As the holidays approach, traditional visions of turkeys, hams and Cornish hens dance in our heads. Unfortunately, in the Islands, we are heavily dependent on a supermarket meat selection produced by an industrial system lacking integrity and accountability. But we don’t have to be. And we’re not saying go cold-turkey. Instead, let us offer this: Eating less meat–and choosing local, sustainably raised products when you do–is healthier for you, the environment and the animals. Trust us, you’ll be glad you did when you step on the post-holiday scales.
Eat Less Meat, Live Longer
“Meat is consumed in excess in Hawaii,” asserts Dr. Rachel Novotny, Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, in an email interview. “Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers are likely associated with excessive meat consumption.”
Indeed, in a new study at the Harvard School of Public Health, published in the March 2012 Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers found that red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of total, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality.
A local M.D. reached the same conclusion in his years of practice. “I saw firsthand how meat devastates human health,” recalls Dr. William Harris, who worked as an emergency room physician for 35 years at Kaiser Hospital in Honolulu. Almost all his patients were meat-eaters, Harris said via phone from his home on Oahu.
In his book, The Scientific Basis for Vegetarianism (Hawaii Health Publishers, 1995), Harris argues that excess protein from animal products puts stress on the kidneys and is connected to osteoporosis, acid reflux, obesity, plaque build-up in the arteries, high serum cholesterol, high blood pressure, arthritis, and increased risk of colon and breast cancer. The good news: Replacing just one serving of total red meat with one serving of a healthy protein source was associated with a lower mortality risk, the Harvard researchers found.
More than 60 million pounds of beef, pork, chicken and turkey products were recalled in 2011 for contamination with Listeria, E. Coli O157:H7 and salmonella, according to the USDA. Archived cases from 2012 so far show 1,670,099 pounds of meat recovered thus far. This October, due to possible E. coli contamination, Honolulu’s Higa Meat & Pork Market had to recall approximately 4,100 pounds of ground beef that had been distributed to restaurants on Oahu.
In a related health threat, disease-causing bacteria have developed resistance to the antibiotics routinely fed to farm animals: 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are used in livestock. In May 2011, a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Union of
Concerned Scientists (UCS), among others, sought to curb this practice, alleging that livestock producers have used penicillin and tetracycline in feed for more than 30 years routinely, rather than to treat illnesses.
In 2012, the court ruled that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will have to address this issue, stating: “Research has shown that the use of antibiotics in livestock leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be–and has been–transferred from animals to humans through direct contact, environmental exposure, and the consumption and handling of contaminated meat and poultry products.” FDA has appealed the decision.
Recent evidence has emerged linking bacteria from poultry to a growing number of urinary tract infections (UTIs) in women, and some men, caused by antibiotic-resistant E. coli. Most of the 8.6 billion chickens raised for meat in the U.S. each year are routinely fed antibiotics. Research released in 2012 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and published in Clinical Infectious Diseases (CID) confirms the link between antibiotics in poultry and resistant infection in people.
Better for the Planet
After energy production, livestock is the second highest contributor of atmosphere altering gases. According to the United Nations, 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from production, processing and transportation of beef and dairy products. The gas cows pass (methane) is 23 times a more potent greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. Skip a hamburger, and save the 10,000 liters of water required to produce it. A serving of poultry costs about 90 gallons of water to produce, according to National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative, which aims to reduce our water footprints 25 percent by 2025. Freshwater factoid: A vegan, who doesn’t eat meat or dairy, consumes nearly 600 gallons of water per day less than a person who eats the average American diet.
What, You Like Beef?
We are disconnected from where our food comes from. It’s time to reconnect.
Beneath the sacred cliffs of Kaa‘awa and Hakipuu Valleys, the ridges look like earth raining down on Kualoa Ranch, whose president, John Morgan, oversees about 1,250 cattle-grazing acres. In grass-fed operations, livestock are not confined in the inhumane industrial quarters endured by conventionally raised animals. They eat their natural diet–grass, not corn grown with fossil-fuel-derived pesticides and fertilizers and spiked with antibiotics–healthier for them, the people who consume them and the environment. For Hawaii consumers, it’s also greener to choose local pastured products because fossil fuels weren’t burned in transporting feed or cattle. Kualoa Ranch sells their own grass-fed beef hamburgers for lunch in their restaurant, and folks can now order and pick up grass-fed ground beef at the ranch.
Morgan reports that drought conditions have not impacted their location. “Our cattle are in good shape,” he says. “We hope to be able to increase and stabilize our production, and to have a culinary, Farm-to-Table experience to offer in 2014.”
Local drought has hurt other ranchers, however. Six independent family-owned ranches spanning over 60,000 acres of prime grazing land on the Valley Isle founded Maui Cattle Company (MCC) in 2002. The livestock are grass-fed and free of growth stimulants or antibiotics. While the local food movement has fueled increased demand for MCC beef, “drought conditions that started back in 2009 persist and continue to intensify,” says MCC President Alex Franco in a phone interview, and have reduced product availability to their customers by 60 percent.
“Normally, once you’re not able to supply a growing market you will lose that market,” Franco says. “We are hopeful that our customers who truly support the local food movement and its importance to Hawaii will continue to work with local agriculture as we face such challenges.” In 2011, Parker Ranch, located in Waimea, Hawaii Island, sold 1,279,976 pounds of grass-fed cattle to local beef processors, most of which was made into hamburger. “Parker Ranch is strongly committed to the transition of the Hawaii cattle industry from a cow/calf export industry to a sustainable industry with increased local beef production and less dependency on transportation to the mainland,” says Parker Ranch Livestock Operations Manager Keoki Wood.
Wood recalls that in the ‘70s the Hawaii cattle industry fed and processed all the cattle that were produced in the state and met about 30 percent of the total demand. “Today we probably produce less than five percent,” he says in email interview. There are seven federally inspected cattle slaughter facilities statewide, according to Dr. Jason Moniz, veterinarian and manager of the Hawaii Dept. of Ag (HDOA)’s Livestock Disease Control Branch. Moniz explains via telephone that high grain and oil prices make it costly for Hawaii ranchers to feed cattle grain or send cattle to the mainland for finishing (growing big enough for slaughter).
Another reason to eat local: Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation (2005, HarperCollins) reveals how independent farmers and cattle ranchers essentially became hired hands for the agribusiness giants, fundamentally changing how cattle are raised, slaughtered and processed. Schlosser uncovers that these changes have made meatpacking–once a highly skilled, highly paid occupation–now the most dangerous job in the U.S., and usually performed by immigrants whose injuries often go unrecorded and uncompensated.
In a win-win situation, it appears that local Hawaii consumers are staying loyal, drought or no. “We have a partnership with Maui Cattle Company,” states Claire Sullivan, Whole Foods Hawaii coordinator, Purchasing & Public Affairs, in an email, “and this past fiscal year, 39 percent of the beef that we sold at the three Hawaii stores was local Maui beef, which demonstrates both how excellent this beef is and how committed our customers are to purchasing local grass-fed beef.” Speaking of demand, it’s difficult even for Costco to procure all the beef it needs for its Kirkland Signature organic ground beef exclusively from U.S. suppliers. Additional organic beef is procured from Canada and Australia, according to an interview with Bob Huskey, Costco assistant general merchandising manager, published in the company’s May 2012 newsletter. The Australian cattle raised for the program are 100 percent grass-fed, while half of the U.S. and Canadian animals are grass-fed and the other half are finished on organic grains.
On Oahu’s North Shore, across the street from Chun’s Reef, lies Tin Roof Ranch. Hundreds of chickens roam freely here, listening to classical music on NPR. “I think music makes them calm,” jokes Luann Casey, who owns the ranch with her husband, Gary. “They are cultured chickens.” The Caseys provide the community with organic free-range chickens, processing them on their land with their own equipment. They can process 25–30 broilers a week to fill email orders, which sell out every time. Their customer base is from Haleiwa Farmers Market where they sell cage-free, organic eggs.
Shipping in organic feed for the chickens is costly. Next to affordable land and a poultry processing facility, locally produced organic feed is a missing link that keeps Gary and Luann dependent on mainland imports. “It is cheaper to ship a processed chicken that is two or three pounds than the 50 pounds of feed that it takes to grow the chicken,” Luann Casey explains. “So needless to say there is not much profit.” This in turn keeps Hawaii dependent on eating imported chicken.
“We are willing to spend $100 on shoes but expect cheap food,” she says. “Our food should be expensive if a lot of work goes into producing it.” Luann says she believes that the more people ask questions and become aware of where their food comes from, the more they will support local food growers.
Vegetarian and More
Humans were never designed to eat meat regularly, claims Health Talk Hawaii radio moderator Hesh Goldstein. “The human intestine is long and coiled, much like that of plant-eating apes, cows and horses,” he explains in a phone interview.
Goldstein contends that during earlier times in human evolution, meat provided more benefit than harm, but in a society where food is plentiful and life is physically easy, meat can become a serious health hazard. “A traditional Arctic Eskimo, living in a subfreezing climate, could expend 6,000 calories a day just to keep warm and hunt for high-fat animal food like walrus, whale and seal,” he says. “Modern Eskimos, living in heated houses and driving climate-controlled SUVs and still consuming a high-meat diet, have become some of the fattest, sickest people on Earth.”
The National Institutes of Health is funding Cardiologist Dr. Gary Fraser and a team of scientists to analyze data on 96,000 Seventh-day Adventists in all 50 states and in Canada. Members of this religious group generally follow vegetarian dietary habits. To date, the researchers have found that the closer people are to being vegetarian, the lower their risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome (a condition that raises your risk for heart disease and stroke). In one of America’s best-selling nutrition books, The China Study (BenBella Books, 2006), Dr. T. Colin Campbell reviewed the records of 6,500 people in 65 China counties over 20 years. He found that people who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease.The study found that plant proteins like wheat and soy did not promote cancer even at high levels of intake.
Humans need about 10 percent of their daily calories from protein, which on average is about 56 grams a day for males and 45 grams for females, Dr. Harris explains. He says eating animals for protein is really just getting second-hand nutrients, like essential amino acids, that we could be getting straight from the source–plants, legumes and grain. “If you eat a whole-foods, plant-based diet, you will get enough protein,” Harris says.
“Mama T,” chef and community outreach leader at Down To Earth, the all-vegetarian health food store chain, shares that conviction. “As a vegetarian I know that I’m not lacking protein,” Mama T says in a phone interview. At a free cooking lesson, Mama T shows us how to make raw tacos out of walnuts and a combination of spices and vegetables that miraculously taste like the “real” thing. This lesson is just one in the “Love Life” program at stores, community events and schools taught by a team of women who create their own simple and delicious vegetarian recipes. “Most beans are full of protein. Leafy greens, legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds and whole grains are also great sources,” Mama T. says. Down to Earth gives 10 percent off veggie “meats” on “Meatless Mondays,” a national campaign begun as a joint effort between the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Columbia University School of Public Health in 2003.
“There are great farmers in this country who are doing really good work, and they need to be supported,” says author Michael Pollan in an animal welfare essay on his website. “We need to reform the meat system–not eliminate it.” Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules, says that he, as a meat eater, believes that if you eat meat, you should know how it’s produced. He writes:
“I have the ultimate respect for vegetarians and vegans. For they have actually done the work of thinking through the consequences of their eating decisions, something most of the rest of us have not done. My own examination of those consequences has led me to the conclusion that eating a small amount of meat from certain kinds of farms is something I can feel good about.”
Following a trend of conscious meat eating, some Americans have chosen a “Flexitarian” route, which significantly cuts meat out of the diet without excluding it altogether. Dawn Jackson Blatner’s The Flexitarian Diet (McGraw Hill, 2009) prescribes gradually eating more veggies while still enjoying our favorite meats. According to Blatner, Flexitarians weigh 15 percent less, have a lower rate of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and live 3.6 years longer than those on meat-centered diets.
Whether we switch to grass-fed beef or free-range chicken, partake in Meatless Mondays or join Flexitarianism, supporting local sustainable food producers is the best start we can make.