When you eat meat, you are eating an animal, but it goes beyond that—you are also eating that animal’s history. How it lived, where it lived, what it ate and how it was killed are in each and every bite.
We want to put only the best, most nutritious food in our mouths, right? Can the way an animal is treated affect its quality as a food and even its nutritional value?
The answer is unequivocally yes.
In the modern confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), animals are frequently treated poorly. Their movement is restricted, their feed is of low quality, they are unclean and many of them don’t even get to see the sunlight.
These living conditions are breeding grounds for the kinds of bacteria and viruses that end up in the meat, eggs and milk the animals produce. It’s why we’re constantly warned about the dangers of eating raw eggs or “undercooked” meats—the food is infected, and it’s only safe to consume if you cook it.
Why would we want food that’s full of illness-causing germs in the first place? Could it ever be completely safe to consume all the raw meat, raw eggs and raw milk we wanted without having to worry about illness?
Again, the answer is yes. The solution is better farm practices: living conditions that keep animals healthy and happy make for uncontaminated food. The single most effective way that the quality of meat can be improved is in the slaughtering process and the handling that leads up to it.
Dr. Temple Grandin is an animal science professor and has published extensively on humane handling and killing of animals to be used for food. She explains that an animal that experiences stress or rough handling excretes stress hormones, namely lactic acid, into its muscles just before it’s killed.
This disrupted hormone balance can manifest in meat in one of two ways. The first is called PSE—Pale, Soft, and Exudated. As nutritionist Delialah Falcon of SteadyHealth says,
“The pH level in meat drops dramatically when stress hormones surge into the animal’s body just before slaughter. The rate of pH in the meat continues to decline after the animal has been slaughtered. The result is meat that is pale, which is often a sign of a lack of nutrients. The meat is also very soft and it usually has a sticky liquid that drips off the meat.”
The other manifestation is called DFD—Dry, Firm, and Dark. Falcon continues that,
“This meat occurs when the animal has very low levels of glycogen circulating in the body just after slaughter. This is the opposite of PSE meat. . . If there is not enough lactic acid in the body, the pH level will not drop rapidly enough. When this happens. . . the result is a very darkly colored meat that is extremely dry and tough.”
Dr. Grandin makes studied suggestions for slaughter practices that put as little stress on the animals as possible. These include strategically designed pens and fencing, quiet and uncrowded plant conditions, eliminating the use of electric prods and practicing gentle handling to reduce bruising.
Thanks to private certification organizations, we can find and buy humanely raised—and better tasting—animal products. Companies like Certified Humane have done the research that most of us just don’t have time to do. They offer resources (including phone apps!) that you can use when grocery shopping or dining out that identify the foods that meet their certification requirements.
Have you ever visited a slaughter facility? Do you know which particular facility the meat you eat comes from? Share with us in the comment section below.