See part one for our top ten buys at Costco. I’m focusing on meat and seafood for this week’s post. We don’t buy much in the way of meat at Costco, but, after the conversation with my girlfriends, I agreed to research some of the meat and poultry choices available there.
First of all, I thought it might be helpful for me to write out my “priority” list when it comes to purchasing meat and poultry (and seafood too, although those “rules” are a bit different). If at all possible, we buy meat/poultry/eggs that are
- From a local farm that I have visited
- From a farmer whom I know and is willing to answer my questions about how he/she raises their animals
- The animals are fed and sheltered in a way that is in line with how they were created (e.g. cows were created to eat grass, so they should be pastured on grass, given plenty of room to roam, and given fresh pasture regularly).
- If the animals must be given grain (hopefully a last resort), the grain should be organic or at the minimum non-GMO (organic grains are non-genetically modified).
We buy whole pigs and cows from a local farmer. We have another source for whole-cow ground beef (that is amazing), and we have friends that raise chickens, so we get our chickens and eggs from them. If we need meat/poultry and have run out, then we would prefer to buy from a farmer at the farmer’s market, but, if that’s not feasible, we’ll resort to the grocery store. (Check out my guide to happy meat and poultry). While we haven’t bought the organic meat or poultry at Costco, I promised a few friends that I would do my research. I was curious for my own sake too.
Second of all, USDA organic isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. If you ask me, it’s far better to buy chicken from my farmer friend down the road who has similar values when it comes to the food system but may not be organically certified than it is to buy the USDA organic labeled chicken at the grocery store (a harrowing example here). Not just because I’m leery of the huge agribusinesses that have stepped into the organic market, but because I value my local economy and my local relationships. For more on this topic, check out Joel Salatin, Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, or ask me out for coffee, and I’ll talk your ear off.
While “all natural,” “pastured,” and “free range” aren’t at all regulated by the USDA (or any other agency), USDA organic does have standards that the farms are (purportedly) held to. When it comes to produce, I buy as locally and seasonally as possible, and do buy USDA organic off-season as much as possible because I do want to support organic growers and practices (especially when it comes the dangers of the prolific use of pesticides). I figure even with stories like this, I would prefer to support organic practices if I can’t support local ones.
Costco sells several different varieties of Coleman organic chicken – whole chickens, chicken breasts, chicken thighs (which is my favorite cut of chicken). It appears that Coleman was started by the Coleman family in 1875 and that they jumped on the organic bandwagon long before it was mainstream. They work with smaller farmers around the country and claim to have exacting standards for any partner farms. However, Perdue bought Coleman in 2011. Perdue does not have the best reputation when it comes to chicken, and I avoid it and the Tyson brands (read here for more details). So all of that to say, I’m skeptical of the Coleman brand. I can’t find much information on their website or really much information about them in general.
I’ll keep buying my chicken from my farmer neighbors. Yes, it’s more work (because I only buy whole chickens to keep the cost down) and more expensive, but we don’t want to be a part of supporting a system that consists of, as Nicholas Kristof says in his review of a new book on the topic, The Meat Racket, “a handful of companies, led by Tyson, control our meat industry in ways that raise concerns about the impact on animals and humans alike, while tearing at the fabric of rural America. Many chicken farmers don’t even own the chickens they raise or know what’s in the feed. They just raise the poultry on contract for Tyson, and many struggle to make a living.”
Costco also sells organic ground beef under their Kirkland Signature line of products. This article from their magazine explains that the beef is sourced from the US, Canada, and Australia. Only the stuff from Australia is 100 percent grass-fed; the beef from the US and Canada are both grass and organic grain-fed. I personally have an issue with buying beef that’s coming from all over the world to be combined in some facility somewhere and then packaged and sold, and I also prefer to eat beef that is 100 percent grass-fed (mostly because that is how God created them to eat, but also for the associated health and environmental benefits). So I’ll probably stay away from the Costco beef in favor of the stuff from my local farmer; if you are in a rush and don’t have any in the freezer, Whole Foods and Earth Fare (or better yet, your local family-owned grocery store or co-op if you have one!) carry grass-fed beef (use the happy meat guide so you know what you’re getting; just because you’re shopping at Whole Foods or Earth Fare doesn’t mean their meat is happily- and sustainably-raised). Stock up whenever you see grass-fed ground beef below $5 a pound.
Now turning the corner to seafood. After reading Four Fish (my review here) several years ago, I don’t buy any seafood before checking Seafood Watch (they also have a very handy app that I love). I also just finished The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, which I need to review soon and which you need to read even sooner. Third Plate really opened up my eyes to the idea of “nose to tail” eating not just with animals, but with all aspects of the food chain. More to come on that, but suffice it say that we’ve been trying to eat more little fish because
- they’re lower on the food chain and therefore more plentiful in the oceans and not as susceptible to over-fishing
- because they’re lower on the food chain, they have less mercury and other toxins
- they’re among the highest source of Omega-3s and other beneficial fatty acids
Our Costco either carries the Season brand or the Wild Planet brand of sardines, both of which are wild-caught from the Pacific. I like both brands, although the Wild Planet brand seems to be a better all-around company. Occasionally, Costco carries the Wild Planet brand of albacore tuna (rated as a best choice by Seafood Watch), which we all love and use as a special treat.
We also love the canned wild Alaskan pink salmon sold under the Bear and Wolf brand, which is rated as a Best Choice from Seafood Watch. One of the kids’ favorite meals is salmon cakes made with the canned salmon.
Costco has recently been carrying very small wild-caught shrimp from the Pacific Northwest. I am loving having these around because they make it so easy to throw together a ten minute meal. I need to do additional research, but from what I can tell, Seafood Watch rates these as a good alternative. I avoid the other shrimp at Costco, which is a farm-raised product from southeast Asia. Even just one serving a week of sustainably-caught fish can have a tremendous impact on your health, so head to Costco and pick up some (sustainable) fish!