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Nicolette Hahn Niman: Food Labeling, Food Safety & Farm To School

Nicolette Hahn Niman is an attorney, author and livestock rancher who has worked for a number of environmental organizations including the Waterkeeper Alliance and the National Wildlife Federation.

Her recent book "Righteous Porkchop" is a personal memoir dealing with animal agriculture in the United States.

More: Earth Eats Book Club Chat With Nicolette Hahn Niman About Righteous Porkchop

In the final part of our three-part conversation (part 1 is here and part 2 is here) with Niman, I asked her to define some labels applied to meat. First, organic...

Organic Labeling

Nicolette Hahn Niman: Organic is definitely a good label. It tells you a lot of positive things – that the animals weren't fed slaughterhouse waste, which is a very common practice in the meat and dairy industry today. It also tells you that they weren't being fed antibiotics continually, which is also a very common practice.

So, those are really good things to know.

It also means that there was a certain amount of attention paid to animal welfare. They don't have very strict animal welfare standards with the organic standards, but they are there.

The organic label doesn't tell you as much as I'd like to know because it doesn't explicitly require pasture for laying hens and dairy cattle. But, if I'm at a grocery store and I have no other option, I would tend to favor organic. It tends to be more expensive, but I think it's worth it.

A better option of course is to try to get food directly from a farm as much as possible and then you can actually speak with the farmer about how it was produced.

Annie Corrigan (Earth Eats): One thing you've mentioned is that when you go out to eat, you ask where the meat came from. If no one knows, then you don't order it.

NHN: That's something we've been doing for years, and obviously I'm not a meat eater, so I'm not doing it myself, but my husband always does it whenever we're traveling.

Locally it's not a problem because we know all the restaurants and we don't go to places that don't source their ingredients from good places.

But, when we're traveling, he always makes the inquiry about where the meat is from, and if the server does not know the answer, then my husband will ask the server to go ask the chef. A lot of times we end up finding out that they don't know, but we feel that there's just a lot of power in asking the question.

The more times they get that question, the more times the chef, the restaurant owner and the servers are thinking about the sourcing of their food and they realize that people care.

Pasture-based and Grass-fed

AC: Then, the terms pasture-based and grass fed. How are these terms similar, how are they different?

NHN: There isn't really a standard for the term "pasture-based." Â The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does regulate the words that are on a label, so you can't say that unless there's some proof that you're actually doing it. So, if I saw pasture-based on a label, that would be a very good thing from my perspective.

Grass-fed is generally a term that is only related to beef. Again, it's a good thing to see that. It doesn't tell you quite as much as I'd like to know, because there isn't a uniform standard from the USDA, and it does allow cattle to be kept in what most of us would consider a feedlot kind of environment and be fed things that are not grass – to essentially have them off pasture.

That's something the American Grass Fed Association is opposing, the current standards, because they really don't require the animal to be on pasture. So, it's not perfect, but it's better than if you don't see those words.

Food Safety And Imported Food

AC: Then, domestic versus organic from another country?

NHN: Unfortunately, there's more and more food being produced around the world and being brought into this country. There are a lot of concerns about that.

One is just the environmental impact of shipping food around the globe, but maybe even more troubling are the safety concerns. Some of this falls within the gamut of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and some falls within the gamut of the USDA.

Essentially, food that's brought into this country from outside of this country is not really inspected for safety. There's been a lot of good reporting by the New York Times and others talking about the unsafe practices being used to produce this food, especially seafood.

About 70% of fish and seafood in the United States is from abroad, and there are essentially no safety standards for how that's produced. So, there are all sorts of drugs and chemicals that are commonly used in fish farming in Asia and in Latin America, and there's nothing that really checks the safety of that food when it's coming into our borders.

If you're going to eat fish and seafood, it's really beneficial to seek out food that's from the United States.

Farm To School Programs

AC: There are programs these days that are promoting farm-to-school programs. In terms of the meat industry, would this be financially viable?

NHN: We're very aware of and familiar with people who are working on this. Our good friend Bill Telepan, who is a chef in New York, is working very hard on trying to improve the food that's in the schools there.

I'm delighted that it's happening. I think it's incredibly important. The quality of the food that's going to the school is absolutely abysmal.

One of the things that's been talked about a lot and discovered by the people working on this is that most of the schools don't even have the capacity to really cook food from scratch. They get pre-prepared foods and they just heat it up and present it to the students.

They're not even physically set up to produce healthy food from whole ingredients. That's a whole fundamental change that has to happen in the infrastructure.

As we've been talking about, meat is one of the most expensive parts of any food budget. So, it's really challenging to get really good meat into a school lunch that's supposed to be put together for a few pennies per student – that kind of mandates a direction of using meat more as a seasoning rather than a center of the plate item.

We think of meat as, you need a big 8 oz. piece of meat sitting on your plate, but really, in most parts of the world, meat is valued, it's very precious, it's used much more as something where it seasons the food and there's a smaller quantity of it – a couple of ounces per person.

If we did that in school lunches, where we had stews and soups and other things where vegetables and grains are mixed in with the meats that are being served, a little bit of meat would go a long way.

I think it could be done. It would certainly take some creativity and some work but it doesn't mean it's impossible.

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