Perhaps the only thing to make a meat-eater more anxious than having a vegan to Christmas dinner is having the ethical omnivore.
“Is that a free-range turkey?” “Is this ham from a happy pig?” “I only eat free-range pudding.” At least with a vegan there’s a clear line – no animal products allowed on the plate.
But ethical omnivorism is a minefield – ‘free range’ has joined ‘natural’ in the meaningless stakes, especially with poultry, where most of the certification standards are generous, though not to the animals.
Meat chickens certified ‘free range’ by either the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association (FREPA) or the RSPCA can have up to 28kg of live birds per square metre. Given the average meat chook weighs less than 2kg, that’s going to be more than 14 chooks per square metre. According to Lilydale’s website, they offer double that space – which is still seven or more chooks per square metre.
While some may not be bothered by that stocking density, surely it’s a stretch to call it ‘free range’?
Egg chooks, of course, are often kept in cages their whole lives, but those certified free range must have some room to move around, though I’d argue that the RSPCA standard of 9 chooks per square metre is also really pushing the notion of ‘free range’.
So what eggs to buy? For the majority of Australians who live in cities and don’t have access to local producers like we do in the country, I’d say if you have room for chooks in your yard, raise some.
Failing that, look for eggs with the Humane Choice certification, which is the best one I’ve been able to find. RSPCA and FREPA, as I said, are not what I’d call free range.
For pigs, you’d think ‘free range’ would be quite straightforward, and it was, really, until ‘bred free range’ entered the market.
Apparently the industry has agreed to call ‘bred free range’ ‘outdoor bred’ to get ‘free range’ out of its title, thus making it less likely that your local butcher will shorthand it to ‘free range’. But Otway Pork and others are still using the former, which continues to cause confusion for consumers.
In the case of pig farming, ‘outdoor bred’ is surely an improvement to conventional pig farming practice, as the sows farrow outdoors with access to shelter and nest-building materials, and the piglets enjoy the first four weeks out there.
After that, they’re weaned (which is more than a month earlier than if they were free range) and sent indoors, typically into ‘eco-shelters’, which are long sheds with deep litter rather than concrete.
So yes, ‘outdoor bred’ seems a more ethical practice than conventional pig sheds, where growing pigs only have to have up to 1.5 square metres (depending on sex, age, etc) to still attain RSPCA certification.
But don’t confuse it with free range, where as per the Humane Choice certification standard, the pigs must be outdoors their whole lives with access to shelter, and where a ‘growing pig’ must have a minimum of 40 square metres.
Sound confusing? It is.
But if you care about the lives of these animals who have been grown for your plate, it’s worth the trouble.
I personally wouldn’t buy meat certified by the RSPCA or FREPA – but I would buy meat certified by Humane Choice. Many small producers these days reckon transparency is the best certification of all, and so far it’s the way we’re heading at Jonai Farms, where we’ve just started raising rare breed Large Black pastured pigs.
But what about seafood? Fish seems perfectly suited to an Australian Christmas dinner, right?
Well, in Victoria and South Australia, the Marine Conservation Society wants you to say ‘no’ to crayfish, but you can enjoy wild-caught Australian Salmon.
Don’t choose Blue Grenadier, but farmed mussels are fair game.
Happily, farmed oysters are still a good choice too, and what better way to kick off a beach lunch than with Sydney Rock Oysters?
Oh, but no more flake at the fish and chip shop over the holidays – shark is now considered ‘Conservation Dependent’, plus there’s a significant bycatch of sea lions off the coast of South Australia.
And kiss all the tunas goodbye unless they’re poll and line caught Albacore – and good luck finding that.
You can check out the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s Sustainable Seafood Guide for the complete listing, for which there’s even a smartphone app now to help you out down at the fishmonger. I can also recommend the excellent Guide to Fish by Hilary McNevin, which not only helps you choose sustainable fish, but gives advice on how best to cook it.
So for those hoping to cook a traditional English-style Christmas dinner, where can you find true free-range poultry and pork?
The most obvious solution is to frequent your local farmers’ market, if you have one, where hopefully you’ll find a local producer with whom you can enjoy an old-fashioned chin wag about their ethical practices.
For those without a farmers’ market nearby, there are an increasing number of retailers of ethical meat, including some who deliver such as Feather & Bone and Urban Food Market, both in Sydney. In Melbourne, there is T.O.M.S.: The Organic Meat Specialist and Organic Direct.
I also make it a habit to ask every butcher I encounter whether they stock real free-range chicken and pork, just to keep the pressure on.
My ethically minded children often beat me to asking the same questions on the rare occasions we eat out.
In fact I buy meat directly from the farmers, such as Greenvale Farm, Fernleigh Free Range and Warialda Belted Galloway Beef – all Victorian producers, and am lucky to also have a great butcher who sells Glenloth free-range chicken.
I’ve compiled a list on my blog of all the free-range pig producers I’ve been able to find across Australia, as well as some of the places where you can buy their pork (if not direct from the farmer).
Another great way to connect to your food and know its provenance while providing more of your dollar directly to the producers is via ‘box schemes’, otherwise known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Food Connect is a fantastic organisation helping to hook up farmers and consumers, and Local Harvest is another new national scheme.
To count yourself an ethical omnivore this holiday season, (no matter whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, the Summer Solstice or something else), don’t forget to give thanks to the once-happy animals on your plate, and the ethical producers who cared for them so that you might feast with family and friends.
And if you find a free-range pudding, knock off the eggnog.