Chef Mark Bolchoz of Indaco cooking at Heritage Fire | Photos by Ferris Kaplan

This isn’t a story to make you feel guilty about eating meat. But the chefs who use sustainable meat say there’s a better way than settling for the cheaply produced commodity meats in a lot of butcher cases in grocery stores.

Fortunately, that better way is not as difficult as you’d think, especially in Charleston, and chefs say the result is not only more sustainable, but tastes better.

Several chefs recently cooked at Heritage Fire, a national festival dedicated to sustainably raised foods, including meats. They talked about why they are sold on being more sustainable.

What is sustainably raised meat?

Sustainably raised meat is from animals that have been raised in a way that’s better for the environment, usually pasture-raised, which means the animals are rotated among fields so the soil can recover between grazing. That’s better for the animals, too, and these animals often will have been fed fewer, if any, antibiotics because less crowding means fewer diseases.

Although there is often overlap between animals raised sustainably and meat that is labeled “organic,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s organic label further guarantees that the animals have been fed organic feed and forage and were not administered antibiotics or hormones.

 Husk chef Ray England cooked rabbit at Heritage Fire, explaining, “Not enough people use rabbit, but it’s one of the most sustainable meats because of how fast they grow and how little feed is put into them.”

He said he goes through 50 to 60 rabbits a week at Husk sourced from Blue Ridge Rabbits of Wellford. The processor leaves the baby rabbits with their mother for nine weeks, about twice the norm, before the young are slain.

“This means the rabbit is never without mother’s milk, although they get alfalfa pellets as a supplement,” England said. “That means they don’t need antibiotics and they wind up being a lot bigger and a lot fatter. It costs more to do it that way, but you get a rabbit that is a lot more nutritious.”

Humane slaughter

You might think that frolicking freely in pastures is enough, but chefs say the way the meat is slaughtered can also have a big impact.

 “It’s important to first realize that it is very easy in the meat industry to use those buzzwords. To just say ‘We practice sustainable farming’ might just mean you use three fields in rotation when raising cattle so you don’t devastate the land. And then you can sell to whatever processor you want, one who might mistreat them,” said Mark Bolchoz, chef and head of culinary operations for Indigo Road Hospitality’s Italian concepts. “That’s the humane versus just the sustainable, and it’s a scientific fact that, when an animal’s stressed, it produces adrenaline that uses up glycogen, which means there isn’t enough lactic acid post-mortem and that will affect the taste negatively.”

 Bolchoz added that when he would use so-called commodity chickens, he’d see “a whole lot of broken legs and wings, and I’d just hope those were post-mortem breaks.” He now gets his chickens from Storey Farms on Johns Island because he said that farmer Jeremy Storey uses processors who “are going to do right by the animal.”

 For large animals, in most cases, humane slaughter means the animals are slaughtered close to home since transporting them can be stressful. In addition, they’re sedated, which relaxes them so that they aren’t put through the stress of anticipating the slaughter, which is done using a bolt-style gun to the brain.

Animals like pigs, “are really smart. They know they’re going to be slaughtered,” said catering chef Graham Calabria of Mount Pleasant.

What to look for at the store

 It is possible to find meat in the grocery store from animals that were raised and slaughtered humanely, but it’s not easy unless you know what to look for.

Calabria says to look for “less pulling away in the fibers” and Bolchoz says, “Look for already-cut chops with a deep pink or lightish-red color that shows that animal was fed a more decent feed. And look at the fat marbling: the animal that lived a good life should have lean muscle with fat all the way through it. I taught my mom 10 years ago, if you’re looking at a ribeye or a strip loin and it’s just blanketed completely in red with no marbling, it probably didn’t eat well and it died older than it should have.”

Blair Machado, a farm consultant and chef who runs Hamfish BBQ and Nomad, was a whole-animal butcher at FIG restaurant in Charleston before starting his own pop-up company. He accompanied this reporter to grocers and butchers, demonstrating meat that had and had not died in a state of stress. One of the main things he pointed out was to look for  a spider-web effect and a discoloration between the fat and the meat.

“In many cases, you can see where the animal seized up from stress,” Machado said. “I compare it to someone in a drunk-driving accident. A lot of times, the drunk who’s driving doesn’t get hurt because he doesn’t know the accident is coming and he doesn’t tense up. When you tense up, it creates changes in the body, and you can see that in the meat.”

But what about the taste?

All of the chefs interviewed said there was a definite difference between an animal that had been raised and slaughtered humanely versus a “commodity” animal.

“It tastes better, it’s as simple as that,” Calabria said. “We did a series of pop-ups and we had three different types of salmon and three different types of brisket. They were all prepared exactly the same way, but they were raised differently. In a blind tasting, everyone picked the more sustainably and ethically raised meats. What you do notice with meat, if the animal is stressed during its passing, will create cortisol and have actually a more gamey flavor.”

Bolchoz suggested a taste test.

Pigs at Keegan-Filion Farms

“I would urge everyone to go buy a Keegan [Filion] chicken and put it side by side with one of those big box chickens from the grocery store,” Bolchoz said. “The grocery store meat is so bloated because of that chicken’s feeding schedule. And the Keegan chicken just has a deeper flavor, it seems a little less acidic, probably because the lactic acid has broken down whereas the stressed animal is more tightened up and [it] doesn’t have that natural muscle release that it does when it’s humanely slaughtered.”

The chefs cautioned that cooking with sustainably raised meat can take a little practice since the animal has muscles from being allowed to roam freely, but they say simple adaptations are all it takes.

“The meat is sometimes going to have a little more chew,” England said. “Don’t overcook it, but I also wouldn’t necessarily eat their steaks rare. Medium to medium-rare is where you want to be. The cows from Keegan Filion are not the most marbled or fatty. These cows take a little longer to grow, they eat mostly grass their entire lives, and they have a lot less fat than cornfed. But the flavor is a lot beefier, kind of sweeter and more flavorful in general. And their pork is ridiculously tender.”

A price to pay

Meat that has been raised sustainably and humanely slaughtered is more expensive than commodity meat. But all of the chefs say the price is worth it and that they’d rather see people eat less meat in general than supporting what they see as an unhealthy choice.

“It’s nutritionally more dense,” England said. “The actual value may seem like you are saving money by cheaper meat, but with the humane meat, you are supporting the local economy and that’s important.” 

Machado said, “We’re taught to look for price only in the grocery store. But if you’re in a grocery store, look first for meat that was raised without hormones and antibiotics, free range second, and third, look at the striations to see how it died. The hardest thing to look for is whether it was humanely slaughtered. Really, you’re just better off getting your meat from a farmer you can trust. We’re so lucky in Charleston that we have that close by.”

Where can you get the meats? 

The chefs recommended an assortment of local vendors for meats and emphasize that a good farm should let you visit and see its operations:

Blue Ridge Rabbits, Wellford

Chucktown Acres, McClellanville

Keegan Filion Farm, Walterboro

Lowcountry Oyster Company

Peculiar Pig Farms, Dorchester County

Storey Farms, Johns Island

Vital Missions (for duck), Wadmalaw

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