How to Decode Your Meat
In our last post, we asked is meat was destroying our planet?
We learned that livestock on factory farms consumes 7 times more grains that humans do. Since 1960, the US has lost half of its topsoil, and 90% of our agricultural land is losing topsoil at an unsustainable rate because of these industrial grains along with the soy, and corn is grown for cattle. Agri-corporations use synthetic fertilizers along with powerful herbicides that pollute our air and water to make these crops grow.
When settlers moved into the American Midwest in the 1800s, enormous herds of buffalo that roamed the prairies and plains all the way from Texas to northern Saskatchewan in Canada. North America was able to naturally support up to 100 million buffalo without damaging the environment.
Right now the there around 94 million cattle in the United States. Most are raised on factory farms that where 45% of greenhouse gasses attributed to cattle is for feed production.
A pasture centered grassfed approach would significantly reduce the need for industrial crops that destroy topsoil and eliminate factory farms with crowded, sick and medicated cattle. Plus, grassfed beef is much higher in key nutrients like Omega-3s, B vitamins and much more flavorful too!
We can be a part of the solution by understanding what the labels on our food really mean and making the best choice possible.
What it means
Grassfed means that the cattle were allowed to forage and graze for their own fresh food. They may be given close substitutes like alfalfa during the winter, but unlike grain-fed animals, the emphasis is still on providing the closest thing to a natural diet as possible. Grains are higher in calories and encourage the cows to grow much faster and cheaper, but grass is much higher in key nutrients like Omega-3s and B vitamins. Grassfed meat is leaner, healthier, and much more flavorful.
How it’s regulated
The label is regulated by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) but is NOT strictly enforced.
The producer must send documentation to the USDA stating that its animals are raised on an all-grass diet. Auditors verify this claim from papers submitted by the farmer but are not required to actually visit the farm at any time.
Also, The USDA's grassfed label refers strictly to the animal’s diet and has nothing to do with whether it did or did not receive hormones or antibiotics.
Check for the American Grassfed Approved (AGA) label, which is issued by the American Grassfed Association, not the government. Meat with the AGA label must come from animals fed a diet of 100 percent forage, raised on a pasture, and never treated with hormones or antibiotics.
What it means
The vast majority of animals raised for food in the U.S. are not raised on pasture. They are either continually confined indoors or crowded in feedlots for many months. A “pasture raised” claim suggests that the animals were raised on or with access to a pasture.
How it’s regulated
Government agencies that oversee food labeling do not have a common standard for the “pasture-raised” claim and do not require third-party verification or on-farm inspection.
The “pasture raised” label on beef and dairy products does not necessarily mean that the cattle derived all their nutrition from grazing on pasture or that they were 100 percent grassfed. Animals that are raised on pasture can be given supplemental grain, both during the grazing season and winter months and still claim to be “pasture raised.”
Because there’s no common standard overseen by the government or a reliable third-party, there no dependable way to verify the claim. Instead, I recommend grassfed beef certified by the AGA instead.
What it means
To be certified organic, a grain or forage resource must not have had synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation applied, and/or had Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) produced on that ground in three or more years.
Organic farmers are also prohibited from using hormones and antibiotics to make animals grow faster.
How it’s regulated
The term organic is more strictly regulated by the USDA and verified through a number of third-party certification services like California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).
We use organic coffee in all of our products because of all the chemicals used to grow conventional coffee. However, it’s important to understand that organic beef can come from cows fattened on grains just like conventional meat from factory farms. The difference is organic farmers are not allowed to use pesticides in their feeds for grain fed beef.
The organic program does NOT regulate what happens to the meat during processing. Meaning that the meat may have additional colorants or alterations to the final product.
Organic beef is better than conventional, but still not the healthiest or very sustainable.
What it means
Most people would agree we should treat the animals that we eat with respect, but it can be difficult to find a clear and accurate definition of “humanely raised”.
All animals should be provided with shelter, food, water, not overcrowded, and harvested in a humane manner.
How it’s regulated
Humane labels are not regulated under any USDA programs. Certification programs are provided through third-party verifications with a wide variety of the standards for raising and handling animals vary.
The USDA is responsible for verifying the humane treatment of all livestock in harvest (slaughter) facilities. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) was originally passed in 1958 and updated in 1978. This Act requires the proper treatment and humane handling of animals harvested in USDA inspected slaughter plants. However, it does NOT apply to chickens or other birds.
It’s important to know that animals we eat were treated with respect and as an added bonus, studies have shown that raising animals in more humane conditions positively effects the makeup of their meat. Animals raised on factory farms have high levels of stress-induced hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which results in Pale Soft Exudative (PSE). PSE meat has a lighter color and tasteless. Hundreds of millions of dollars of pork is discarded every year due to PSE.
Certified Humane has done a good job of outlining some of the standards for chicken beef, and pigs in comparison to other organizations. This is a handy tool because there are a number of organizations offering humanely labeled certifications, making it difficult to compare and contrast the benefits of each.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines “natural” for meat, poultry, and egg products as minimally processed (or processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product) with no artificial ingredients.
However, the USDA’s definition does not include any standards regarding farm or animal-raising practices. Your beef can be labeled “natural” and still be given antibiotics, hormones, GMO’s and more.
This not the same as all-natural. The naturally raised means these animals have been raised without additional growth hormones, antibiotics, or animal by-products (no longer a common practice). All naturally raised products must be certified by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS).
Also, since naturally raised does carry the “natural” label, the meat cannot contain any artificial ingredients (spices, marinades, etc.), colorants, chemical ingredients, or other synthetic ingredients.
The Naturally-raised label restrictions on growth hormones, antibiotics and ingredients are better than the “all-natural” or “natural” labels, but still fall short of the grassfed gold standard.
All animals contain naturally occurring hormones so strictly speaking there is no such thing as hormone free. When we see the labels “hormone free” or “no hormones”, what it means is that no hormones were added. The “no-added hormones”, “raised without added hormones”, “no hormones administered”, or “no synthetic hormones” labels are more accurate.
Commitments to not use added hormones in our food is a step in the right direction, but falls far short of we should accept at our dinner table.
Factory farms claim that antibiotics are used to prevent and treat disease in animals – just like in humans. The problem is antibiotics are constantly mixed into cows’ feed to make them grow faster on low-quality food. This practice contaminates the meat with antibiotics and allows diseases to become resistant when they attack humans.
This label means that no antibiotics were used on the animal in its lifetime. It might also be referred to as “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics administered.” If an animal does have to be treated with an antibiotic for illness, the meat, milk, and/or eggs cannot be sold as organic or naturally raised.
The one downside to the no antibiotics, naturally raised, organic, and other labels are that they don’t allow animals to be medicated with antibiotics ever. These rules could make farmers reluctant to treat animals in a timely manner because administering antibiotics lowers the value of the meat.
Similar to the no hormones added label, commitments to not use antibiotics in our food is a step in the right direction, but falls far short of we should accept.
What should we do now?
As someone who was born on a small farm in Western Minnesota, I felt first hand the struggles that my parents faced as farmers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Like many small farmers, we couldn’t compete with the factory farms run by agri-corporations.
Grocery stores and Amazon have made shopping for food crazy convenient for us, but it also makes it difficult to truly know where your food comes from. The factory farms that supply most grocery stores have gotten really good at gaming the system and creating confusion. This causes us to give up and put whatever is easiest into our physical or digital shopping cart.
The grassfed, organic, and humane certifications that have become popular in the last few years has provided much more transparency on what we’re actually getting, but there’s a lot more work to be done.
The best way to know where our food comes from is to buy from a local farmer. We can see how the animals are being raised, ask the farmer questions, and support a small local business. As an added benefit, you eliminating the middleman so the meat is more affordable than what you would pay in the grocery store.
There a few great resources online where you can find a local farmer near you that sells ½ or ¼ cow directly like Eat Wild. Keep in mind organic, grassfed and other certifications are expensive for small farmers. Their products may meet the requirements for these programs even if they are not officially certified.
If it doesn’t fit into your lifestyle to buy directly from a local farmer another great option is to use a service like Butcher Box that ships high-quality meat right to your door and if you’re looking for quality products on the go, Roam Sticks offers the best pasture raised pork sticks, and Sogo Snacks has great grass-fed beef sticks.
We can be a part of the solution to protect our planet, our health, and enjoy bacon!