Choosing the Right Meat is Hard
August 25, 2023
It requires understanding the minutiae of meat labels and even a bit about regulatory procedures. There really is no shortcut if you want to do a good job in feeding your family.
What do “grass fed” and other meat labels mean?
- Grass-fed used to mean that the animal ate only grass and forage for its entire lifetime starting at weaning. Over time, the definition changed a bit.
- Grass Fed can now mean that the animal was started on grass but could be finished for the last six months of its life on grain to get fatter quicker.
- The new way of saying that an animal has been fed on grass its entire life is GrassFed and Grass Finished, or
- 100% Grass Fed also means the animal was fed on grass its entire life.
In fact, the ‘normal’ way of raising cattle in feedlots and factory farms has only been with us since the 40’s and 50’s. Previous to that, most cattle were raised on grass from birth to death.
Truth is that one should be in communication with the farmer and find out how they raise their animals.
There is a lot to understand about GrassFed Beef and other Pastured meats. Some other terms that should be known to have a basic understanding of meat labels are:
- Organic: Organic farming means that fertilizers, pesticides or other artificial agents are not used but there is more to it than that. In order to sell food as organic the producer needs to be certified.
- Certified organic: Means that the USDA has certified a farm or other producer to be organic. There are many requirements that must be fulfilled and much paperwork to be done. Getting certified as organic can take years and cost many thousands of dollars depending on each situation.
- Natural, per the USDA this means that there are no artificial ingredients or added colors and foods are only minimally processed. Things like bacon, ham and some sausages are not natural.
- The University of Nebraska says Naturally Raised means that the meat does not contain any artificial ingredients like spices or marinades, no colorants, chemical ingredients or other synthetic ingredients. Naturally Raised CAN include the use of ionophores which are ‘a class of antibiotic-like compounds that do not include drugs that are medically important for humans’. If you see this label you can be sure it doesn’t have any additives, but it might have been grown or treated with ionophores.
- Pasture Raised: The broadly accepted definition of pasture raised is that animals are raised in a pasture where they can roam freely outdoors and are able to eat grasses and other foods their bodies can digest.
- Raised Without Antibiotics: This means that the animal was not given antibiotics at any point in its life, not in its food, water, or through injections even if the animal is sick.
- Raised without Hormones: This term means there are no hormones added to the animal’s feed or injection into the animal’s body. Most of the time, hormones are fed to animals in an effort to get them to grow faster or produce more milk.
- Free Range: This applies to poultry and means that the poultry have been ‘allowed access to the outside’. It does not specify the quality or quantity of ‘outside’. I was shocked to discover that a huge chicken shed could have an open door on one end and a small yard where a few chickens could get outside.
The above are the main food labels. There are at least 30 different food labels that can apply to meat, dairy and eggs. This is definitely not a full listing. The best exhaustive list I have found covering the broad spectrum of meat and dairy product labels is at the Environmental Working Group website.
How can you use these labels to buy better meat?
Labels, once known, can be used to help buy better meat and dairy products. That being said, the customer must realize that there can be misinformation and omissions in the definitions to make something look good when they are not really.
I have to admit that I became disillusioned about food labels in general from doing the research for this blog post.
This leads to another definition that should be known: Greenwashing is the act or practice of making a product, policy, activity etc. appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is. Greenwashing is simply a type of misinformation and can be done by any person or group. There is no substitute for looking for yourself and being able to spot when someone is misleading you. Many labels applied can be misleading.
At our farm we decided to do the best we can with what we have for our land, our animals and our customers. We try very hard to keep open communication lines to our customers so they understand us and we understand them.
So is grass fed meat better for you?
In conclusion, I know of no long term studies that show that grass fed meats are better for you. I do know of long term studies that show that Omega 3 fats are better for you than Omega 6 fats and grass fed meats have more Omega 3 fats than grain fed meats. It could be said that this shows that grass fed meats are better for you than grain fed.
The big reason people should eat grass fed meats is because the animals raised on grass and pasture live much better lives than those raised in factory farms. Animals raised on grass and with correct grazing protocols also sequester some carbon from the air into the soil. We as a civilization have been taking carbon out of the ground and putting it in the air for too long. We need to put much more attention on the overall life and future of the planet, not just our own present time well-being. We, as the top living beings on this planet should care for and do something for the other life forms here with us. We depend upon the whole system for life and the whole system depends on us for life as well.