It seems strange to describe the heritage foods movement as a “new” food trend considering heirloom fruits and vegetables and many breeds of livestock date back as far as three centuries, but the market for heritage foods is hot among chefs and restaurateurs, locavores and farmers market patrons, nature centers and even—or especially—animal lovers.
Heritage meats come from fowl and animals that have been around for hundreds of years, but their numbers have diminished significantly as newer breeds were developed for more efficient food production. Some heritage breeds are now extinct, and many others are endangered, but there’s an effort to ensure their place in the future. “The growing interest in heritage animals is tremendous,” says Jennifer Kendall, marketing and communications manager for the American Livestock and Breed Conservancy, which aims to protect more than 150 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction. “These animals have come from a primitive environment and survived, and that speaks to their strength genetically. There is much to be gained by ensuring their existence.”
Building Biodiversity with Heritage Breeds
Maintaining a variety of animal breeds in the food supply is high on the list of benefits, according to Phillip Sponenberg, professor of pathology and genetics at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. “A uniform population of any crop or animal leaves us with few reserve options should the environment suddenly change,” says Sponenberg, citing Ireland’s potato famine in the 1840s as an example of the risk. Farmers planted predominately one breed of potato that produced high crop yields but had little resistance to a fungus that eventually wiped out crops, resulting in starvation and hardship for millions of people.
Yet today, Holstein cows represent 91% of all U.S. dairy stock; more than half of beef cattle are Angus, Hereford or Simmental breeds; 75% of pigs in the U.S. come from Duroc, Hampshire and Yorkshire breeds; and more than 90% of turkey production comes from a handful of strains of a single breed—the Large White turkey. “Heritage breeds have survived over time because of their ability to adapt to fluctuations in climate, a wide-range of forages plus parasite and disease issues,” says Sponenburg, adding that it’s survival-of-the-fittest at its best. “That resiliency may [become] critical to our future food supply given the unpredictability of nature.”
Farm practices depend solely on the individual, but it appears that many heritage animals are raised on open pastures where they forage for much of their food; do not receive growth hormones or nontherapeutic antibiotics; and are not artificially inseminated. “Heritage breeds retain essential attributes for survival and self-sufficiency including traits like fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability to mate naturally and natural resistance to disease and parasites, but these are not regulations,” says ALBC’s Kendall, adding that the USDA currently does not regulate “heritage.”
“There are no hard and fast rules for raising heritage breeds,” says Alex McKiernan. “I’m not sure that I would even go so far as to say that there is an ‘understanding’ among farmers about how to raise heritage breeds, but you rarely find heritage breeds in concentrated animal feeding operations (a.k.a. ‘factory farms’) because they simply can’t gain weight as fast as the cross-breeds typical of our meat industry.”
McKiernan and Chloe Diegel operate Robinette Farms in Lincoln, Neb., where they raise Galloway cattle and sell produce and meat through a community supported agriculture program, at farmers markets and through local restaurants. “It’s a matter of quantity vs. quality,” McKiernan says, “but as ‘sustainable’ in a green Mother Earth sense comes to mean green in American dollars, heritage breeds and organic, pastured, non-CAFO production styles will gain in popularity.”
Natural history museums and conservation centers are also in on the heritage breed movement. As one of its many environmental education programs, the Thomas Irvine Dodge Nature Center in West St. Paul, Minn., operates a working farm where it has raised heritage Guinea hogs, Clun Forest sheep, Dexter cows, Toggenburg dairy goats and Orpington, White Faced Black Spanish and Wyandotte chickens. “When it was time to acquire pigs, for example, I looked for an endangered breed so we could contribute to its preservation,” says farm director Don Oberdorfer, who in 2001 bought a boar in Virginia, a sow in Nebraska, and a pair from a breeder in southern Ohio. “Our farm is used primarily for education, but we also sell our eggs and meat, which reinforces education and awareness in the community about where food comes from.”
Whether fueled by a motivation to save endangered breeds, reduce the risk of food shortages, support local business, improve animal welfare or decrease carbon footprints, the heritage meats trend indeed is gaining momentum. Approximately one-third of ALBC’s members are raising animals. The rest is comprised of chefs and people interested in the heritage breeds.
“Chefs and food enthusiasts are hot on heritage meats,” says registered dietitian Amy Myrdal Miller, program director for strategic initiatives at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, Calif., and chair-elect of the Food and Culinary Professionals dietetic practice group. She sees much of the chef interest coming from both the local foods trend and the flavor profile of the meats. “Many find [heritage meats] more flavorful and more intense,” says Miller, adding that the taste of meat is affected by quality, the age of the animal, how it was raised and what it was fed.
A number of restaurants have begun featuring heritage meats on their menus, so knowing the names of breeds can help consumers spot a heritage offering (see sidebar). Farmers markets are also potential resources for locating heritage meats, as are some grocery stores and online retailers such as localharvest.org and heritagefoodsusa.com.
More localized distribution channels are cropping up as well. Robinette Farms’ Diegel and McKiernan teamed up with Miriah Zajic and recently launched Meadow to Market to help Nebraska farmers and ranchers of sustainably raised livestock, including heritage breeds, access Lincoln and Omaha markets.
Calories, Costs and Confusion
Other than a smattering of smaller studies, there are little data on the nutrient composition of heritage breeds—partly due to the variables that account for potential differences in vitamins and nutrients, such as what the animals eat and how they are raised. Another reason is that nutrition analyses would have to be conducted for each breed. Such an endeavor not only would require major continued funding, but the logistics of analyzing the nutrient content of food that is in such short supply—especially for breeds that are on “critical watch” lists—would be challenging at best.
The expense of obtaining and raising heritage breeds can be prohibitive for farmers, too. In addition to locating and transporting animals to purchase, many breeds mature more slowly—especially if the animals are not given steroids. Processing meat also can be an obstacle because there are so few processing plants, and some may not be willing or able to work with smaller farming operations. As a result, heritage meats are generally more expensive (as in twice as much) than their commercial counterparts.
Even the term “heritage” faces certain challenges. While authenticity currently is self-policed by the industry, the ALBC is developing definitions and guidelines for each breed to ensure “heritage” stays true to its roots. Turkeys and chickens have been defined (see below) and cattle and swine guidelines are in the works. These definitions, says Kendall, help maintain the integrity of the movement and help consumers find and select true heritage meats. Breeders can also register their animals with the ALBC or breed-specific associations to ensure that meat comes from true heritage stock.
“To Eat Them Is to Save Them”
Much like historical buildings or national treasures, heritage breeds offer a fascinating look into America’s history—such as the milking Devon cattle that the Pilgrims brought from England in 1623 (think Devonshire cream) and the Navajo Churro sheep breed that came from Spain in 1540. Today, these breeds are in Critical and Threatened categories, respectively.
“Saving them from extinction saves us pages and pages of our past,” says Sponenberg. “When they disappear, they are gone forever.” So the heritage breeds movement has adopted an unofficial mantra: To eat them is to save them. The more people know about heritage breeds and the bigger a demand in the market, the better it will be for ensuring their future, adds Kendall. “These animals are our legacy,” she says. “They are a window to our past, but they are also an insurance policy for our future.”