If we believed everything that's been in the press lately, none of us would ever eat food again, let alone meat. You like sausages and bacon? They might be as bad for you as cigarettes. Enjoy the odd steak? Then expect to get bowel cancer.
Needless to say, you have to cut through the bullshit to get to the truth, and at the heart of it is one thing: none of these scare stories differentiate between intensively farmed and extensively farmed livestock. Much of the meat eaten here is intensively farmed, so perhaps this is an understandable mistake.
As the name suggests, intensive farming is about getting an animal to its optimum slaughter weight as quickly and cheaply as possible, which involves intensive feeding and factory-like practises. Alarm bells ringing yet?
Extensive farming, on the other hand, is a slower process that allows animals access to pasture or to forage, space to move around, and social interaction. It takes much longer to rear animals this way, so it costs a bit more, but it's worth it – meat raised extensively tastes completely different to meat raised intensively.
If we believed everything that's been in the press lately, none of us would ever eat food again, let alone meat
Not only do intensively farmed animals suffer a miserable existence, but the way they're farmed makes for unhealthy animals. These animals grow fat quickly, but it's the wrong kind of fat. In some countries, growth hormones are used to achieve weight gain in the shortest time possible.
The aim of these 'animal factories' is quantity over quality, and the flavour of the meat – as well as the nutritional quality – suffers as a result. Intensively farmed animals are also prone to disease, so they're routinely dosed with antibiotics to keep them alive.
Extensively farmed animals, in contrast, graze freely for much of their lifetime, in an ecosystem that's biologically natural and untreated. The character of the pastures changes seasonally, and animals are rotated between different pastures, creating a distinctive flavour profile in the meat.
Natural habitats provide more sanitary conditions, less stress on animals and natural resistance to disease. Good meat comes from animals raised this way.
There is overwhelming evidence that extensively farmed meat can be a healthy part of a balanced diet, not least because it contains less total fat, more antioxidant vitamins and more Omega-3 fatty acids compared with intensively reared meat. Omega-3 fats are particularly important – they're essential for normal growth in humans and are thought to play an important role in the prevention and treatment of diseases. Aggressive, intensive farming techniques have effectively decreased the Omega-3 fat content in many of our foods, including meats, yet the problem remains – intensively farmed meat dominates the market.
One way to avoid intensively farmed meat is to give up meat altogether. But if you're a dedicated carnivore like me, that's not an option. So what are the alternatives? To start with, you can be much choosier about where you buy your meat. Supermarkets rarely differentiate between good, extensively farmed meat and bad, intensively farmed meat – often mixing the two so there's no way of knowing what you are buying. (Meat roulette!) Look carefully at the labels on supermarket meat, because only two of them really mean something: Soil Association Organic and RSPCA Freedom Food. There are several others designed to fool people into thinking the meat is farmed well – ignore these completely.
It's also possible to buy meat online, but do some research, and ask where the meat was farmed, how it was farmed, the name of the breed and how old it was at slaughter. If a company can answer these questions to your satisfaction, place your order.
But of course, the absolute best way of all is to buy from a butcher. If he or she can answer those same questions, then you've found someone with whom to build a relationship, and someone who will actively support extensive farming. In return they'll reward you with a lifetime of untold meaty delights. ■