In today’s urban lifestyle, consumers are often disconnected from their food’s origins, including where it comes from, or in the case of meat, how it was raised. If you have a fondness for beef burgers, chicken breast, and scrambled eggs, knowing their terroir is key.
The negative impact of unsustainable animal agriculture on our ecosystem—and our collective health—is impossible to ignore. But we can mitigate the impact by using some savvy consumer power. We can start by understanding the nuances of product labels.
Unfortunately, marketers can confuse the message with meaningless claims, making product packaging and labelling downright confusing. Here’s what some of the most common label lingo means, so you can spend your dollars wisely.
When meat is USDA certified as “Organic”, it means that animals must be fed 100 percent organic feed and forage. In addition, the USDA regulations require that animals be raised in natural living conditions (e.g., grazing on pastures), and without antibiotics and hormones.
Grass fed versus grass finished
- “Grass fed” commonly refers to livestock raised on pasture and not confined to a feedlot.
- “Grass finished” means animals spend their final weight-gain stage on grass (and may or may not have eaten grains during their lifetimes).
- “100% grass fed” would be your best assurance the animal had only consumed grass.
On its website, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines grass fed as meaning, “grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.” In addition, “Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.”
However, unless the producers’ processes are verified by the USDA or another recognized grass-fed standard, using this definition on marketing labels could mean anything.
Grass fed = better nutrition
Research suggests that grass-fed beef produces meat with a better nutrition profile, including increased levels of omega-3 fats and lower levels of cholesterol-raising saturated fats.
- “Free range” or “pasture-fed” are commonly used to describe chicken and turkey that have been given access to regularly roam and graze outdoors.
“Cage free” or “free roaming” simply means chickens were not confined to cages, but it doesn’t mean they have access to the outdoors—many times this means a room or open area inside a barn or poultry house. However to be approved by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Services (AMS), the hens must have unlimited access to food and water and can roam freely during the laying cycle.
In the United States, the AMS overseeas the use of these terms including organic. Eggs certified by the USDA’s National Organic Program come from chickens that are fed an organic-feed diet (without conventional pesticides or fertilizers) and are uncaged with access to the outdoors.
This term should mean that animals roam in a natural environment where they can eat forage. It is often used in the same way as “free range.”
“Pasture-raised” eggs = better nutrition
Research has shown that eggs from pasture-raised (or free-range) chickens have a nutritional advantage, including greater levels of omega-3 fats, vitamin E, and vitamin A.
Many poultry products sport this label, which means the feed given to the flock contains no animal byproducts, often added to feed as a protein source. In these cases, the feed contains only vegetable protein such as soy.
Chickens are omnivores, not ruminants, so in a natural setting they would eat bugs and grubs and whatever they can scratch up. This means that a label that says “vegetable grain-fed chicken” does not reflect a bird’s natural diet.
According to the USDA, “a product labeled ‘natural’ is a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” In addition, “the label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as ‘no artificial ingredients; minimally processed’).”
- “Raised without antibiotics” labels on meat and poultry products, according to the USDA, say the animal must not be administered antibiotics, whether in their feed, water, or via injections.
- “Other terms that are used interchangeably include: raised without antibiotics, no antibiotics administered, no added antibiotics, no antibiotics ever, and raised antibiotic free.
In the United States, federal law permits the use of hormones only in beef cattle, swine, and
lamb production. Because hormones are prohibited in the production of poultry, mature sheep,
goat, veal calves, exotic, and non-amenable species (such as bison, buffalo, elk, and venison), any of these products sporting a negative hormone label must also include a qualifying statement to avoid misleading claims.
The use of hormonal growth promoters in beef cattle is a concern sparking much debate around the world. So a steak with the label “raised without the use of added hormones” is worth considering as a better option.
Keep in mind that certified organic beef and dairy will come from hormone-free animals, and most grass-fed third-party certifications do not permit the use of these growth-promoting agents. And, as meat, poultry, and seafood contain naturally occurring hormones, the claim “hormone free” can never be considered truly accurate.
Third-party animal welfare certifications, such as Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, and Global Animal Partnership, audit their farms to verify the farmer is raising animals to a higher standard of animal welfare than common industry practice. A label with a seal from one of these certification programs is an assurance that animals were only raised using required sustainability and animal welfare practices.
By the numbers: How the food we eat impacts our environment
57% of all food production climate-warming emissions are from livestock feed and the use of cows, pigs, and other animals for food 25% of climate-warming emissions are from beef cultivation 29% of climate-warming emissions are from plant-based food cultivation 9.6% reduction in overall US carbon footprint if daily beef-eating Americans swapped out their beef for one meal a day 8% reduction in US carbon footprint if dairy milk-consuming Americans switched to soymilk
Less is best
Understanding meat food labels and the different livestock raising practices that farmers can use is an important step toward sourcing healthier, more sustainable options. But even if you are sourcing the most ethical, sustainable, and nutritious meat for your dinner table, be it 100 percent grass fed or from regenerative agriculture operations, it’s still important that most Americans make it a goal to eat less meat and more plants.
It’s not just the planet that can benefit from swapping beef for beans more often, it’s also human health. Recent scientific evidence suggests adhering to healthy plant-based dietary patterns can not only reduce the risk for heart disease, but also reduce people’s genetic susceptibility to cardiovascular disease.
Foods from the plant kingdom contain a nutritional makeup including high levels of fiber and phytonutrients that aren’t available from a meat-heavy diet. And when you trim some of the meat from your diet in favor of lower-cost plant-based alternatives, such as legumes, it may leave you with more in your budget to spend on animal-based proteins that demand a premium, such as grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, and wild salmon—choices that can help lower the carbon cost of your diet.
The bottom line for the well-being of our fragile planet and our bodies? It’s never been more important to source sustainably and humanely produced meat and, at the same time, wedge more plants into your daily menu. Meatless Mondays and grass-fed Tuesdays, anyone?
Regenerating greener pastures
Regenerative agriculture is a newly codified approach to agriculture that not only emphasizes reducing reliance on chemical inputs, as does organic agriculture, but goes one step further by taking the necessary steps to rebuild the soil biome (a living, biological active soil), resulting in a carbon drawdown and less polluted water systems, including rivers.
It’s a holistic approach to plant and livestock production that does a much better job at promoting and enhancing biodiversity, protecting long-term soil health, and respecting ecological balance through the use of environmental, ecological, and ethical practices.
Livestock raised using a regenerative farming approach can have a positive impact on the environment. A study in the journal Agricultural Systems showed that cattle raised using a method known as multi-paddock grazing, where the grass-fed animals are moved often to allow plants to recover and avoid the pitfalls of overgrazing, resulted in greenhouse gas emissions incurred through the raising of the cattle being mostly offset by the amount of carbon sequestered in the healthier soil.
Like organic farming a couple of decades ago, regenerative agriculture is still in its infancy. But there are a growing number of farmers raising their livestock and vegetables in this fashion, so it will become increasingly possible to purchase this next-level meat for a more climate-friendly burger.