Free-range and ‘industrial’ farm animals

In the «tough» old days, the customer in the butcher’s shop had to make sure that the butcher put the meat that he’d chosen into the packet, without extra fat or a larger piece of bone. Quite often, if the «Master Carver» was a dishonest type, instead of wrapping up baby goat meat, he might, on the sly, sell you old and tough goat, which by rights should have cost less. Nowadays, with fear in their eyes, customers ask their butcher for the various genealogical details of the beef or information on how a chicken was raised. «O tempora o mores!» I recalled as I begun to research the issue of meat in order to determine where the fairy tales end and where the cracks in Big Brother’s eyelids (not the television version, but the Orwellian one) would allow me to see those little crumbs of truth. Now, the same goes for meat as for vegetables, grains and processed foods. That is, we start with the good intention of wanting to produce more meat, crunching the price, so that this select food ceases to be the exclusive privilege of the rich. Indeed, from antiquity, meat was eaten by all peoples, with only a few exceptions, as the food of festivals. Fowl of all kinds was a cut above other meats. Hunting (in other eras, when there was plenty) covered man’s single need for protein. Animals were not slaughtered for jumping too high because they produce milk (and therefore, cheese, yogurt, etc.) and eggs, and also play an important role in man’s nutrition, and by extension, his livelihood. That is, until the point that man began to breed animals. Later, the production of meat was industrialized and flourished with the aid of science; always «for our own good.» Since then, little bits of molecular biology, genetics, chemistry and, above all, the economics of profit, have coexisted in my simple blue and white pot and my 22-year-old saucepan. The only ingredient that does not fit in these vessels is morality, because it makes the sauce separate. As for the gastronomic value of these bits, that isn’t even considered. The meat is almost tasteless but there is a lot of it. It is plentiful and comes at a good price. Don’t tell me that science is evolving for the good of mankind, because that is simultaneously both true and a lie. This is what I mean: Let’s assume that we have brought a Swiss cow to Greece that can produce more milk than the Greek ones. This cow cannot survive in the Greek climate unless we add to its own genes a gene from another strain which will increase its resistance to the warmer climate. How great! And clever! We can still add yet more genes to its genetic accessories. A gene from a breed of cow that produces even more milk, a gene that increases the fat content of the cream produced by this particular cow. This continues until we have satisfied man’s demands of «nature.» Then we will add to its fodder all the elements (amino acids, trace chemicals, proteins, vitamins, etc.) that will ensure that the animal grows to its maximum potential. We will hear them call these «improved» breeds or multi-gene animals. No one can provide an answer to the question of whether this interference effects the taste of the meat. Our taste buds provide the only testimony to this stupidity. No scientific certification is provided. There are, however, the chickens as well. If, in reference to those animals which produce milk, we can talk about mass production but not industrialization, then this last term can be used most accurately to describe the production of chicken and eggs, foods widely consumed. In order to better understand the problem, I sought the assistance of two scientists at the Agricultural University of Athens, Eleftheria Panopoulou, assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences, and Anna Kourti, a lecturer in genetics. Professor Panopoulou is a specialist on poultry and explained to me that all the chickens that circulate on the market in the last decades are hybrids. The specific strains have not disappeared, they are simply not commercially available. Huge companies with powerful research departments «improve» and separate chickens into breeds. They manipulate the genetic code, adding and removing genes, creating new kinds of chickens which are specifically intended for large-scale production. In this way, they create a hybrid that is bred for its meat, a hybrid that is destined to produce eggs, and another that is destined to reproduce, to lay eggs that will then be hatched mechanically. The number of birds that are nurtured in these units is great and they live in battery cages or on specially designed floors with specific and up-to-date health regulations. Since they are kept inside, so as to control light and temperature, the feed provided also mimics what they would have eaten in nature and is even enriched. The eggs are transported on conveyer belts to the selection and packaging section, while the hens’ droppings are collected on wide conveyer belts beneath the cages and mechanically removed. The arguments in favor of this method of breeding are logical and strong: Cleanliness and collection of the eggs without any loss or effort. The breeders ask a logical question: Have you ever considered how we could collect the eggs from a massive farm with thousands of hens? Or the stench from the droppings? I must confess I hadn’t thought of this, but now that I do it makes me dizzy. The other dimensions In answer to my question as to whether intervention in nature’s genetic codes is desirable, they tell me that it is, and if continued intervention can help the fight against hunger among the world’s less privileged, then so much the better. And they add that for people to die of hunger in this day and age is a disgrace to modern civilization. Can you disagree? I didn’t disagree. It is just that something inside me was saying that there are other dimensions to this question, and that science isn’t so innocent. The most important thing, however, is that from the moment the breeding and raising of fowl (and other meat-producing animals) went from grandma’s backyard to the various large companies (breeders, feed manufacturers, machinery and construction companies, etc.), it is clear that what we call «the distribution of funds» ceased to be a cultural issue. It became a political one. Zigouri with green egg and lemon sauce Zigouri is the meat from sheep over a year old and is especially tasty. Follow the recipe carefully, and you will like it even more than lamb a la creme. You can also use chopped lamb or pork, in which case, you can start with the frying and skip the initial stewing. 1 kilo zigouri, chopped into pieces 1 tablespoon whole spices (1 nutmeg, 5-6 cloves, a little pimento, black pepper, stick of cinnamon) 4 teaspoons olive oil 1 glass dry white wine 5 leeks sliced into finger-thick pieces 12 small onions, sliced 3 bunches parsley thickly chopped 2-3 eggs juice of 3 lemons Clean the meat and put into a pan with plenty of water and the spices. Stew for about an hour, according to the size of the pieces and the tenderness of the animal. Using a slotted spoon, remove the meat. Pour the oil into a pan with a thick base, add the meat and fry until browned. Add the wine, salt and pepper and the juice from the meat, which you have first strained. When the meat is almost cooked, add the vegetables to the pan and cook, making sure they do not become too soft (about 15-20 minutes). Beat the eggs until slightly thickened, and stir in the lemon juice. Add some juice from the pan to the egg and lemon sauce until it becomes quite hot, and empty it into the food. Swish the pan making sure the egg-lemon mixture has blended with the juice and remove from the heat.