Making sense of meat labels
A trip to your local supermarket or big box grocery department will reveal a growing trend in the demand for natural, less processed, and certified organic food. The ”real food“ movement and an increased awareness of where our food comes from has created a demand for higher quality food products. This has also created confusion about all the different labels we now see, especially on meat, eggs, and dairy products. Some of these labels are also very misleading.
So what do natural, grass fed, pastured, free range, cage free, vegetarian fed, antibiotic-free, hormone-free labels actually mean? Let’s look at their official definitions one by one:
Natural- The term “natural” really doesn’t have much meaning as far as how the meat/eggs/dairy was raised or the animals’ diet. According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, it means a product containing no artificial ingredients or added colors, and is minimally processed.
Grass fed - This term typically refers to beef, bison, or lamb. Most beef cattle start out on pasture and are then taken to feedlots for their last 3-4 months to finish on grain, so technically, all cows are ”grassfed”. Cows that spend their entire lives on pasture from start to finish are referred to as grass fed and finished. As long as they're finished in a feedlot with organic feed for less than 120 days, they can still be labeled as "Organic Grassfed Beef".
Cattle that are raised in a regenerative farming system, or holistic management, are not contributing to global warming. In fact, they sequester carbon.
"Tall grasses, with correspondingly deep roots, are grazed down to within a foot of the ground but not completely down to the ground; grazing to the putting green level damages the plant’s ability to rebound. Plant roots die back as a response to this pruning, leaving organic matter (carbon) in the soil strata. The deeper the roots have penetrated, the deeper into the soil this organic deposition occurs. And the taller the grass was before grazing, the deeper the roots were able to grow. This is the organic matter/carbon-pumping stage in the system, where atmospheric carbon is transported into the soil by plants. Think of regenerative grazing as a potent carbon-negative conveyor belt reclaiming atmospheric carbon and putting it back into the earth from which it came." - Mother Earth News, Build Healthy Soil Through Regenerative Grazing, Sept 2014.
Beef that is 100% grassfed from start to finish has a better nutritional profile than grain finished and is a good source of Omega 3 fatty acids. Beef that has been finished on grains has Omega 6 fatty acids, which are inflammatory when out of balance with Omega 3's.
Pastured/free range - This refers to poultry and pork products. Nearly all the poultry and pork found at the supermarkets came from animals raised in confinement, fed an all grain diet, and kept in unsanitary and unnatural conditions their entire lives. Not only is this bad for the animals but these confinement feeding operations (or CAFOs) are bad for the environment, as their manure is collected in "lagoons". Decomposing manure releases toxic chemicals, mostly ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, into the air. Manure stored in lagoons releases methane and nitrous oxide, which are global warming gases.
Chickens, turkeys, and pigs are natural omnivores. When they are raised on pasture they eat their natural diet and get fresh air and sunshine.
The free range label doesn't necessarily mean the chickens/turkeys were raised entirely outdoors. The birds should have access to the outdoors but there are no regulations as to how much access they have, the size of their pasture. or the quality of the pasture. Birds (whether for meat or eggs) that are kept in a chicken house with little outdoor access can be labeled free range or cage free.
Cage free - Chickens raised for eggs are typically kept in battery cages inside an enclosed, windowless industrial chicken house and never see the light of day. Some egg producers don't use the cages and let them "free range" inside the chicken house, with no outdoor access, and they can be labeled cage free. This is not healthier for the chickens and they don't produce better eggs. They are still fed an all grain diet, and can be given antibiotics, Chickens and turkeys raised for meat (as opposed to eggs) are not typically caged, rendering the label meaningless on those products.
Certified organic - The USDA certified organic label on meat, dairy, and eggs only means that the animals were fed certified organic feed. It has no reference to how the animals were raised. Chicken or eggs that are organic has to be allowed outdoor access, but again, there are no regulations on the type of access.
Antibiotic/hormone free - Routine use of “subtherapeutic” antibiotics for disease prevention or growth is associated with confined, unhealthy conditions. The “Antibiotic-free” claim is not allowed because antibiotic residue testing technology can’t verify animal never received antibiotics. “No antibiotics administered,” “no antibiotics added” and “raised without antibiotics” claims are allowed by USDA if producers prove antibiotics were not added/administered at any point.
Synthetic hormones are sometimes used in milk- and meat-producing cattle to increase production and weight. “No hormones added” or “no hormones administered” claims are allowed if producers prove no hormones were used during the animal’s life. “Hormone-free” claims are not approved by USDA since all animals produce hormones naturally. Hormones are prohibited for use on chickens, turkeys and pigs so this label is meaningless on products from those animals.
Vegetarian fed - This label is used for meat poultry, eggs, and pork. It only means that the feed used was free of animal byproducts. Omega 3 enriched eggs means the hens received feed supplements that contain sources of omega 3 fatty acids, such as flaxseeds. Chickens, turkeys, and pigs are natural omnivores and thrive on a varied diet of grass, bugs, mice, seeds, nuts, and anything else they can forage. Truly pastured eggs from your local farm are the gold standard and have a higher nutritional value than conventional supermarket eggs. They have:
Twice as much Vitamin E
38% higher Vitamin A concentration
Twice as much long-chain Omega-3 fats
2.5x more total Omega-3 fatty acids
Less saturated fat and cholesterol
The best (and most ethical, environmentally friendly) way to source your meat, eggs, or dairy is to get to know your local farmer. Try to find one that follows sustainable or regenerative farming practices and raises their animals outside on pasture. They can tell you exactly what the animals eat and how they are bred and raised. The farm should have an open door policy, meaning you can visit and see the animals in their environment. Visit www.eatwild.org, or go to your local farmers' markets. Local butcher shops can also give you the names of farms they process meat for.
Purchasing your animal products as locally as possible keeps your food dollars in your community, supports the farmers who are properly raising animals, leaves a smaller carbon footprint, and you get higher quality, more nutritious and flavorful meat. Know where your food comes from!
"Don't you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?"
~ Joel Salatin