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A Meat Lover’s Guide to Buying Meat Online

Poor practices and a lack of enforced regulations have long plagued the meat industry, and in a way, online delivery services push us consumers even further into the dark

Ever since grocery shopping has come to mean potentially exposing yourself to maskless Karens, seething Gregs and, even worse, the coronavirus itself, ordering groceries online for delivery has become especially appealing. But the thought of ordering a mysterious slab of meat online, as opposed to meticulously combing through the supermarket selection, picking out your preferred wedge and rushing it to the freezer, feels kinda sketchy (even — and perhaps especially — during a meat shortage). After all, the meat industry is already wildly problematic behind the scenes, so further separating yourself from the process feels like an easy way to overspend on crappy products.

Nevertheless, if you poke around online, there are no shortage of recommendations for “antibiotic-free, steroid-free, hormone-free, grass-fed, free-range, heritage-bred, pasture-raised, non-GMO, all-natural, organic, humane” meat delivery services. One of the more popular meat delivery options is ButcherBox, and you can find just about every one of these attempting-to-reassure adjectives somewhere on their website. 

“Their meat is heritage-brand, which is equivalent to organic, and they state that it actually comes from Australia,” says Chris Young of MeatCranium BBQ AND REVIEW. “Here’s my issue with that: First off, I have to take the word of the company as to where it’s produced. Secondly, how are the conditions in the processing warehouses, where the meat comes from? Thirdly, yes, I love all things meat, however, were the animals taken humanely? When I take the life of an animal, I do it in the quickest way possible, so there’s no suffering.”

“Now, the meat that I’ve received through ButcherBox has been very good, and it’s cooked up nicely, leading me to the conclusion that they’re being truthful and have good business practices,” Young continues, before warning, “I’d make sure to buy meat from a reputable company and not some new startup, though.”

While Young believes that ButcherBox is a decent meat delivery company, he poses several questions that are worth pondering across the meat-delivery board. For instance, as he suggested, when meat companies, online or otherwise, make claims about how their animals were raised and treated, we mostly have to take their word for it (which is especially unsettling considering the dubious history of American meat). 

As Stephanie Strom wrote for the New York Times in 2017, “The Agriculture Department does offer guidelines to meat producers, and requires them to submit applications and get permission before using terms like ‘humanely raised’ or ‘raised with care’ on packages. But it does not send out inspectors to test those claims [emphasis mine].” She goes on to explain that earning the right to use such language can be as simple as sending in a letter that says, “I take good care of my animals,” which, um, lying is a thing that people do, especially for money.

The same can be said about phrases like “organic” and “grass-fed.” As Jacy Reese, senior fellow at the animal welfare think tank Sentience Politics, told Mic in 2017, “I’ve visited organic farms where the animals were actually in far worse health condition than at factory farms, due to the exposure to the elements and lack of antibiotics.” And these oversights were happening before the Trump administration further lessened meat industry regulations.

I certainly want to trust meat delivery services like Heritage Foods, who state that they “sell ancient breeds of livestock” and have been described as “the forefront of the nonindustrial meat movement” in a New York Times article about Thanksgiving turkeys. I may want to trust Crowd Cow, which claims to “only work with farms that we know personally.” But the faults of the meat industry as a whole, combined with regulations that are hardly ever enforced, have made statements like these hard to trust in general (although, I will say that Heritage Foods is about as transparent as it gets when it comes to meat production).

The big takeaway thus far should just be that the labels and promises purported by meat sellers, online or otherwise, are almost impossible to validate. Hell, the regulating bodies — some public, some private, some cheaper, some more expensive, some stricter, some more relaxed — that are paid to enforce them hardly even stop by farms and slaughterhouses to ensure that meat producers are staying true to their word.

Now, none of this necessarily means that all meat companies are bad (depending on your broader view of the ethics of eating meat). But when Young talks about meat delivery companies and says, “You want to make sure they’re reputable,” the only real way to do that is to read reviews online from other buyers; even then, though, you may never really know how that meat actually made its way to your doorstep.

All that said, Young does have a few general pieces of advice when shopping for meat online. “I personally don’t like fish being delivered,” he says. “The fish is frozen, and the fibers seem to get tough compared to non-frozen fish. Since fish is a delicate protein, it should be treated as such and not frozen.” He also explains that when meat comes from third-party sellers, rather than directly from the farm that raised it, you should expect to pay extra. “There will always be a premium put onto the price due to how many hands had to touch it before it got to you,” he says. “The more hands, the more expensive. Besides, it’s a luxury to have it delivered to your front door, so one should expect to pay more.” ButcherBox, for example, starts at $129 per month for between 8.5 and 11 pounds of meat.

More generally, though, meat delivery services further separate us from our already unsustainable, unhealthy meat-eating practices: Somewhere far away, an animal was raised (either well or not well), killed (either painfully or “humanely”) and packaged. But all we see is a box of finely cut meats, a bunch of stickers attempting to reassure us of its quality and inevitably some wholesome story — either online or on a letter in the box — about how dedicated the CEO is to animal welfare, sustainable farming and good meat.

Which, when you think about it, isn’t so different to when we buy it at the store, because even when we’re browsing the shelves in person, we never really know where it came from or how it got there. When people started taking notice of horrible factory farms and destructive meat lobbying, every meat company — good or bad, online or otherwise — has since been caught in the crossfire. No matter how many claims they make about their meat, unless they show us exactly what goes down on their farms and in their slaughterhouses, trusting them will never be easy — especially when the only constant we know about meat is that we should all be eating less of it.