Friday, March 18, 2011

organic? local? free range? grain-fed? what do these terms really mean?

Our city is very focused on the terminology of food, we are blessed to live in the abundance of Perth County, surrounded by local farmers and artisans who offer superior products, but what does it all mean?

My grandfather was a pioneer of organic farming and though he was rather brilliant, his timing sucked.  He was too early and didn't get a great response from buyers as his products always had a shorter shelf life than the non-organic producers.  Now that 'organic' has grown in popularity new challenges face small organizations.  In 2009 the federal government took a stand on what could be labelled certified-organic.  This offers some guarantee to the consumer but creates plenty of difficulties for the small farms who have to shell out significant amounts of money to have their products labelled as such.  It also causes some confusion - does the average consumer know the difference between "certified" and ordinary organic?  It's all in the labelling.

'Think Global, Eat Local' right?  Of course during the growing season and beyond into the harvest there is nothing like local produce.  But during the long harsh Canadian winter everyone loves a juicy apple, or a little guacamole now and again, it's hard to last 5-6 months eating only rutabaga and preserved veggies.  "We have greenhouses, technology!" the people shout, 'but what of the power sources to run such operations?' I reply.  There are some who say that there is less negative impact on the environment from shipping Florida fruit to Ontario than there is from growing it in greenhouses in sub-zero temperatures.  At least we will always have luscious pork year round!

Upon hearing this term everyone's heart warms at the thought of bright yellow chicks pecking at springtime bugs in a lush green meadow, I too feel hopeful of this.  But the reality is that free-range means that an animal has access to an outdoor area for an indeterminate amount of time and there may or may not be grass in that area.  Very few strict rules have been attached to this term, it falls in with things like 'ethically raised', 'free-run', 'artisanal', 'natural' etc. which all have lovely connotations that terrible corporations take advantage of.

There is one very important thing about this term and that is: an animal cannot be labelled 'grain-fed' if it has been fed animal by-products, and that is a good thing!  Who am I kidding, that is a GREAT thing!  Here comes the but...BUT unfortunately it can also mean that the animal in question is fed only grain (usually corn) which is not a healthy alternative to grass.  Even the term grass-fed is deceiving as it can mean an animal was started on grass but ultimately fattened on corn.

Fortunately for those of us living in Stratford and the surrounding areas we can have a REAL connection with a lot of the producers who provide our food.  From Perth Pork Products and Monforte Dairy to Soiled Reputation and beyond!  We are also lucky to have such incredible events such as Savour Stratford that allow us to meet these producers and even sample some of their products.  So forget the labels and get to know the people so you can build a relationship and maybe even meet your dinner before it gets to your plate.

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