Yesterday I watched five bison go from living animals to flanks of meat ready to be cut and packaged for consumption. Early in the morning my ENTS class “Global Food Systems” piled into Northfield Lines vans and headed out to Cannon Falls to visit a slaughterhouse. Lorentz Meats serves the niche meat market and prides itself on its ethical treatment of animals, humane working conditions for employees, and transparency in its practices. Our professors set up this field trip as a contrasting culmination of our discussion about the conventional meat industry during which we focused on the practices of vertically integrated companies such as Tyson and IBP.
While some people in the class were nervous about seeing animals killed, I was actually excited. As someone who ate meat for the majority of her life, I think that it is important to try and be comfortable witnessing the process that transforms an animal on a farm into a hamburger on someone’s plate.
It was bloody, but not gruesome, and the way they killed the bison was efficient and ethical. Practices of slaughterhouses like Lorentz Meats are one of the reasons why I don’t think eating animals is inherently or ethically wrong. However, as one of the owners explained to us, Lorentz Meats constitutes only 1/100 of the market share for beef.
Although a self-proclaimed idealist, Mike Lorentz did not demonize the existing conventional food system. He said, “The current system we have is so good. And, in their defense, they are only doing what they are told. Anyone who has bought cheap meat is complicit.”
It’s hard to argue with cheap food, and there are many people in the United States who have no option but to purchase cheap food made in irresponsible ways due to the restraints of their income. However, there are also people in the United States who can afford to spend a little more on food, and in doing that take the time to ensure that they are buying from companies who are ethical, humane, and socially and environmentally responsible.
Of course, this is easier said than done, and labels alone cannot advise consumers about the responsibleness of their purchasing.
Mike Lorentz pointed out that even shopping at the farmers’ market, something that seemingly supports local farmers, does not allow escape from the industrial meat system. He said, “if you shop at the farmer’s market like you shop at the grocery store, you are complicit in the system, you’re just changing the locale.”
Even if you buy from local farmers, setting out to the market with the goal of buying a skirt steak forces farmers to conform to the expectations of “good meat” set by conventional meat producers. Lorentz suggested instead asking the farmer what they have too much of, and purchasing that.
This struck a chord with me because I definitely feel like I am making a positive food choice when I purchase something at a farmers’ market. And while supporting small-scale farmers is better than not, we must be intentional and deliberate in the way we do that, so as to not unknowingly support the systems we are trying to change.