Is There Any Safe Meat?

Reader Sheila asked me a great question recently: is there really any safe meat to eat these days?

Beef and pork? Raised in cramped factories and fattened as quickly as possible, the happiness of the animal is nonexistent and the health of the meat is seriously in question. These animals are fed hormones, antibiotics, and an unnatural high-sugar grain diet that reduces beneficial fatty acids in the meat and causes illness in the animal (hence the need for drugs). Red meat and the “other” white meat (come on, it’s red) aren’t exactly the boon of health we low-carbers would like them to be. Sheila wondered about the rumors of dangerous parasites and germs in pork. Because of the modern factory system, pork really doesn’t have any greater health danger than beef. However, just because things like listeria have been reduced since the days of Upton Sinclair, doesn’t make meat healthy.

The sheer production level of meat is so high that it draws greedily on natural resources like oil, water, and land (and it’s a major contributor to rainforest deforestation). It’s no wonder many people are turning to vegetarianism. Either that, or it’s the fact that a typical burger patty is literally a composite of hundreds of cows, and processed meats are made of stripped spinal meat, which is turning so many people off of meat. This always turns my stomach, and although I do espouse responsible meat-eating (more on that in a moment), I’d sooner go hungry than eat a single meal that is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of animals. To me, it’s cruel and vulgar, and yet, a burger is the most popular food item in America. Sad.

How about chicken and turkey? Fowl is raised in much the same manner as beef and pork. Modern chicken is far more fatty than the chicken your grandparents ate. You even have to be careful with free-range products. The only thing that “ranges” with many of these free-range products is the degree of accuracy in the term. In some states, the “free range” is still a pen, albeit with some sunlight. My idea of healthy protein is not tens of thousands of chickens crammed into a sunless room smelling of chemicals and covered in filth, and I’m sure it’s not yours either, yet this is the reality.

But fish is healthy, right? Again, it’s not a pretty picture. Our oceans’ fisheries are in jeopardy. In fact, an entire section of California’s coast has been banned because the fish populations are close to being wiped out. This sort of thing is going on in many places. This isn’t fun news, but the facts remain. Our way of life is causing serious problems. Couple overfishing with the gross levels of pollutants in many waterways – particularly southern waters – and fish isn’t necessarily your best bet. Farmed fish is problematic because it can interfere with wild fish habitats, and farmed fish are often overcrowded to the point of cannibalism. And there’s the sea lice infestation to consider.

Sheesh! What about shellfish? My staffers jokingly call shrimp “sea bugs” because they have exoskeletons, much like any ordinary garden insect. Like lobster and crab, they sorta are sea bugs, if you think about it. Here’s the “bad news” about shellfish. I personally avoid shellfish.

This isn’t an apologia for vegetarians. I eat meat. But I have friends, family members and staff who don’t. If you think what I’ve just written is depressing, spend some time on the vegetarian blogs and you’ll see where my pals are coming from. For me, the problem is that our modern meat production system is grossly out of step with sustainability in every sense. This is a radical problem for the environment, for our sense of compassion and our ethical integrity, and human health. It’s that serious.

I believe another serious aspect of this problem is that the human body is designed to be omnivorous – subsisting on a healthy mix of animal flesh, vegetables, seeds, nuts and fruits. I am firmly against the modern diet rich in sugars, refined flours and processed starches. I think occasional whole grains are fine, but based on my background in biology, neither burgers nor burger buns are the road to the blessings of good health. I believe humans are meant to eat some meat – whether fish, fowl or livestock – based upon the facts I have observed in my studies of human evolution. That’s where most of my veg pals and I part ways. For example, I don’t think most types of soy are healthy. But we can disagree while still agreeing that the basic problem – the current system of meat production – has got to change. Period.

What to do?

If you don’t want to “go veg”, whether for reasons of personal preference or scientific convictions (my case), then do all you can to support better practices:

Go organic. Expensive, yes, but I believe this is a non-negotiable. If you buy “free-range”, make sure it’s really free-range.

Try to find local producers. This supports smaller farms, who often raise meat sustainably and in accordance with organic protocols but can’t afford the hoops of being officially labeled organic. This requires significant digging and a lot of phone calls, but this is your earth and your body, so I really don’t think it’s such a big deal.

Eat less. This is a huge one that I never see anyone talking about. I am a big fan of “low carb” eating. I think sugar is no better than a toxin. But that doesn’t mean anyone needs to eat massive steaks. Humans are designed to eat some flesh, but fish and eggs are certainly sufficient, and more importantly, you only need 1-3 ounces at a time. Unless you’re an athlete in training, the need for anything more than a small handful of flesh is exaggerated. We’re used to eating huge servings of meat, but then, we’re used to eating huge servings of everything.

Write some letters. It’s easy.

So, Sheila, in answer to your question, I don’t believe there’s really any one type of meat that is superior to any otherthe way meat is currently produced. Produced sustainably, organically, with the animals’ health in mind, chicken is a great source of protein. And grass-fed, “happy” cows provide meat rich in good fats. And wild fish from safe, cold-water regions like Alaska contains Omega-3’s and very low levels of contaminants. Pigs not raised in cruel, cramped gestation crates provide lean protein. Personally, I eat mostly fish and fowl. But for every type of flesh we can consume, there’s a healthier, saner alternative. I don’t recommend one type of meat over the other, because ultimately, it’s the whole system that’s gotta go. I recommend rethinking the entire “meat paradigm”, and shifting your habits to support a better way of life. In a few short years, we’ll all have to anyway.

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[tags] vegetarian, vegan, chicken, beef, grass-fed, pork, fish, shellfish, seafood, low-carb, protein, sustainable, environment, omega-3’s, good fat, organic, gestation crate, factory farming, free-range, eggs [/tags]

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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17 thoughts on “Is There Any Safe Meat?”

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  1. I’m coming late to this discussion of meat, but have a few comments.
    Living in a semi-rural area, my wife and I have discovered venison, something that can be taken advantage of by others in a similar situation. Not everyone wants to be a hunter, but many know hunters, who I’m sure would gladly donate some of their bounty to non-hunting friends for a trial run.
    Venison is a dark red, extremely lean meat, that, when handled and prepared properly, is tender, non-gamey, and very nutritious. Deer are not, by any stretch of the imagination, “endangered” in the US; indeed, many states are overrun; Georgia allows a 10-deer limit per hunter!
    Since I took up archery hunting four years ago, venison has become our only red meat. We eat it 3-4 days a week, in moderate to small servings, and find it very satisfying. My biggest hurdle to overcome was the idea of killing a rather large animal. But after the first, extremely emotional experience, it became easier, but has always remained a serious endeavor.
    Not wishing to be vegetarian, but also not wishing to support Big Ag and factory farms, this has been a good solution for us. Not something, of course, that will appeal to everyone, but still, an option.

  2. i agree with you 100 percent my wife is pregenant and when my son is born we were goin to be vegetarians is that a good idea to not give my new born meat when he can eat it

  3. I hope you are aware of the wasting disease that is sweeping through the wild deer, as well as moose and elk, in North America. This can cause the CJD in humans and does not seem like a very pleasant way to die. Perhaps that is why the limit is so high? If you get any of the brain or spinal cord tissue in the meat, you can contract this horrible disease. It sometimes has an incubation period of up to 40 years, so you won’t know that you have it. And there is no cure. The best bet is to eat farm-raised meat that has been humanely treated, is organic, and grass-fed. Please don’t think that wild deer are a safe food source. Someone we know just died of it.

    1. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been found in deer and elk in some locations in North America. Probably spread by game-farmed deer and elk escaping into the wild. CWD is found in nervous tissue like brain and spinal cord, and also in bone marrow. When a deer or elk is shot and dressed, it’s best to de-bone the carcass and not cook and consume anything containing nervous system tissue. The meat is completely safe, even from an infected individual.
      All that said, there have been NO known instances of CWD spread to humans.
      CWD is NOT the same as creutzfeldt-jakob disease. CWD is not a reason to avoid wild game, which live wild and free lives, rarely live more than 5-6 years, and frequently die on the front end of cars and trucks.

  4. To Lisa (July 18, 2008):
    Regarding chronic wasting disease: This came about through the commercial raising of elk and deer on animal “game farms,” where many animals are forced into small enclosed areas. Not as bad as factory farms for domestic livestock, but still many more animals in a small area than would be found in the wild. CWD spread to wild populations of deer and elk from these game farms (ain’t industrial farming great?) and now threatens deer and elk in some parts of North America. Living on an island in Puget Sound, hunting small coastal blacktail deer, mostly 2-3 years old, with virtually no mixing with mainland animals, CWD is not a problem. Hunting, if anything, keeps the population of deer down, helping to prevent the conditions that could lead to CWD: too many animals in too small an area.

  5. I know this is old, but a fun trick re: burgers, is to make a veggie burger and use it as the bun to hold all your veggies.

  6. Hey Liz, that was a new one for me, so many thanks! Gads I feel dumb I never thought of it. lol

  7. Food in general from local producers tastes better. Grass-fed beef is also superior to corn fed beef because of the omega fat ratios.

  8. Thanks you for adding the bit about small portions of meat are all that are necessary for good health- I don’t think that’s discussed hardly at all. I’ve been following a Rosedale approach and eating only 70gms of protein a day. It’s easy to get by just eating a can of sardines and a few eggs every day, added to plenty of nuts and leafy green vegetables. I wonder though, would Grok have been able to control himself and only eat 1-3oz at a time or would he more likely have hunted every few days, pigged out for a day and then ate vegetation until he got hungry enough to go out and kill something?

  9. Since we are discussing meat products, does anyone know that red meat may contain several important parasites capable of causing diabetes and quite possibly some forms of cancer in humans!!