Heritage Meat and Poultry: Eat it to Save it!

By Jacqueline Church

I dined on a Mulefoot pork chop at Cochon restaurant in New Orleans with a rush of pleasure, anxiety, and guilt. If this hog breed is endangered, should I be enjoying it so much? I thought. But in truth, the pork is what brought me to the restaurant; by eating the endangered breed, I was actually helping to save it.

heritage-breedsThe Mulefoot is just one threatened breed listed by Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste and the American Livestock Breed Conservancy. Both organizations seek to preserve endangered foods, including vanishing breeds of pigs, turkeys, cattle, and poultry. For example, did you know over half the swine breeds listed in the USDA Agriculture Yearbook of 1930 have disappeared?

Once modern, large factory farms emerged in the 1920s, pigs, turkeys, chickens and cows were bred to be docile and mature quickly. Animals were moved from pastures to crowded feedlots and fed cheap food that often made them sick (which led to widespread antibiotic use). And stressed animals on unnatural diets produce meat that is inferior in taste and quality. The good news is, conservation, biodiversity and superior taste are all part of the re-emerging food values inherent in heritage breeds.

Heritage breed farmers like Lisa Richards, owner of Mack Hill Farm in Southern New Hampshire, practice environmentally sound biodiversity. She and her husband raise Tamworth pigs–hardy foragers prized for lean, fine-grained meat. The farm is also home to sheep that yield milk for making yogurt and cheese (as well as whey that feeds the pigs), and chickens and Midget White turkeys that pick through manure in the pasture, breaking the parasite-bacteria cycle so the pigs can safely root the manure back into the soil as they forage.

This natural approach means that heritage breeds take longer to reach market weight and require pasture to roam and forage … which costs more than raising them on a feedlot … which means farmers can only raise heritage breeds if there is a market for them. Which brings us full circle.

As my Cochon experience demonstrated, chefs are a crucial link in the farm-to-table journey. Heritage breeds have long enchanted chefs, who are introducing diners everywhere to them. Chefs and consumers swoon over heritage breeds’ distinct characteristics, like high intramuscular fat and rich, fine-grained meat.

But diners are sometimes stunned at the prices of heritage products, which can cost $5-$10 or more per pound (reflecting a truer cost of food production than their conventional counterparts). Nonetheless, there are ways to incorporate heritage meat and poultry into your food budget.

Ask for it. I discovered heritage pork (a Tamworth-Berkshire cross, labeled only as “fresh pork shank”) for $3.99 per pound at my specialty grocer. Costco now carries D’Artagnan, which represents sustainable, humane small family farms and cooperatives. LocalHarvest.org can help you find farmers who sell directly to consumers, at farmers’ markets, and through CSAs in your area.

Eat less meat. The average American consumes 15 cows, 24 hogs, 900 chickens, 12 sheep, and 1,000 pounds of other assorted animals in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That‘s a half-pound of meat per day–almost twice the USDA’s recommended 5 ounces of lean protein for a 1,800-calorie daily diet.

By consuming smaller portions of more heritage meats, buying from farms or specialty grocers, and demanding heritage breeds at your mega-mart, you can help improve your family’s health, the environment, and breed diversity. As the Ark of Taste’s motto says, “Eat it to save it!”

jackie-thumbJacqueline Church is an independent writer whose work has appeared in Culture: the Word on Cheese, Edible Santa Barbara, and John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet. She often writes about gourmet food, sustainability issues and the intersection of the two on her blog Leather District Gourmet. Currently, she’s at work on Pig Tales: a Love Story about heritage breed pigs and the farmers and chefs bringing them from farm to table.


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4 Replies to “Heritage Meat and Poultry: Eat it to Save it!”

  1. Thank you for spreading the good word about the urgency of biodiversity today. My great grandmother meant that I should “clean my plate” as most Americans say when she urged me to “Eat It To Save It.” In my decade of work with the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste and the RAFT project (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) Eat It Save It took on a whole new meaning for me – and I have been happy to see my great grandmother’s statement become the motto of our work!

  2. Poppy – so happy to see you here! After stalking you all these years…;-)

    I didn’t know the origin of the phrase but it certainly works for getting the message across. Hoping to present at the upcoming Chefs Collaborative summit as I’m writing a book on the topic. Pig Tales: A Love Story is about our love of pigs, the heritage breeds in particular and the farmers, chefs and artisans bringing them from the brink of extinction to our tables.

    Hope all is well with you and yours.

    – Jackie

  3. Great to see you here, Poppy! I love that that phrase came from your Great Grandmother and is still so alive today. I stumbled on it last Thanksgiving when I was explaining to someone how eating heritage turkeys can help to save the breeds. I summed up with, “eat it to save it” and thought . . . “now there’s a piece I’d like on NOURISH Evolution.” And, of course, Jackie was the perfect person to write it. I wasn’t aware of how intertwined the phrase is with your efforts with Slow Food until I read through Jackie’s piece. Even more fitting as this month we’re focusing on many of the issues and views espoused by Slow Food.

    Thanks for stopping by, Poppy!

  4. “Eat it to save it” sounds strange but it is true. It saves not only the endangered species but also saves your pocket and family health. Isn’t it wonderful? Thanks for good words enough to convince even the die-hard environment activist. Not destroying but working for the great cause. Keep it up.

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