The first soapbox I ever jumped on was animal protection. I was about 10 at the time, and my dad took me to the organizational meeting for our town’s ASPCA chapter, where we became charter members. An exciting moment in my young world, but I recall some disappointment because it seemed as much about paperwork and platitudes as actually rescuing puppies.
I’ve reacted with similar skepticism to discussions about chefs sourcing humanely raised animals. Of course humane farming is the ethical thing to do, but why is this important to a restaurant?
Certified Humane, the nonprofit dedicated to “improving the lives of farm animals from birth through slaughter,” defines farming expectations far beyond keeping animals well-fed and hormone-free. My warm-fuzzy side agrees wholeheartedly that it’s the right way to run a ranch, but does kindness and caring really impact the quality of protein on the plate?
Chef Anita Lo, owner of Michelin-starred Annisa in New York City, answers with a definitive yes. “To a chef, first and foremost, it’s an issue of flavor,” she tells me. “The better an animal is treated, the better the meat will taste.”
Admittedly, she says environmental issues are near and dear to her heart, having been raised in a family practicing a sustainable lifestyle long before it was embraced mainstream. However, her conviction that how meat is raised directly impacts the food she prepares is passionately evident.
For years, Chef Lo has sourced from Meat & Livestock Australia, known for its humane practices, and soon she’ll be returning for her second trip down under to witness first-hand the treatment and rearing of livestock there. The trip—her prize for winning the Winter Wonderlamb competition in New York City earlier this year with her signature Australian Lamb with Chickpeas, Harissa, and Black Sesame—has her all excited to see how sustainable and humane ranching has evolved in the 10 years since she visited previously. Even though it means spending a fortnight away from her restaurant, the opportunity promises to be too meaningful to decline.
Convinced she is both passionate and profoundly knowledgeable, I ask what might be a dumb question: In addition to being affected by the nurturing quality of its environment, is the flavor of meat impacted by the geographic environment where animals are raised, much like wine is impacted by the region where grapes are grown?
Yes, there is an aspect of terrior to meat, Chef Lo explains. “In most cases, it’s not easily recognized except maybe in a side-by-side tasting. A good example is to think about sheep that graze on the salt marshes in France, eating a lot of herbs and salty [vegetation]. You can certainly taste that in the meat.”
I’d love to participate in one of those side-by-side tastings, and I’m already seeing a new soapbox on my horizon. Expect more FSR editorial on reasons to source humanely raised meats.