So this vegan calls and asks if I have any extra venison. I blurt out the obvious: “Aren’t you a vegan?” She explains she still “sort of” is but says she heard in her green circles that it’s okay to eat free-range, organic meat. She adds, “Nothing is more free-range and organic than wild game, right?”
She had me there. So much so that when she shows for the venison I’m the one who’s off-balance. I’m just not used to being a green hipster. Here I am with all this free-range and very organic meat in my freezer that I killed and gutted myself and this woman who drives a Prius with a bumper sticker on it that says “Meat is Murder” suddenly thinks I’m cool.
The only reason I even know this politically-correct lady who isn’t quite a vegan anymore is that she owns this beautiful piece of property I asked to hunt. She didn’t even speak to me that day. She cracked open her front door, glanced at my compound bow and chased me off her property with a glare so cold it actually hurt.
But she called a few months later—after deer had eaten the veggies in her garden. That was the beginning of her enlightenment—and of my realization that hunting isn’t going green (it always has been) but that it’s starting to get some credit for being all natural.
When I hand her some whitetail steaks and chops I point at her bumper sticker and she says, “I know, but I’ve found it’s easier to evolve views than to peel off a bumper sticker.”
This admission about the nature of green convictions made me realize that, as a journalist, I couldn’t just accept this trendy turn, I needed to investigate.
The Wild-Game Health Craze Many in the green movement fear man-made chemicals. Some on the extreme fringe of this movement don’t even vaccinate their children. Though research hasn’t backed up the worry, they point to additives like Thimerosal, a compound that contains mercury that is used as a preservative in vaccines, and worry it might increase the likelihood a child will be autistic.
Some environmentalists take this same view of growth hormones. Although the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says the growth hormones used for commercial cattle and pigs are safe for human consumption, some wonder whether hormone residue in meats can cause certain types of cancer. Though unproven, such fears are prompting some to turn to meat that never sees a USDA food inspector—wild game.
They point out that a research paper (“Back To Our Ancestor’s Diet—A Healthy Move”) authored by nutritionists Ken Edwards and William J. Rice determined that wild game meat often contains higher levels of vitamins and minerals than domestic meats. Edwards and Rice say their goal is “to replace the 1992 Department of Agriculture Food Pyramid with the Building Blocks for Healthy Eating” that emphasizes eating foods free of pesticides, hormones and so on—essentially, they promote what has been labeled a “caveman’s diet.” They argue that wild game tends to consume live plants that have a higher nutrient content than the feed domestic animals are often fed.
Also, many in the green-food movement quote Dr. S. Boyd Eaton, an authority on Paleolithic (prehistoric) diets. Eaton argues that on average modern U.S. diets are out of sync with human needs. According to Eaton, the dietary changes that have occurred over the past 10,000 years—when we went from being hunter-gatherers to farmers who might also hunt to people who eat Doritos and frozen pizzas—have outpaced our genetics. Eaton concludes: “That the vast majority of our genes are ancient in origin means that nearly all of our biochemistry and physiology are fine-tuned to conditions of life that existed before 10,000 years ago.”
Whatever you think of all that, in general wild game is leaner than domesticated animals. Mayo Clinic nutritionists Jennifer Nelson, M.S., R.D., and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., point out the greatest benefit of wild game is that in “comparison to lean cuts of beef and pork, game meat has about one-third fewer calories (game birds have about half the calories) and quite a bit less saturated and total fat.”
This point of view has made game meat so trendy that an increasing number of ranchers are raising antelope, elk, boar, pheasant and other game. A USDA fact sheet says that for “an increasing number of restaurants and home diners, game meats are becoming more commonplace.”
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has mandatory inspection authority of meat producers; additionally, FSIS does voluntary inspections of those who commercially raise reindeer, elk, bison, waterfowl and so on.
So What is Green? Many in this green movement are getting lost in their own nomenclature. First of all, though wild game is certainly free-range, it isn’t necessarily organic. For an animal’s meat to be organic it can’t eat food that’s treated with pesticides and other chemicals. The thing is in farm country deer eat a lot of treated crops, so according to the USDA’s definition it might not be organic.
Meanwhile, making sense of all the green designations now printed and stuck on meats is complicated. In general, FSIS says for a product to be labeled “natural” it must contain “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” The USDA allows companies to use labels for “100% Organic,” “Organic” and more. Any meat marked “100% Organic” must have been fed only 100 percent organic food and can’t have been given antibiotics or growth hormones. These animals can’t even come from cloned animals. For meat to be called “Organic” it must have been fed at least 95 percent organic ingredients.
There are a lot of other designations for meat—“No Hormones,” “No Antibiotics” and more. Also, at press time, the Obama administration was proposing a regulation that would force meat providers to include labels listing where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered. Many local meat producers, however, don’t bother with the voluntary designations and the USDA is still figuring out how to define and enforce them.
Like most hunters, I only worry about the labels on the meat in my freezer: “elk back strap,” “whitetail roast,” “squirrel”… Serving wild game at home while telling your guests they’re munching the greenest meat they’ll ever sink their canines into is hip, so enjoy.