Navigating the Meat Label Maze
Label Confusion: Kim, I love the little links you have been providing lately to shopping guides -- sustainable fish and dirty fruits/vegetables etc. I am trying to find a definitive guide to meat labeling and guidance on when to go organic or when natural will do. I've noticed that finding red meat labeled as organic is increasingly hard even though the chicken is everywhere. I am also concerned about making sure the animals have been treated as well as possible during their upbringing and during slaughter. Any ideas?
I agree, it's tricky business trying to navigate your way through the sea of labels. Here's the situation in a nutshell:
When you see a certified organic label on meat or poultry, that means that the farm is following the standards of the USDA's National Organic Program, which include the following rules:
The livestock is raised without antibiotics or synthetic hormones (although growth hormones for both pork and poultry are banned by the USDA, fyi), and that the feed is vegetarian, pesticide and herbicide-free and cannot come from genetically modified sources.
When you see a certified humane raised and handled label, that means that a producer has met the standards ofHumane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), an independent inspection and verification agency based in Herndon, Va. With support from a consortium that includes the Human Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), HFAC focuses on humane treatment of animals raised for food.
This label is particularly useful if you're unable to verify a producer's free-range claims on poultry or eggs. (The term free range is not regulated or standardized by the federal government.) HFAC has free-range requirements for producers that want to be certified humane.
When you see natural on a label, that means no additives or preservatives, but interestingly, the USDA allows flavor injections. It is not regulated and there are no national standards. But -- it doesn't mean naturally raised.
Speaking of naturally raised, late last year the USDA proposed rules for a new "naturally raised" label, which would go something like this:
"Livestock used for the production of meat and meat products have been raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics, and have never been fed mammalian or avian by-products."
Although this is an attempt to increase the standards for how the animals are fed, there is no consideration for their living conditions, which means feedlot producers could get in on the "naturally raised" action.
To make matters even more confusing, the USDA has also taken on the term "grass-fed." Last October, it issued standards for a grass-fed label, which are narrow, at best. The requirements for such a label: "Must come from animals fed solely on grasses, hay and other non-grain vegetation." There would be no restrictions on the use of antibiotics or growth hormones, and no requirements for year-round pasture, standards considered way too lenient by the American Grassfed Association, which has decided to take matters into its own hands and set up an independent certification system. Stay tuned for those developments.
When at all possible, eat local. Head over to your neighborhood farm market and introduce yourself to the folks raising livestock and poultry. I guarantee that you'll have a lively conversation and an invitation to come visit the farm. These farmers have everything to gain by inviting your curiosity about the animals they raise. Some folks are certified organic, some are not, but they'll tell you straight up about their husbandry practices and you'll learn more than you ever imagined.
A reliable portal for all things pasture-fed is Eat Wild, which includes a list of smaller farms that do direct shipping, plus a state-by-state map and list of farms that sell pasture-raised meat and dairy.
When going the local route is not feasible, you need to get familiar with the beef brand names available in your supermarket. I found a useful rundown in "Big Green Purse," the new eco-living guide by Diane MacEachern, but please let me know of any additional resources you've found useful.
The current issue of Eating Well magazine includes a useful green choice guide to meat and poultry that may be helpful as you learn the labels to memory.
Although very long, Eat Wild writer Jo Robinson penned a comprehensive article on the state of our beef (with a long list of cited sources) in the February/March issue of Mother Earth News.
And then of course, one option is to eat less meat. Try giving it up once or twice a week and see how it feels to diversify your diet.
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