You’re a well-intentioned consumer. You know that eating sustainably raised meat is better for you, your taste buds, the environment, public health, and the livelihoods of farmers who support responsible agricultural practices. But then you walk into the grocery store…
“All-natural” “Grassfed” “Cage-free”
“Free range” “No animal by-products”
“No hormones or steroids added”
“USDA process verified” “Vegetarian diet”
“No preservatives” “No added flavors”
Labels are so abundant that its hard to know where to focus! But with barbecue season kicking into full swing, let’s start with key lessons for picking healthy meat.
The truth and accuracy of meat, poultry, and egg product labeling in the U.S. is managed by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Although producers cannot legally make untrue claims on labels, the terms used are often vague, and there is little marketing dedicated to clarifying definitions for consumers.
Its no wonder many people throw their hands up and ignore labels all together. Not you, though! Learn the key labels described below and in no time at all you’ll have coasted through your barbecue shopping trip and be ready to party with family and friends!
Where the cows and the poultry play.
When most people imagine where their food came from, they conjure up idyllic images of animals meandering on pastured farms. The truth though, is most animals these days are confined to cages or overcrowded pens, and may never see daylight. If you want to (accurately) imagine your meat or poultry as having roamed on green fields, then the “Pastured” or “Pasture-raised” label is the one you want. Meat or poultry with this label was raised outdoors using movable enclosures located on the grass.
As a basis for comparison, other common standards are: caged, cage-free, free range, and free roaming. Each is described below:
- “Caged” is not a label you will see. Producers are not legally required to state whether animals were pastured or confined, so you can be sure they will not choose to advertise when their animals spent their lives (quite literally) cooped up. Sometimes what a label does not include can be as informative as what it does!
- “Cage-free” means animals were not confined to a cage, but it does not mean they ever set foot outside, or even saw natural daylight.
- “Free Range” or “Free Roaming” indicates the animals had access to the outside for over 51% of their lives, although it doesn’t mean they actually went outside.
Your dinner’s dinner. And your dinner on drugs.
It really is true that you are what you eat, so if you want to eat healthfully, it is best to eat animals that ate healthfully as well. But what should animals eat, anyhow?
Well, ruminants—including cows, goats, sheep, bison, deer, camels, and llamas—should eat grasses. The roughage helps them produce saliva essential to neutralize naturally occurring acids in their digestive systems. When ruminants are fed grain diets, on the other hand, saliva production is significantly reduced. This leads to dehydration, intestinal damage, liver abscesses, and even death.
The labels “Grassfed”, “100% Grassfed”, and “Grassfed, Grass-finished” all refer to ruminants that ate grasses throughout their entire lives. (Note that although most grassfed animals are also pasture-raised, this is not necessarily the case. Animals may be confined and fed a grass diet.)
Grassfed animals should not have been fed any grains, animal by-products, or synthetic hormones. They also should not have been given antibiotics to promote growth or prevent disease, although use of antibiotics to treat disease is permitted.
Other common labels you’ll see describing ruminants’ diets are:
- “Grassfed, Grain supplemented” or “Grain-finished,” which means the animals ate solely grasses for a portion of their lives, and then grains were added to the grasses in controlled amounts. The animals should not have been forced to eat the grains, and by limiting grain levels, these animals are less likely to get sick and develop digestive problems than are strictly grain-fed ruminants .
- “100% Vegetarian Feed” means animals were not fed any animal by-products, and should not have been given any supplements or additives. (Check with producers about supplements and additives though, because this is not regulated.) Vegetarian feed includes hay, silage, and other feed found on pasture. It also includes grain.
- As with caged animals, you are not likely to see a label advertising the feed most widely used on factory farms. It includes corn or soy supplemented with by-products including chicken manure, plate waste from restaurants, and animal blood (to bulk up the quantity and protein content of feed). Hormones are also commonly used to promote growth in beef cattle and lambs (though not veal calves); and antibiotics are used to prevent illness.
Hogs & Poultry
Decoding the feed for hogs and poultry is less obvious with our current labeling system. Natural, healthy diets for these animals include grains, so a “grassfed” label simply isnt relevant. Of course, the quality of grains is important, but there is not a regulated labeling system for hog and poultry feed equivalent to the grassfed standard for ruminants. Instead, it is best to seek pastured hogs and poultry that were not given antibiotics for growth and disease prevention.
Pasture-raised hogs and poultry are most likely to have consumed their natural, healthy diets. For hogs, this includes corn, barley, wheat, rye, and oats. For poultry it is a mix of grasses, grains, insects, and worms.
In contrast, the feed for confined hogs and poultry is far inferior, and routinely includes antibiotics to prevent illness and anti-microbial drugs (containing arsenic) to promote growth.
Labels to learn:
- “No Antibiotic Use” means antibiotics were not administered to animals under any circumstances. If an animal became sick, it would have been removed from the herd for treatment, and would not be sold with this label.
- “Not Routine Antibiotic Use” means an animal may have received antibiotics if it was ill, but not for disease prevention or growth enhancement.
- “No Added Hormones” is a misleading label on hogs and poultry, because producers in the U.S. cannot legally administer hormones to them. In fact, the claim can only be used on hogs and poultry if it is followed by a statement reading “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones on the given animal.”
Two Big Buzzwords.
The labels described above will go a long way in helping you identify meat, poultry, and eggs from sustainable producers. But what about the meaning of “sustainable,” itself?
Sustainability is a principle to strive toward, but as a food label, it is not currently regulated or legally defined. If you see a “Sustainable” label on meat products, ask the producers how they define the term. It should mean they take particular steps to satisfy today’s food and environmental needs without compromising food and environmental needs of future generations. Producers applying the label should work in harmony with the natural environment, including high standards for animal welfare.
“Natural” is another label that seems to denote use of sustainable practices. As defined by the USDA, however, it does not relate to the condition of an animal’s life, including whether it was raised with hormones and antibiotics. Rather, the “Natural” label describes products that were only minimally processed, and do not contain artificial ingredients or added color.
“Minimal processing” means products were not fundamentally altered during processing. A “Natural” label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term for the given product (for example, “no artificial ingredients” or “no artificial ingredients and minimally processed”).
There is much more to say about meat labeling, so stay tuned for another post on the topic very soon. In it you’ll learn how third-party verification systems can speed up your shopping trip so you can get on with your summer fun!
Through her unique “you-centered” practice, clients achieve their lifetime health and wellness goals by learning to embody playful, purposeful lifestyles.
Broiler chicken – K Grieshaber
Grassfed cow – The Daily Green
Pastured poultry – The Sustainable Farming Source