Dear Umbra,

My wife and I recently began changing the way we eat. We located several free-range/pastured farms here in the area, and found that some local restaurants buy meat from these farms. We plan on supporting these establishments. My question is, are there any major food chains that use good meat?

Rich Brantner
Fair Grove, Mo.

Dearest Rich,

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Meet your meat.

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Let’s define “good” meat as pasture-raised by small-scale farms, just for the purpose of this small-scale article. I’m not quite sure which are the chain restaurants in Missouri (the only restaurants on the Fair Grove site are a Subway and a pizzeria), so I’m going to sidestep your question a bit and talk about buying meat directly from the producer.

Before I utterly bail on you, though, I want to encourage all persons to ask restaurants about meat. If you’re shy about being picky, you can always use mad cow as your excuse, and no one will think twice. Usually a chain restaurant will get beef shipped from some large business, or the wait staff will give you a brand name, which you can differentiate from “we get it from Bob’s butcher on M Street.” And you can always look on a restaurant’s website. If a place is spending money on pastured meat, they will usually tell you all about it.

One more thing: I have noticed that the two big chains you would normally think of when you think of meat are making some efforts to better their purchasing here and there. McDonald’s uses organic beef in some locations, and Burger King has committed to buying a small percentage of its eggs and pork cage-free. But out of billions and billions served, that accounts for a mere beakful. And because I think it’s unlikely that smaller, regional establishments like Bob’s Big Boy are buying pastured meats (but I know dearest readers will write in with any firsthand knowledge), I will now move on to buying meat directly from the producer.

If you cook meat at home, this is a wonderful way to support sustainable meat production and family-scale farming in your area, and improve your diet. Many folks only eat meat out at restaurants, but since most restaurants buy what we could call generic meat, this habit is environmentally counterproductive.

There are a few ways to find local meat producers if, unlike Rich, you have not discovered them. If no meat is sold at the farmers’ market, the market manager might still know enough about local agriculture to be able to connect you with small producers. The internet is a good resource, through sites like foodroutes, or through searching by state and product until you find something such as the AgriMissouri Buyer’s Guide. I have luck looking for small farm programs within the states, usually run by an extension or a state university, and those programs usually lead to a list of farms or something similar. If the internet and the farmers’ markets don’t pan out, I noticed that Fair Grove has a custom meat processor. They are not the only place to have a small custom meat processor, which will likely know how its customers are raising their stock.

There’s no quality assurance better than knowing your grower. I have never met a small-scale meat farmer who wasn’t smart, very well informed, and happy about raising animals responsibly. Sometimes with small producers you buy the meat “on the hoof,” meaning you technically own it while it is still alive, and pick up the meat after on-farm harvest. This is a way for small growers to get around USDA inspection rules, which are designed for large-scale production and are quite a hassle. Other times, such as at farmers’ markets, you are purchasing meat slaughtered under USDA inspection. Either way, you’ll pick up your frozen meat and merrily carry it home, knowing the producer cared deeply about quality and safety — after all, you know who raised your meal. Our family had a chest freezer and used to buy an entire side of beef (all hail the Athens Mastodon, the chewy fellow we got one year); you could buy a whole lamb or a quarter pig, or sign up to get a chicken a month. Or you can buy individual cuts as it suits, depending on the farms you find and their systems.

By the way, the meat will taste different, because the animal’s diet and exercise regimen were healthy.