I knew this was going to be a problem. But I didn’t really believe how bad it was going to be.
I like meat and I’ve never had success with my brief experiments of doing without it. (Though unlike both the boyfriends who inspired me to try it, I did at least stick it out for the agreed time.) On one occasion going pescatarian seemed to tip me over the edge into anaemia, and both times I thought about meat constantly.
So instead, for the last few years, I’ve been mainly eating humanely reared meat. Sometimes I falter, especially in restaurants: chicken jalfrezi is my weak point. But in supermarkets I buy free-range chicken (and occasionally duck), outdoor-reared pork, and lamb, which is best of all because the fields sheep gambol in are generally on marginal land. This is easy enough to do in Sainsbury’s or even the Co-op, with no need for trekking off to specialist shops. And of course I buy free-range eggs.
Apparently, 2/3 of British shoppers buy free-range or organic eggs these days. The range in our local Sainsbury’s in Leeds used to be quite bewildering – free-range, woodland free-range, Yorkshire free-range, proper organic – probably ten different lines that I can’t now remember. The last time I remember even having an argument about the ethics of buying free-range was with my mother (hello, Mum), c.1992.
God, things are different here. First, incidentally, you can’t buy a box of 6 eggs in a supermarket – you must go for a full dozen. Then, Jewel and Dominick’s don’t carry any free range eggs at all. You’re probably envisioning some tiny shop with a handful of product lines, but you’d be wrong – there’s an entire aisle of cereals in Jewel, for a start, and there are lots of eggs, just none free range. And there’s no sign of free range chicken or pork, and if there’s lamb, I haven’t seen it – possibly it’s hiding somewhere, cowering in terror at the oversize beef joints. Peapod, the online company that delivered our groceries this week, has one pack of free range chicken breasts available, and one kind of outdoor reared pork chops, but nothing else – no whole chickens, for example.
OK, so then I think: clearly if I want ethical food I must shop elsewhere. Whole Foods Market here I come. Now, in Fresh and Wild, the UK version of Whole Foods Market, eggs and meat are mostly fully organic, with a few products that are conventionally farmed (i.e. with use of agro-chemicals) but free range.
Again, not here. From a full display of chicken (see above), only two small packs (sorry – out of shot owing to my incompetence in the presence of a staring shop worker) are designated free range. The rest make far weedier claims: no growth hormones (then in small print: Federal law forbids hormones), raised with some daylight, Amish farmed (gee, that must make them wholesome), ‘natural’. I’ll save my rant of hatred against that last term for another time.
Last week I assumed that I hadn’t properly understood the eggs terminology, and bought some ‘cage-free’, thinking this must be the US equivalent of ‘free-range’, since it was the label on several of the Whole Foods egg cartons. No. It’s what we call in the UK ‘barn eggs’, something I would only knowingly buy if absolutely desperate: the hens are shut up indoors most of the time. After quite a bit of internet searching, I finally found a good explanation of American egg labelling, which makes for rather depressing reading.
I can’t account yet for why things are so different here. The page I linked on free range egg consumption, above, puts it down to the celebrity chef factor, given Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaigns. But better welfare eggs had a 40% market share even before that, back in 2006. Maybe it’s the fabled British love of animals; maybe it’s the positive influence of the EU. Whatever it is, I can’t think of anything funny to say about how things are in America. I’m too shocked.