If for no reason other than your own health or the health of your family, it’s time to wise up about what you’re putting into your body. Picture: Reuters

In braai country, where there is meat, man must eat. But the next time you bite into a steak, take the time to consider what’s in it.

Members of Slow Meat South Africa, which brings together farmers, butchers, hand-crafted artisanal meat product producers, chefs and consumers, have a mouthful to say about the way we breed and rear meat in our country.

If for no reason other than your own health or the health of your family, it’s time to wise up about what you’re putting into your body.

They are an off-shoot of the global Slow Food Movement established by Italian gourmet, Carlo Petrini, in 1986 and gained momentum in South Africa in the new millennium.

One of the reasons said to have motivated Petrini was the 1986 death of 19 people and the poisoning of hundreds of others by cheap wine cut with methanol. His concern was the link between source, supply and supper.

To most of us slow food is, in a nutshell, an alternative to fast food and an awareness of food’s origins. It has marked the rise of things like craft beer and is about taking the time to connect to real life and particularly what is local, traditional and ethical.

Slow Meat is based on these principles and encourages consumers to know where their meat is coming from.

Founding member, Caroline McCann, of Braeside Butchery in Johannesburg, explained: “With increased demand, industrial farming has turned food production into a machine that puts profit and efficiency ahead of health and sustainability. It is a short-sighted approach that comes at a cost to our health, our environment, animal welfare, the nutritional value of the meat we consume and even its taste.”

For the consumer, sitting in front of that juicy steak it’s about what that animal was fed, medicated with, how it lived, where it was kept and how it was killed.

McCann said: “We want grass-fed beef because it has a higher healthy fat content (omega 3, 6 and 9) and we want them to walk freely, so their muscle fibres are well developed and it’s as though they’ve been to the gym.”

Sadly, she said, most of us are eating couch potato cows, rather than gym bunnies.

“The cattle-raising process takes the animals from the breeders, to the weaners, and straight into the feed-lots.

The feed-lot conditions (confined, crowded spaces) are not ideal. The animals’ movement is restricted. They’re fed all sorts of grain (that’s 85% of cattle in South Africa and it’s predominantly genetically-modified maize), and this often makes them really sick, and in need of antibiotics and supplements.”

Farmer Bertie van Niekerk said animals were grain fed by many because it increased weight and therefore price.

“Farmers are in a tight spot,” he explained. “They sell young cattle to feed-lots because they often don’t have enough land to keep them all.

“Some farmers go to the trouble to grass feed and grow their animals by allowing them to roam free only to sell them to abattoirs that are allowed to give them growth hormones.”

In South Africa we still use Zilmax, the bulking drug – banned in most European countries – which is said to make animals lame.

Mikey Ker-Fox at Hope Meat Supplies in Durban North, added that finding a farmer who would offer free range, grass-fed animals was only half of the dilemma.

“A butcher can call an abattoir and ask for a box of steaks. If you’re concerned about the stuff they’re putting into the meat, you must go to a farmer who allows his animals to graze freely in pastures and feed on grass – but you can’t ask him for boxes – you have to take the whole animal.”

Xanthos Giannakopoulos, executive chef at the Durban Country Club, said it all came down to supply and demand.

“I grew up making my own feta and pruning fruit trees and it’s that ethos that inspires us chefs to get creative and avoid waste by using the whole animal.

“With time, tongue can be tasty, kidney can make the inside of a patty moist enough to melt in your mouth – but it takes a paradigm shift from the consumer.”

Ker-Fox adds: “As a butcher you don’t want to inject phosphates to make the meat look good, or bulk wors with stuff like bread, soy and water – but you still have to stay afloat as a business.

“This will only happen when there is consumer awareness and appreciation for good, clean and fair meat.”

Slow meat has five key ideals

FIND THE FACE

In the modern age of convenience shopping, we are far removed from our food source. By FINDING THE FACE of the farmer, you can be assured that you are indeed supporting a South African farming family and you can ensure that the animal practices are good, clean and fair.

By FINDING THE FACE of a butcher, you can assist in ensuring that this dying skill is not lost forever.

The relationship between butcher and consumer is critical especially for city dwellers because access to farmers is limited.

By supporting family farming, we are ensuring food security for our country.

BIODIVERSITY IN THE POT

Try different types of meat (such as goat, venison, etc) and different breeds, with a strong focus on indigenous breeds such as Afrikaner beef, Namaqua Afrikaner sheep, Pedi sheep and Zulu sheep.

NOSE TO TAIL

Modern trends result in 15 percent of the whole carcass preferred. Try alternative cuts to help ensure a fair price is paid to the farmer.

AUTHENTIC MEAT PRODUCTS

Preservation of meat is a cornerstone of using the whole carcass and nose-to-tail eating.

Find producers making authentic meat products using good, clean and fair principles, like boerewors, biltong and dry wors.

By using these meat products, you will actively encourage whole animal consumption and reduced wastage.

EAT SOUTH AFRICAN

With more exposure to international food, South Africans are eating fewer traditional South African meals. Encourage the preservation of South African heritage and cultural recipes, cook more of these at home and share these recipes.

Preserve family recipes from one generation to the next.

What consumers should know

Adrian Cloete, a farmer with land near Botswana, says it’s useful to think of breed as the ingredients of the animal.

“In the way different ingredients give you various cakes, different breeds give you various tastes. This goes back to genetics and how and where breeds are reared.

“Indigenous cattle are matched to our climate conditions and so they are less likely to become sick and need medicating – which is better for culinary purposes.

“Afrikaner skin, for example, is loose and so the parasites fall off and this helps them dodge tick bite fever. “

Many breeds that have adapted to local conditions can be traced back numerous centuries. With modern farming practices, these hardy animals have fallen out of favour with feed-lots, thus threatening their future.

However, they are an imperative source of genetic biodiversity and undoubtedly the preferred choice for small-scale farming and rural homestead livestock. Loss of these alternatives will create insurmountable problems for rural communities and general food security.

Caroline McCann said this was what she believed consumers should know and be asking for from their butcher:

* It’s important that cows, sheep and pigs are fed a diet natural to the animal. Cows and sheep should be eating indigenous grass. Pigs, raised on a diet of forage, should not be fed meat from their species.

* The animals should be allowed to roam freely in large pastures before slaughter and should not be locked in a feed-lot or any other man-made structures, (with or without restraining pens or cages or tethering systems) unless at night or in adverse weather conditions.

* They should be free of routine antibiotics and chemicals designed to stimulate growth.

* They should be slaughtered humanely at a registered abattoir and transported in a hygienic and safe manner before and after slaughter.

* They should be deboned and prepared in hygienic premises.