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.

My recommendations?
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.

By Kim ODonnel |  April 9, 2008; 7:53 AM ET Eco-Bites , Meat , Sustainability
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Typically humanely raised organic grass fed beef etc cost about 2 times what the same cut would from a major supermarket chain. Throw in dry aged and prime and it becomes even more costly. Decent ground beef for burgers that is organic, grass fed, humanley raised etc runs about $10 to$11 a lb. Fresh not frozen. A rib eye steak prime dry aged organic humanely raised about $30 a lb.

Bad economy high gas prices how many folks can afford humanely raised beef, prok, chicken or lamb.

Kim have you ever worked livestock. Ever tried to move them with or without a dog.
Sorry the steer or sheep dont give a darn about you and they dont care about hurting you just because they can!

Livestock should raised to minimize anything that effects the price you get at market. They should never be abused or mistreated but humanely yeah when they dont hurt my herding dogs and me!

Posted by: Anonymous | April 9, 2008 8:51 AM

This blog is written for people who have money to spend. I don't endorse or condemn that, but it just is. No one who actually has to stretch his or her grocery-shopping dollars is reading this stuff about how to liven up your paella or whatever. (Or they are reading it and feeling hungry for stuff they can't afford.)

If you think I have time to drive out to various local farms and learn more about their individual production practices, you are insane. Every blog on this website has a million ideas for things I should be taking four or five hours of my free time to do. They can't all be right!

Posted by: Lindemann | April 9, 2008 8:59 AM

Hey Lindemann, it's a myth that organic or sustainable food is always expensive. I believe Kim has tackled this issue previously in her blog. Kim -- can you provide the appropriate links? And thanks Kim for the meat 411.

Posted by: Lighten Up | April 9, 2008 9:02 AM

For those who complain about the price of meat, organic or otherwise, the best option is to go veggie. Rice and beans cost a heck of a lot less than steak or chicken. With the money you save not buying meat, you might be able to afford some lovely local, organic strawberries or greens.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 9, 2008 10:05 AM

Humans are carnivores. Look at your teeth.
A vegan or vegetarian diet is not healthy for humans talk to Eddie Cheever. Omnivore works. Nothing better than picking out a cute little lmab for slaughter. baaaah! And then grilling the chops or the legs of lamb. Then lmab stew. I am getting hungry.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 9, 2008 10:27 AM

My husband and I buy our meat at the farmer's market from the people who can tell us how the animals were raised (humanely, organically), and how they died. One conversation per vendor, one time, did not take four to five hours.

It's more expensive, but it's not $30 per freaking pound. Ground beef is either $4 or $5 per pound, depending on what cut they've ground. And, as noted above, we compensate by not centering dinner on a big chunk of meat every night of the week. It's used sparingly, or it's balanced out by meatless nights. We aren't spending any more per month than we used to--I do the budget, I'd know.

Posted by: SP | April 9, 2008 10:31 AM

Lighten Up, I think you're referring to the piece I did last summer on how far 20 bucks will go at the farmer's market:

http://blog.washingtonpost.com/mighty-appetite/2007/08/how_far_does_20_go_at_the_farm.html

but nothing specifically about meat. Organic, pound per pound, is always more expensive, but at this stage in the game, it's a very costly undertaking to be certified organic. One thing I have touched on is where you want your money to go -- to local stewards of the land and the local economy or to big agribusiness. I think the idea of reducing meat intake is one way to have your meat and cutting costs. Overall, as everyone is feeling, the cost of basic foodstuffs has really jumped and we're all going to feel it, at the meat counter, in the dairy case and at in the baking/flour aisle. More on that soon.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | April 9, 2008 10:35 AM

Thanks for addressing this labeling issue--I'm a vegetarian but face a lot of the same confusion when I shop for milk and eggs (still trying to get into the habit of getting those at farmers' market...when you walk it takes considerable planning).

It really surprised me to find that the "organic" label only describes animal feed, and not the conditions they are raised in. "Cage free", from what I understand, only means that chickens aren't raised in battery cages--not that they aren't overcrowded and still kept indoors. It's disappointing to learn that "grass fed" is also becoming a relatively meaningless term.

And to all the naysayers...this is YOUR BODY we're talking about. I understand that economy is important, but why are you looking for the cheapest possible foodstuff to put in it? I probably do spend a bit more than most on my groceries, and it is a tradeoff. But isn't your health and your family's health worth it?

Posted by: m.e. | April 9, 2008 11:14 AM

I have tried one Kim's favored meat purveyors who attends farmers markets in Dupont, Arlington and Fair Lakes. I tried and it was not impressed. Bought gorund meat, steaks etc. All the beef was frozen. Tolerable for ground meat but not for steaks. And not at those prices. And I drive by the farm in Berryville a couple times a month when I am working my herding dogs.

Would rather spend my money on beef from the Organic Butcher or Home which is miles ahead in taste and quality. I can also get
quality pork at the Organic Butcher and veal.

The baby veals I'm calfs on the way to my herding lesson look so tasty. Some nice porterhouse veal chops, veal scallpione etc. Yuum! milk fed and confined in tiny little pens. Yeah that's the ticket!

Posted by: Anonymous | April 9, 2008 12:12 PM

Kim, first off -- thank you for answering my question. I am going to spend some quality time with these links. I appreciate your help in navigating these labels.

In my household we have decided that increasing the quality of what we eat is well worth decreasing the quantity of it. So if that means beef only once per week, that is okay. Learning about the labels and what they mean is actually also about saving money too -- if I know what the label means, I can judge whether it is worth the extra cost. We make strategic shopping judgements all time like this -- ie bananas, grapefruit, and other thick peeled fruits/veges where you don't eat the skin can be conventional, but with the so called "dirty" fruits we will pay a little more for organic or to go local. I actually have to admit that there are days where I wished I lived in CA where the farmers' markets have such amazing variety of everything we see here AND citrus and several varieties of avocados -- and at prices competitive to grocery stores.

Posted by: Kitchen Cat | April 9, 2008 1:47 PM

Okay, gotta chime in here again! One of the reasons organic meat is tough to find is that there are not many meat processors that are certified organic. Y'all in Washington are lucky, because I know for sure of one in your backyard...Fauquier's Finest in Bealeton VA. There is no meat processing facility in NC, and the cost of fuel to truck animals to VA and meat back to NC is more than most farmers can bear, so they sell the meat as "from organically raised animals" or something like that. Definitely talk to meat purveyors at farmer's markets, many may be organic for the livestock but can't market the meat as such due to the processing issue.

"It really surprised me to find that the "organic" label only describes animal feed, and not the conditions they are raised in. "Cage free", from what I understand, only means that chickens aren't raised in battery cages--not that they aren't overcrowded and still kept indoors. It's disappointing to learn that "grass fed" is also becoming a relatively meaningless term.

It really surprised me to find that the "organic" label only describes animal feed, and not the conditions they are raised in. "Cage free", from what I understand, only means that chickens aren't raised in battery cages--not that they aren't overcrowded and still kept indoors. It's disappointing to learn that "grass fed" is also becoming a relatively meaningless term.

"It really surprised me to find that the "organic" label only describes animal feed, and not the conditions they are raised in. " This statement above is absolutely untrue. The NOP requires 100% organic feed for organic livestock, yes. However, it also requires all ruminants to have access to pasture. Pasture has a very specific definition, and must provide nutritive value to the animals, so it can't just be a dirt lot. I have personally denied organic certification to farms for failure to have adequate pasture access. Additionally, all animals must have access to exercise areas, outdoors, direct sunlight, access to shade, fresh air, and be able to express natural behaviors. So, chickens must be allowed to go outside, have enough room to forage for insects, scratch and dust themselves. If there isn't enough room for them to do this, again, organic certifiation is denied.

Finally, no antibiotics, no plastic pellets instead of plant roughage (yes, this happens in conventional production), no feed formulas containing manure and/or urea (again, allowed in conventional production), and no over-feeding of supplements or nutrients than is necessary for adequate nutrition for the particular animal and that animal's stage of production (no heavy feeding to boost weight). No debeaking poultry (incredibly common in conventional poultry production), no removal of turkey spurs. No tail docking (common in some conventional dairies).

Okay, I'll stop now, I think this is longer than Kim's original post :-) !! But if anyone posts specific questions about the organic regulations, I'd be happy to answer!

Posted by: Organic Gal | April 9, 2008 2:19 PM

Awesome post, Kim, near and dear to my heart. I will be spending some quality time following your links. Is Anon referring to the Organic Butcher in McLean? Never been there but if I'm willing to drive to Kensington (from DC) to get Polyface frozen meat, I'd surely drive to VA to get a (nonfrozen) steak once in a long while. Yes, it's more expensive, to all the PPs, but it's a powerful way of supporting local farmers and ensuring better nutrition (anyone a Weston A Price Foundation subscriber?) via the grassfed meat. It's my understanding that research has shown it to have healthier fat, maybe Kim could speak to that.

Posted by: MamaBird/SurelyYouNest | April 9, 2008 2:45 PM

Thanks so much, Organic Gal, for clarifying all of that. Sounds like I don't have to spend so much time at the grocery store having an ethical debate with myself.

Just wondering, what does "natural nest" mean on egg cartons? How does it compare to "cage free"?

Posted by: m.e. | April 9, 2008 3:38 PM

I'd also like to chime in that when purchasing locally, even if it does mean that you are spending more time and gas to collect a product, you are cutting the embodied petroleum energy quotient significantly to put that product on your plate rather than by purchasing the same product from your grocery store.

I definitely thought that organic/local was more of a fashion statement for a while. yes, it does not feel that way (especially at the current gas prices) but I learned that the end result of buying local is that more of your money ends up in the local economy instead of into the pockets of the big food chains and engineered producers. As far as expenses go, it IS a matter of budgeting - do you need beef 3x/week? Our family is in the process of adapting to foods in season and within 50 miles of our area... it DOES mean cutting stuff out.

Kim, have you read "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," by Barbara Kingsolver? I heartily recommend it to everyone on this blog.

Posted by: Centre of Nowhere | April 9, 2008 4:34 PM

Just want to add that you can always go about buying a side or a quarter of beef - and it ends up being very economical. We split an organic side of beef with another family and the cost per pound for everything ended up at about $3.25. A little more expensive than regular ground beef but cheaper than regular steak and certainly cheaper than store-bought organic. It's worth looking into - yes, there is an initial financial outlay, but the savings in the long run (and not having to run to store for beef products for the last year) have made it so worth it.
More info can be found here: http://www.getrichslowly.org/blog/2006/12/13/how-to-buy-a-side-of-beef/

Posted by: jp | April 9, 2008 8:54 PM

Some more information... we got our side from a farmer on the Eastern Shore - and it was grass fed, raised humanely, and dry-aged 2 weeks. And it is unbelievably good. And, same as what OrganicGal says, they term it "raised organically", as the butcher they use, up in Delaware, has not gone through the certification process.
A great way to find local meat purveyors is through http://www.localharvest.org/

Posted by: jp | April 9, 2008 9:10 PM

Unfortunately, as far as I know, "cage free" and "natural nest" could potentially mean anything. Cage free operations may not allow outdoor access, but allow birds to be crowded on a layer-house floor. Or, they could have lots of room to move around, but be kept inside. Some conventional, but still very humane, farms do this because they can't afford to put a system in place that ensures predators won't have access to an outdoor area. They allow along the lines of 2 square feet per bird, and have nests they can go into for laying.

I haven't heard of "natural nest" so won't even try to guess what that means!

Posted by: OrganicGal | April 10, 2008 6:38 PM

To the anonymous person who referred to Eddie Cheever, you should check your a biology textbook sometime. Humans have evolved as omnivores, not carnivores. Some people choose to be vegetarian for various reasons, and rest assured, a varied vegetarian diet has been demonstrated a healthy lifelong diet.

I won't engage in the organic meat price issue, but I will say that I recently did a price comparison on the apples that I get at the Arlington Farmers Market, and they were on average cheaper than at Harris Teeter. The difference was in the varieties - the farmers maket apples were all one price, no matter the variety, but the supermarket varied the price based on variety. The apples I like were either not available or cheaper at the farmers market.

This was also the case for a few vegetable items. It wasn't the case for eggs, but I eat few eggs and the quality appeared superior at the farmers market.

Posted by: Arlington, VA S | April 11, 2008 10:13 AM

I'm really surprised that you put "try eating less meat" at the bottom of the post. That should have been the first thing you said! Clearly the government does not have the will, inclination, or competence to truly regulate the meat industry. If you really care about the way animals are raised, and what goes into your body....then the best thing is to just not eat meat at all.

Posted by: slz | April 12, 2008 9:30 AM

Hey Arlington,

Look at your teeth. Humans were carnivores first then became omnivores.

We need to eat more meat which means more livestock farting! And as result allegedly more global warming!

You can eat whatever you want and I have the same right to eat caged milk fed veal.
Or a nice bone in prime 28 day dry aged ribeye steak. 200z of pure carnivore pleasure. Hey hoss fire up the stunner and select a steer for me. Yeah man lets video tape the whole butchering process with live audio so we can post it here!

Posted by: Anonymous | April 14, 2008 6:28 AM

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