope to develop fertilized, irrigated pasture to be able to increase and stabilize our production. We are actively expanding our diversified agriculture activities and hope to have a culinary, Farm-to-Table experience to offer in 2014.”
While beef has always been "America's No. 1 selling protein," chicken (or “broilers” as termed in the meat industry) has become the leaner, cheaper protein of choice. There are currently no commercial broiler operations in Hawaii, in large part because there are no longer any slaughter or processing facilities that handle poultry.
Tin Roof Ranch owners Gary and Luann now sell free-range, organic chickens from their ranch to their customer base from Haleiwa Farmers Market where they sell cage-free, organic eggs. “We accidentally bought 300 chickens once and it all took off from there,” Gary laughs. While purchasing chicken manure for their land’s soil that they had been nursing back to health, Gary and Luann ended up taking 300 chickens home from the farmer who was closing up shop. Since neither had a background in farming (Gary was a carpenter and Luann was a nurse) they googled how to grow and process chickens and purchased their own equipment.
“We just went to the University of Google and taught ourselves. We did everything a thousand times until we had it down,” Gary recalls. He built hen houses from old hotel closet doors. The chickens roam as they please and enjoy a steady stream of NPR playing daily. “I think music makes them calm,” Luann jokes. “They are cultured chickens.”
With hundreds of chickens of nine different varieties, half of the ranch’s winged inhabitants lay eggs and the other half are for meat. Gary and Luann can process 25-30 broilers a week when taking email orders, which sell out every time. Shipping in organic feed for the chickens is costly. Next to affordable land and a poultry processing facility, locally produced organic feed is a missing link that keeps Gary and Luann dependent on mainland imports. “It is cheaper to ship a processed chicken that is two or three pounds than the 50 pounds of feed that it takes to grow the chicken,” Luann explains. “So needless to say there is not much profit, especially for anyone that wants to grow organic and pasture raised animals.” This in turn keeps Hawaii dependent on eating imported chicken.
“We are willing to spend $100 on shoes but expect cheap food,” Luann says. “Our food should be expensive if a lot of work goes into producing it.” Luann believes that the more people ask questions and become aware of where their food comes from, they will support local food growers. “Demand will grow and people like us can keep doing this,” she says.
THE CARNIVORE’S DILEMMA
Shopping for local meats or driving to the nearest rancher’s land to pick up a chicken is easier said than done. Many of us shop for what is closest to us and most affordable. Enter: Costco. Where does that Kirkland Signature ground beef with the USDA organic label come from?
As the largest seller of organic beef in the country, it's difficult to procure all the beef needed for the Kirkland Signature ground beef exclusively from U.S. suppliers. Additional organic beef is procured from Canada and Australia, according to Costco assistant general merchandising manager Bob Huskey. The Australian cattle raised for the program are 100 percent grass-fed. Half of the U.S. and Canadian animals are grass-fed and the other half are finished on organic grains such as barley, flax, wheat and corn.
The organic label that Costco uses means the meat producers must comply with the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) guidelines: Cattle must be born and raised in certified-organic pastures that have had no chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides for at least three years prior to organic certification; Organic livestock must consume 100% organic diet consisting of grasses that are also grown in precise accordance with organic farming guidelines; The cattle can never be administered antibiotics or growth hormones; and records from farm to point of sale must be kept for complete animal traceability.
Affordability and traceability are just part of the carnivore’s dilemma however. Healthcare professionals warn that we eat too much meat—often unhealthy meats at unhealthy quantities. “Meat is consumed in excess in Hawaii,” asserts Dr. Rachel Novotny, Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. “Canned meats are highly consumed in Hawaii. They tend to be high fat meats with substantial added salt. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers are likely associated with excessive meat consumption.”
According to Dr. William Harris, author of The Scientific Basis for Vegetarianism, excess protein, especially from animal products, puts stress on the kidneys, increases urinary calcium loss and its replacement by bone calcium. That in turn leads to osteoporosis. Acid reflux, obesity, plaque build-up in the arteries, high serum cholesterol, high blood pressure, arthritis, and increased risk of colon cancer for men and breast cancer for women are also linked to animal food consumption. As an emergency room physician for 35 years at Kaiser Hospital in Honolulu, Harris says almost all his patients were meat-eaters.
“I saw first-hand how meat devastates human health,” he recalls. “Meat is highly contaminated with pesticides, hormones, environmental toxins, and too much protein and cholesterol for our systems to process.” Humans and animals are plant predators, Harris contends. “We live on plants. Without plants there would be no animals,” he says. “The fact that some animals eat other animals is simply an adaptive strategy, not a biochemical necessity.”
Despite all he witnessed medically, Dr. Harris’ reason for becoming a vegetarian was initially an ethical one. “I think it's wrong to kill animals,” he explains. “While I feel bad about the animals, I feel even worse about how eating animals has an effect on humans. It makes it impossible for us to develop a coherent ethical structure for our society to live in if we think it’s okay to kill and eat another animal—then we have no problem killing each other.”
Animal rights, environmental ethics, and religion are some of the top anti-meat arguments. Ethical vegetarians like Dr. Harris often believe that killing an animal, like killing a human, can only be justified in extreme circumstances. USDA definitions and guidelines for meat reveal that some of the wording leaves loopholes for animals to be confined in feedlots or other hazardous enclosures. Indeed factory farming and mass production that has replaced specialized, smaller operations—due to high demand for cheap meat—has changed the way animals are treated.
After energy production, livestock is the second highest contributor of atmosphere altering gases.
According to the United Nations, 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from production, processing and transportation of beef and dairy products. The gas cows pass (methane) is 23 times more harmful to the than carbon dioxide. A serving of poultry costs about 90 gallons of water to produce, according to National Geographic's Freshwater Initiative, which aims to reduce water footprints of individuals, farms, communities, and corporations by 25 percent by 2025. In juxtaposition, the Freshwater Initiative declares that a vegan who doesn't eat meat or dairy indirectly consumes nearly 600 gallons of water per day less than a person who eats the average American diet.
CANINES, INTESTINES & ESKIMOS
Humans were never designed to eat meat regularly, claims Hawaii Health Talk Radio moderator Hesh Goldstein. “The human intestine is long and coiled, much like that of plant-eating apes, cows, and horses,” he explains. “This configuration makes digestion slow, allowing breakdown and absorption of nutrients from plant foods. The intestine of a carnivore, like a cat, is short, straight, and tubular. This allows rapid digestion of flesh and excretion of the remnants quickly before they putrefy and rot.”
Human teeth evolved for processing starches, fruits, and vegetables, not tearing and chewing flesh, Goldstein asserts. Our oft-cited "canine" teeth are not comparable to the sharp, jagged teeth of true carnivores whose jaws are fixed to open and close for a powerful bite. Human teeth are short, blunted, and flat on top, or slightly rounded at most, he explains. Like other plant-eating animals, our jaw can move forward and backwards, side-to-side, as well as open and closed, for biting off pieces of plant matter, and then grinding them into smaller pieces with our flat molars.
Goldstein contends that during difficult times in human evolution, meat provided more benefits than harms, but in a society where food is plentiful and life is physically easy, meat can become a serious health hazard. “A traditional Arctic Eskimo, living in a subfreezing climate, could expend 6,000 calories a day just to keep warm and hunt for food,” he says. “The high-fat animal food sources like fish, walrus, whale, and seal from their local environment were the most practical means of meeting the demands of those rigorous surroundings. Modern Eskimos, living in heated houses and driving climate-controlled SUVs, still consuming a high-meat diet have become some of the fattest and sickest people on Earth.”
Documentary Forks Over Knives explores how sicknesses like heart disease, obesity, and cancer can be improved if not reversed by implementing a whole foods, plant-based diet. In the film, Dr. John McDougall, who saw patients on the Hamakua Sugar Plantation from 1973 to 1976 found that their health differed dramatically depending on how long they had been in Hawaii. He found that while those who had been raised in Asian countries were always healthy, trim, and never had diet-related disease, the next generations they raised in Hawaii, who ate a diet of more meats than their native veggies and rice, were always sicker and fatter. “It was obvious that the diet was the difference,” he said.
In one of America’s best-selling nutrition books, The China Study, Dr. T. Colin Campbell defines the relationship between the consumption of animal products and a variety of chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. The study examined 6,500 people in 65 counties throughout China over the span of 20 years. He found that people who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease, citing that dietary protein proved to be so powerful that Campbell found he could turn cancer growth on and off by simply changing the level of protein consumed. The study found that proteins that did not promote cancer even at high levels of intake were plant proteins like wheat and soy.
“People are obsessed about protein when they should be concerned about complex carbohydrates because that's where energy and good health starts,” Goldstein says. “Instead they center their diets around anything that had a face and refined foods, which have no fiber or nutrients.”
Humans need about ten percent of their daily calories from protein, which on average is about 56 grams a day for males and 45 grams for females, Dr. Harris explains. He says eating animals for protein is really just getting second-hand nutrients, like essential aminos, that we could be getting straight from the source—plants, legumes and grain. “If you eat a whole foods, plant-based diet, you will get enough protein,” Harris says, citing that by measuring calorie for calorie, broccoli actually has more protein than beef.
“Protein from meat isn't necessary,” says “Mama T,” Down To Earth’s chef and community outreach leader. She heads up a team of women who teach cooking classes for the “Love Life” program at store locations as well as at community events and schools. They create their own simple and delicious recipes, empowering others with vegetarian cooking skills. “As a vegetarian I know that I’m not lacking protein. People are surprised you can get protein from plants. Most beans are full of protein. Leafy greens, legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are also great sources.” Down to Earth has more than 600 recipes on their website, hosts free cooking classes daily at store locations, and gives 10 percent off transitional veggie meats on Mondays to encourage customers to join a movement called “Meatless Mondays.”
Launched in 2003, the “Meatless Monday” campaign began as a joint effort between the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Columbia University School of Public Health and has been catching on throughout the nation. Aspen, Colorado became the first true Meatless Monday community when 20 local restaurants, Aspen Valley Hospital, Aspen Elementary School, Pathfinders, The Aspen Club & Spa, the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the Aspen Global Change Institute, Komen Aspen and the Cancer Survivor Center all vowed to go without meat once a week.
"There are great farmers in this country who are doing really good work, and they need to be supported," says Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules. "We need to reform the meat system—not eliminate it." In an animal welfare essay on his website Pollan says that he, as a meat eater, believes if you eat meat, you should know how it's produced. While he doesn't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with eating meat, he urges that we start thinking about the way it's being made and how it's affecting the environment, the animals, and the workers in the factories.
I have the ultimate respect for vegetarians and vegans. For they have actually done the work of thinking through the consequences of their eating decisions, something most of the rest of us have not done. My own examination of those consequences has led me to the conclusion that eating a small amount of meat from certain kinds of farms is something I can feel good about.
Following a trend towards conscious meat eating and better health, some Americans have chosen a “Flexitarian” route, which significantly cuts meat out of the diet without excluding it altogether. Dawn Jackson Blatner’s book The Flexitarian Diet, defines an inclusive eating plan: adding new foods to those we already eat, gradually guiding us to eat more veggies while still enjoying our favorite meats. According to Blatner, Flexitarians weigh 15 percent less, have a lower rate of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and live 3.6 years longer than their carnivorous counterparts.
Whether we switch to grass-fed beef or free-range chicken, partake in Meatless Mondays, or join Flexitarianism, we don't need laws against fast food or slaughterhouses if we reform the system by voting with our dollar. Supporting local food producers who have sustainable practices and produce high quality meat is a start. Knowing where our food comes from empowers us to make healthier choices and strengthens local economy.