Restaurant Trends in Animal Welfare

Nettle Meadow Farm  | Erica Nonni for Foodable Network

Nettle Meadow Farm | Erica Nonni for Foodable Network

Contemporary foodies are armed with a hefty and growing arsenal of values related to optimum safety, ethics, and deliciousness. We know that meat is better for us if the animal from which it comes is healthy. We’ve bought into the idea that eggs are tastier if the hens that lay them are allowed to roam around and eat grubs. Some of us dabble in veganism for health reasons, ethical reasons, or both. For some of us, dairy is a healthy source of protein; for others, it’s a perverse use of an animal byproduct intended for another species’ babies. 

Concern for animal welfare has created food trends that interpret the concept in various ways. Accordingly, restaurants and food retailers are responding to demand for animal welfare accountability in a range of ways, both shaping and responding to these trends in food values. 

From a "vegan organic" restaurant that serves only food grown without any animal involvement, to a no-kill dairy farm, to fancy supermarket infographics, to the world's first Animal Welfare Association-approved burger joint, let’s investigate some businesses at the forefront of these trends.

Vegan Organic

At one end of the spectrum is vegan organic gardening, a philosophy of farming that involves no animal exploitation whatsoever. Well beyond avoiding the consumption of animal-derived products like honey or gelatin, “vegan organic” eating means sourcing produce that has been grown without any elements like animal manure for fertilizer. The principle derives from the idea that animals should not be raised or used for exploitation in any form. It’s a comprehensive view of animal welfare that also tends to align with the most devotedly health-conscious foodies. 

Seabirds Kitchen in Costa Mesa, CA, is a good example of a vegan restaurant going to great lengths to both drive and respond to the growing popularity of veganism in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. With thousands of Instagram followers and a 4.9 Yelp rating, it seems they’re onto something.

Ethical Dairy with Animal Refuge

Across the country, tucked into the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, sits a farm with a different but no less devoted approach to animal welfare. Nettle Meadow Farm produces a range of artisanal cheeses from a flock of 300 well-cared-for goats and sheep. Tours of Nettle Meadow, which are open to the public and often led by owners Lorraine Lambiase and Sheila Flanagan, show how treating animals with care — from reproduction to natural death — leads to a delicious product. The animals are fed well, petted often, allowed to breed naturally with periods of rest, and are welcome to live out their lives on the farm after they stop lactating. Lorraine and Sheila don’t stop there. Their farm also serves as a refuge for injured, retired and abandoned animals of all kinds. Many are dropped off anonymously. 

Nettle Meadow Farm is ethically and environmentally sustainable, but is its business model? Stop in at a Whole Foods for a small wheel of their triple creme Kunik and you’ll be willing to believe it is.

Whole Foods 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating  | Erica Nonni for Foodable WebTV Network

Whole Foods 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating | Erica Nonni for Foodable WebTV Network

A Matrix for Meaning and Marketing

Speaking of Whole Foods – that national arbiter of ethical taste and convenient extravagance – let’s look at how animal welfare informs our supermarket selections. Whole Foods has devised a colorful, 5-step Animal Welfare Rating scale that satisfies a demand for ethical meats, sets forth a specific definition of animal welfare, and validates the self-image of conscientious carnivores all over the country. From cage-free to a lifetime spent in one place, Whole Foods has given savvy shoppers with disposable income a route map at the register.

Courtesy of Grazin' Angus Acres

Courtesy of Grazin' Angus Acres

The Best Beef

At the meat-focused end of the animal welfare discourse, where meat lovers roam free, we also find the world’s first Animal Welfare Association-approved restaurant. Grazin’ is a meat-focused restaurant in Tribeca, NYC supplied by its owners’ farm in Ghent, about two hours north. Grazin’ Angus Acres is Dan and Susan Gibson’s 500-acre farm built on the principle of strictly grass-fed and finished Black Angus beef. Their “holistic, synergistic, rotational grazing system” is not only about grass-fed beef. That is only a part of a comprehensive approach to wellness for both animals and consumers. Egg mobiles dot the farm, working in concert with cattle to restore the land. The farm has a burger joint in nearby Hudson, NY. It raises pigs, which naturally make use of farm and restaurant scraps. This closed-loop farming and dining approach is once again distinctive from, but no less informed by, ethical principles than its vegan and no-kill peers. 

Ripe for Debate, Spoiled for Choice

We live in a time and place of the greatest access to information, the broadest range of informed debate, and the widest dissemination of both manufactured and natural foods —anywhere, ever. We might also have the deepest bench of foodies taking up the causes of animal welfare, taste, and human wellness. Restaurants and grocers do well to listen to and drive this conversation forward.