We have been known to field some unusual meat requests: callers have asked us if we sell pork feet (yes!) chicken feet (yes!), gizzards (no! you clean one of those suckers), and once whole, cleaned chickens with the head and feet still attached (er…no, but we can do that if you like…) We are yet to get any requests for horse, or, for that matter rat.
If you listen to NPR, or read the weekly Lancaster Farming newspaper, you probably heard about the European horse-meat scandal. Now, I’m not one to throw stones at unfamiliar dishes, as I’ve tried everything from ants to alligator, but this horse-meat scandal makes my skin crawl. The problem, in case you didn’t already read all about it, is that the horse consumers all thought they were buying beef. British supermarket giants like Tesco and Aldi have been selling everything from frozen horse burgers (one test revealed levels as high as 29% horse) to frozen lasagna (100% pure Mr. Ed). No one really knows yet where to lay the blame–the supermarkets all blame their suppliers; the suppliers blame the wholesalers; the wholesalers blame the abattoirs. This depiction of a chain of passing the buck makes the whole thing look far simpler than it actually is, as a product can pass through multiple wholesalers or multiple suppliers before it ever approaches a supermarket shelf. It may be a while before this tangle skein is fully unraveled.
What’s worse than ground horse masquerading as beef? Why rat that is marketed as lamb, of course! This latest food horror story is from China (where, you might recall, they also had adulterated baby formula none too long ago). Since when did dinner become so terrifying? And, only slightly less disturbing, does lamb taste like rat?
When I first heard about these meat scams, I did a quick mental inventory of our kitchen. We’re obviously a bit weird, but we know the source of our milk, cheese, flour, beef, fish, olive oil, sauerkraut, and even our chocolate. True, we’re taking the word of our producers that these items are what they are advertised to be, but we know that we can visit the kitchens, the fields, the mills, and the storerooms that produce or house our food. Short of becoming a crazy homesteader and doing EVERYTHING ourselves, I don’t know that we could do much more. Besides, as a homesteader I’d be hard-pressed to produce olive oil, chocolate, or salmon in Maryland, so I’ll take my chances.
My next thought, after perusing my own kitchen shelves, was to think of our customers, and to ask myself what assurances we could offer them that we sell only OUR chickens, OUR pork, and OUR turkey and that all were grown according to the principles we espouse online. Well, we invite you to see for yourself. The poultry are out on pasture and you can do the math–5 shelters per group, 75 birds per shelter, 6 groups per season. We’ll be raising and selling 2100 chickens this year and 150 turkeys, no more. You can come on a butchering day and we’ll explain the steps we take to kill humanely, eviscerate cleanly, and chill everything thoroughly and quickly. If you stay for lunch, we’ll share the freshest sauteed chicken livers you’ve ever eaten. Er, sorry if that seems weird. We really like liver around here.
“But what about the pork?” you may ask (as we are required by federal law to have our pigs processed at a USDA inspected slaughter house). I admit, at first I felt nervous–how could we guarantee that the pigs we send to the butcher are the cuts we pick up a week later, frozen and vacuum-packed? We trust our butchers, and believe them to be honest and ethical dealers in meat, but what assurances can we offer to someone who will never see the abattoir?
For one thing, we raise out pigs to be larger than the industry standard, which, in turn means that we can expect cuts that are correspondingly larger. We also raise pigs that are NOT bred to the conventional lean pork standard. Frankly, I’ve never understood the point of lean pork. If I wanted something lean for dinner I’d make tofu, not bacon. Anyway, our pigs are not scrawny and thus the pork that we get back is more moist and flavorful. Finally, Andrew gives the butchers specific cutting instructions (there are surprisingly many ways that you can turn a pig into pork) which mean that it would be incredibly unlikely that we could receive someone else’s pigs by mistake.
So, while we cannot invite our customers to visit Wagner’s Meats, where our pigs turn into bacon, we can with confidence state that our meat has come from our pigs.
When Andrew and I were first dreaming about our future farm, Andrew once suggested that we require all CSA members to visit, at least one per year, as something of a personal organic inspection. Out of deference for the fact that not everyone is as much of a zealot as we are, we ultimately let that one go. I’ve heard it said that the best fertilizer for a field are the farmer’s footsteps. Perhaps–but I’d warrant that the footsteps of the customers are just as good, and maybe even better.