Cheap meat is not The Wurst | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Cheap meat is not The Wurst 

Pasture raised, GMO- and antibiotic-free meat isn't cheap, but it's free of Big Ag consequences that put the food supply at risk.

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click to enlarge This was a deer that had been hit by a car and brought to Hanft last winter. He broke it down and processed it into steaks, roasts, sausages, stew meat, ground meat and stock, which was then distributed to needy families. - RICKY HANFT
  • This was a deer that had been hit by a car and brought to Hanft last winter. He broke it down and processed it into steaks, roasts, sausages, stew meat, ground meat and stock, which was then distributed to needy families.
  • Ricky Hanft

Indiana ironworker-turned-butcher Ricky Hanft had a lot of interesting things to say in my story about him and his Griffith, Indiana, shop The Wurst. He specializes in pastured animals from small farms that are free from GMOs, antibiotics, and whatever other nastiness goes into your cheap, supermarket CAFO meat.

One thing I didn’t address—one of the many troubling things about our national food system that’s been keeping me up for months—is just how fragile that system is. Consolidation has made the system vulnerable at so many points, but it's mostly the farmers that pay for it when something goes wrong. 

Remember the beef shortages in the spring resulting from the COVID-related closures of just a few massive slaughterhouses? Hanft says the small, independent slaughterhouses he uses were deluged by commodity farmers with no other place to process their animals. That’s just one way the system intrudes on the small loop Hanft and his farmers are trying to create.

“The factory farming industry is heavily subsidized, as well as the food (corn and soy) that those animals consume,” Hanft wrote in an e-mail. “So we, as taxpayers, have created an artificially low price on the commodity products we see at grocery stores. The farms we work with receive no government subsidies, and are not on welfare due to the low annual income that factory farming provides. I've spoken with people who work at local supermarkets and heard that throughout the shortages, beef suppliers were charging upwards [of] around $25/lb wholesale for commodity rib eye. Ours is $20/lb in our retail case.”

By necessity, pastured, naturally raised meat is expensive—it should be. We shouldn’t be eating as much meat as we do anyhow. But unlike commodity meat pricing, at least it’s price-stable, one benefit of a decentralized network of loops like Hanft's.

“We asked the individual farmers what numbers they needed to hit in order to make a living and continue doing what they do well,” Hanft told me. “They told us, we said OK. Based on what we pay per pound from the farmers, our prices are based on yields, operating costs, and so on. Our prices don't fluctuate based on markets. We collectively determine what everybody needs to make in order to keep the lights on, and then try and present high-quality products at what we consider to be reasonable prices.”

You could always hunt your own meat, but that brings up another way the food system intrudes on a small, sustainable one like Hanft’s. Now that he’s a fully licensed and inspected shop, he can no longer do the deer processing work he did to raise funds to open the shop—unless he uses a completely separate facility, or implements a sanitization process that just isn't practical for both game and livestock (this wouldn't be an issue in, say, Canada).

So if you bag a buck, a feral hog, a beaver, or any squirrels this season, don’t take them to The Wurst.  v

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