I’ve been reading a lot about meat lately. A lot of yucky stuff about conditions in feedlots, ingredients allowed in animal feed, the prevalence of sickly animals etc… It almost made me want to go vegetarian, but at the very least it’s made me want to know more about the meat I’m buying.
So how do you know what’s good and what’s gross? It’s not necessarily as easy as reading the label. Some labels, like organic, have specific standards that are verifiable but other labels such as natural and free-range can be ambiguous and misleading. We may have visions of happy cows and chickens running around freely in big, open pasture (especially if we are paying a premium, right?) but most often, that is not the case.
You need to ask questions. I called up my three favorite stores and asked them about their meat. They were more than happy to give me some answers. I found a lot of good info on store websites as well. I learned that the ‘Country Natural’ beef (from Oregon) at my local co-op is primarily grass-fed and finished on a mixture of potatoes and whole grains instead of corn (which is bad for cattle and leads to health problems). At $3.49/lb (for ground beef) it is more affordable than the grass-fed version that they also carry. And MUCH more affordable than the organic ground beef for $8.49 at my traditional grocery.
Here’s an overview of the terms you often find on meat labels these days:
- Natural. A very ambiguous label. Officially means only that the meat does not contain any artificial ingredients, colors or preservatives. Look closely at the label for other info which might also say things like antibiotic free, growth hormone free, 100% vegetarian fed. You really have to read carefully and ask questions when you see this label.
- Certified Organic. Verifiable and identified by the USDA Organic seal. Animals raised on 100% organic feed. No growth hormones, no antibiotics. Animals must have access to the outdoors – although even this is somewhat ambiguous and controversial.
- Free-range or pasture-raised. No real standards or verification. For poultry, the USDA states “Producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” This does not however mean that the chickens actually DID go outside. Many ‘free-range’ chickens are really cooped up in crowded pens for most if not all of their short, miserable lives.
- Grass fed. The USDA has standards (diet must be 99% grass fed) but no certification seal. Grass-fed cattle usually have higher levels of omega 3s, vitamins A and E and conjugated linoleic acid (a good fat and potential cancer fighter), and lower levels of saturated fat. On the flip side, less fat means tougher meat and some people don’t like the ‘grassy’ taste. I think it’s worth a try!
Here are a few up and coming labels that will (hopefully) help clarify things in the future:
- Certified Humane Raised and Handled. Certification that animals are treated in a humane manner. The standards are verified by third party inspectors who have expertise in animal welfare.
- Free Farmed. Certifies that animals are treated humanely. Administered through the American Humane Association (AHA). (Update 2012 – this label is now called American Humane Certified.)
- Food Alliance. A certified sustainable agriculture label. Applies to beef and lamb (as well as many other products).
Until labels become more standardized, we’ll need to do a little research on our own to really know what we’re buying. There’s a lot of good stuff to read if you want to know more. For starters, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a fascinating and sometimes scary account of the food-chains that sustain us. If you want to know more about grain-fed vs. grass-fed beef, Chowhound has an interesting discussion. And if you want to really be grossed out, read what the government allows in animal feed. Last but not least…for a list of sustainably raised meats in your area, visit the eat well guide.
I hope this helps take the mystery out of your meat!
This post is linked up to the Spring Cleaning: Get the CAFO’s Out Carnival hosted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop.