So, what’s the difference between natural and organic, or free-range versus grass-fed? Meat terminology can be confusing. But health-conscious carnivores who care about animal welfare need to understand the differences between labels when choosing meat. Armed with the right information, you’ll not only make the healthiest choices but also be better equipped to choose meat that comes from animals raised, handled and slaughtered humanely. So, here’s everything you need to know about meat labels.
What our food is fed directly influences our health. So, if the meat we consume has been fed an unhealthy diet full of chemical additives, it goes without saying that those chemicals, in turn, can transfer to us.
So, what’s the solution? Well for most people the solution is simple: organic meat. But what exactly are you getting when you choose organic meat? All meats labeled organic must meet the USDA’s standards and must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent. Organic labels also suggest that the animal was fed organic feed and raised without the use of antibiotics, growth hormones or any synthetic substances. Meanwhile, when it comes slaughter, it must take place in a certified facility. Additionally, any synthetic processing agents, sulfites, nitrates or nitrites are prohibited.
What about the animals — is organic production a much more humane way to raise them? Keep in mind that just because an animal has been raised organically it doesn’t mean they are living a lifestyle that is more humane than conventionally raised animals. For instance, according to the USDA, when meat is labeled organic this is an indication that animals must have access to pasture and be allowed to participate in their own natural behaviors.
However, PETA paints a different story. Animals typically raised organically spend most of their time confined to crowded sheds or mud-filled pens. That’s because many organic farmers can find loopholes to keep animals confined since the USDA decided that animals may be temporarily confined for health and safety reasons or to protect soil or water quality. Cruel animal practices still exist on organic farms.
Unlike organically labeled meats, the “natural” label does not require certification. So, there is no governing body for all-natural meat products. It’s actually a common myth that meat labeled as natural has not received growth hormones or antibiotics. The fact is, each individual producer can decide if their animals will receive growth hormones and/or antibiotics, according to the USDA. A natural label represents a meat product that contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing suggests that the product was processed in a manner that does not primarily alter the product. And of course, the label must include a statement defining the term natural, such as “no artificial ingredients and minimally processed.”
Keep in mind with a natural designation there is no restriction on the use of growth hormones, antibiotics and animal byproducts. Additionally, a natural product does not consider the animal’s welfare. But that said, some natural producers do avoid using feed grown in chemicals or using antibiotics and growth hormones. They may also follow more humane animal husbandry practices.
Grass-fed vs. grain-fed
Most cattle today are often fed grains. Yet, the animals who once roamed free ate grass, as they always did throughout time. All calves drink milk from their mothers and then go on to feed on grass. Eventually, though, conventionally raised cattle are moved from pasture to feedlot. There, cattle feed on a concentrated grain diet (usually corn) for the purpose of fattening them up quickly for sale.
On the other hand, grass-fed cattle spend their entire lives eating just grass as nature intended. They’re not fed any grains. So, unlike grain-fed cattle, grass-fed animals take six to 12 months longer to reach market weight, making them a healthier option for carnivores. Grass-fed beef is leaner and lower in calories than grain-fed beef due to less marbling. And, generally, antibiotics and growth hormones are not part of the diet of grass-fed cattle.
And when it comes to humane animal practices, well, grass-fed cattle lead more natural lives moving around in open pastures. In addition, cows cannot digest grain. So, switching cows to a corn-heavy diet upsets their digestive system and increases the likelihood they’ll develop heartburn, stomach ulcers and liver abscesses. Plus, grain fed cattle are raised in overcrowded feedlots with no access to pasture, exercise or fresh air — a brutal and inhumane existence.
“Free-range” is one of the most misleading labels there is, thanks to the difference between what free range implies and what is actually required to make the claim. Labels on eggs and chicken products imply that the chickens ranged freely outdoors. But, the claim does not have to be verified through on-farm inspections. So, producers can claim on a label that their product is free-range, as long as the animals were given “some” access to an outdoor area — no matter what the size. For chickens, this outdoor area can be a small space that’s actually not big enough to accommodate all birds.
In fact, there are no requirements for the size or condition of an outdoor area. For that matter, there are no requirements for how accessible the outdoor area is to the birds, and how often and for how long each day the birds have to be given access to the outdoors. The bottom line is: chicken and eggs labeled “free-range” do not mean the birds ranged freely outdoors. Just another reason to consider backyard chickens.
The healthiest and most humane way to consume meat
Livestock that is prevented from moving naturally in overcrowded in cages, pens and transport trucks, only to be slaughtered in cruel conditions, is why vegetarianism is on the rise. But if you still enjoy a steak, chicken breast or burger, and want to do so in the most humane way, here’s what you need to do. Buy your meat directly from a farm whose practices you trust. Visit farmers markets or even the farm yourself. If your local butcher or grocer is where you buy your meat then push for change.
Choose meats that are antibiotic- and hormone-free, with animals raised on a 100 percent vegetarian diet. The meat you consume should not be fed any animal by-products. Most of all, demand that your grocer or butcher supplies meat that’s either SPCA-Certified or Certified Humane.
A Certified Humane label on meat, chicken, pork, eggs, pet food or dairy products means that the food comes from farms where humane treatment of farm animals are implemented. So, don’t be fooled by labels that say one thing but mean something else altogether. There are other, more ethical choices available. Just put your dollar where your ethics are and change will happen.
— Katherine Marko