What questions can I ask my grocer?

February 2005

Happy February!

Last month just flew by thanks to all of your fantastic questions! I knew this was going to be a blast but I never could have anticipated the range of questions and topics that I have had the pleasure of sorting through on your behalf. I called the USDA Meat and Poultry Slaughter Hotline, talked to a micronutrition specialist and completely took over staff meetings to gather the information for your answers. What fun! Big thanks to anyone who sent along a question.

Now, I do have to say I received a few requests for medical or specific nutrition advice and until the day when medical school sounds like more fun than this project, I really can’t answer any of those questions. So for your best bet on a direct answer from me, stick to food and farm questions, anything else I will have to defer to a medical expert.
Okay…the moment we have all been waiting for THIS MONTH’S QUESTION!!!

Congrats to Brian Heimberg who asked a really great question and impressed our staff. Brian asked “What questions can I ask my grocer?” If I have learned anything here at Farm Aid, it’s that knowing what questions to ask is far more important than knowing what answers to look for. Answers often change from place to place or product to product while the right questions should have a longer shelf life so to speak. As those of you who already received answers to your questions might have noticed, a lot of the answers you received were shaped around asking the next set of questions in order to find what you were looking for in the first place. So many people, with so many different interests, are involved in our food systems these days and asking questions helps consumers be informed shoppers and shows people on the other side of the counter or fence that you really care about what you eat. Check out what Brian had to say:

Dear Laura

Laura, first I'd like to say that I'm quite excited to see what I can learn from your new endeavor, and I will check in frequently for updates.

My question deals with my meat eating habits, which I have chosen to restrict to sustainably raised products. I want to know what questions I can ask (and tell my friends who know
even less than I do to ask) a grocery store or restaurant to quickly and legitimately determine if the meat they are selling was not raised in inhumane conditions, with economic and environmental consequences for the farmers, laborers and their communities.

I have researched the different labels/certifications available today, and several companies that have no certification but claim to adhere to high standards.

Are there "three questions" I could ask or "three things to look for?" that my friends and I can use ourselves and share with others?

I look forward to hearing your response.


Hi Brian,

Thank you for asking this question! First of all, I think it is great that not only have you taken the time to figure out what your food priorities are but are also taking the next step by involving your friends and sharing what you have learned with them.  

Now, let’s go over your specific concerns. In buying meat, you would like to find a product that was:

a. raised humanely
b. raised with environmental standards that are healthy for the farmer, the workers or local communities
c. raised in such a way that does not negatively effect the economic standing of that same selection of people.

Within each of these categories, I am sure that you have even more specific concerns or at least definitions of what you consider humane, healthy, etc., but hopefully the three questions that I came up with will address those specifics as well. 
Question #1 Was this product raised in a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) or “factory farm”?

Confinement operations can threaten each of the concerns that you mentioned above. Animals are raised in crowded indoor facilities that restrict their natural behaviors, limit their ability to move and promote the spread of disease. If animal welfare is a top concern for you, I think you would be hard pressed to find a factory farm that you would feel good about. Manure lagoons, a by-product of CAFOs, also emit noxious gasses that can be very dangerous for the farmer and the community and can often contaminate ground and surface water. In addition to a variety of health concerns, this kind of bottom-line-, production-driven operation also push family farmers out of business and off their land. You can read more facts about factory farming on our website.

Question #2 Was this product raised with specific growing standards like organic, grass-fed or all natural? 

This is a bit of a tricky question because it needs to be immediately followed by “how does the farmer define those standards?”. Read the definition of all the labels that you can get your hands on. As you mentioned in your e-mail, there are many different kinds of food labels that cover a wide range of issues. Some of them are certified by a third party, some are self-reported and some do not have universal standards. Many of these labels or standards attempt to address your animal husbandry, environmental and economic concerns all at once. You can read more about labels, and what they mean on our website the Consumers Union Eco Label page and Sustainable Table

The difficulty is that each label or set of standards has some issues that have yet to be fully defined, which makes enforcement very difficult.  Most are intended to have less environmental impact and create a “value-added” product which makes it more profitable for the farmer and in turn builds healthy local economies. Organic animals are required to have access to fresh air and the outdoors but some farms try to get by with any open window to fit these standards. Free range has the same difficulty. All natural often means no hormones or antibiotics but since there is no set of standards, this can change from farm to farm. Grass-fed beef is a hot topic right now because beef raised on a 100% grass diet have very little chance of transmitting the Creutzfeldt-Jakob or “mad cow” disease but, like the “all natural” label, there are no set standards or enforcement for this label. Bottom line: start with the label because it means that the farmer or the company is clearly thinking about the same issues as you are and then push for more details. 

Question #3  Can I meet the farmer?

Sounds simple, right?  But the implications are significant.  When you ask to meet your farmer you are really asking: “Where was this raised?”, “Has this product traveled 20 miles or 2000 miles to get to this shelf or restaurant?”, “Does the company or store know where/who their farmers are?”, “Is the seller confident enough in the product that he or she would encourage you to see the farm?” .

It might sound obvious but the very best way to understand where your food comes from is to see the farm for yourself. Visiting a farm will help you understand your food priorities and better define them.  "Humane growing conditions", for example, is a term that is widely used but can mean many different things. Meeting your farmer and his herd will let you decide what it means to you. Seeing the community surroundings of a farm will help you figure out the economic and environmental relationship between the farmer and his or her neighbors. Finding a company that has enough faith in their farmers to help you meet them means that you have found a company that values their farmer and your concerns as a consumer.

If you have a hard time finding stores and restaurants that have answers to your questions, check out Local Harvest where you can search by state for farms, stores and restaurants that deal directly with their producers. Also, Sustainable Table has great general information and the Eat Well Guide allows you to search by zip code for farmers, restaurants, stores, online resources and farmer organizations.

Okay, that is a whole lot to think about! Check out the resources and then take your questions out for a test drive and please keep us posted on your progress.

laura shopping bag lowres  

Until Next Month,

Laura: The Farm Aid Shopper

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