Deciphering Labels: Meat

What does grass fed mean? What are the regulations behind the term? What about organic meat? Pasture raised? Hormone or antibiotic free? In the next few posts, I will help you decipher these terms and more so that you can be an educated meat consumer. In this post I will cover mainly beef, though some concepts will apply to other meats as well. In future posts, I will cover chicken and fish at least, and maybe I will venture into other meat categories. (Let me know if there is something you are particularly interested in).

What I will NOT be covering in these posts is whether or not you should consume meat at all from a health standpoint or from an ethical standpoint. I will consider the changes in health benefits in meat depending on how it is raised, which by default will get into some of the gross practices in some meat production, but I am not attempting to examine the environmental impact of meat production, nor to give anywhere near an in depth look at some of the mass-produced meat production practices.

What does organic mean applied to meat? 

In the United States, to label beef as organic means that it must be fed 100% organic feed. This can include corn and grain, but cannot be fed exclusively a corn and grain diet. Cattle cannot be confined for extended periods of time, and they must be managed without antibiotics, added growth hormones, or some other feed ingredients that are allowed to be given to non-organic cattle such as manure and avian biproducts.

What does grass-fed mean?

In the United States, there is not currently a national grass fed certification standard. In other words, the term does not have a single definition. The USDA developed grass fed standards in 2007, but removed them in 2016. Now, to use the grass fed label, the beef must use the prior USDA standard, adopt their own standard, or adopt a standard from a private certifying body. While this lack of consistent definition and regulation surprises me, in my research I have not found widespread concern that the term is being mis-marketed. I think that to use the label, at a minimum the USDA would require that the cow will have spent most of its life outside eating grass (which will provide many of the health benefits I discuss below). Additionally, much of the grass fed beef on the market is bought directly from the farm where consumers can learn how the cattle are raised. There also appears to be a fairly robust private certification market.

The American Grassfed Association’s definition of grass fed is: “AGA defines grassfed animals as those that have eaten nothing but grass and forage from weaning to harvest, have not been raised in confinement, and have never been fed antibiotics or growth hormones.” (This is their quick definition, their full standards is a 17 page document.)

But it appears that grass fed can be used to cover different living conditions and feeding practices. If buying from your local farmer, you can ask them what they feed their cattle and whether they use antibiotics, growth hormones, or other additives. If buying from the grocery store, you can also look for labels from the different private certifying bodies, the two biggest appear to be the American Grassfed Association and the Food Alliance Certified-Grassfed. Also note that grass fed does not necessarily mean organic, cattle could be eating grass that is not pesticide free.

What about beef that has none of these labels?

Obviously if it is unlabeled you just do not know what you are getting. However, as a general rule, the mass produced ‘conventional’ cattle eaten in the United States today is raised on grain. Cows are ruminants and meant to eat grass. Eating grains can cause bloating, liver abscesses, and other fatal conditions. In addition to grains, cattle producers can legally feed cattle a variety of waste or other cheap products such as animal waste products (poop) and “food adulterated with rodent, roach, or bird excreta that has been heat treated to destroy pathogenic organisms,” (source 7, there is not clear data on the actual amount being fed to livestock, but it is clear that this is a widespread practice). Cattle are also given antibiotics and growth hormones to grow bigger and fatter.  You might also recall in 2017 hearing about a truck that tipped over carrying a bunch of red skittles that were one their way to be fed to cattle. For some farmers, supplementing cattle’s diets with sugar candies that are unable to be sold for some reason or another is a common practice.

What about other labels?

There are a variety of other claims that may appear on beef. Natural is one that really doesn’t have any useful meaning. “No antibiotics” is self-explanatory and generally accurate (no strict monitoring, but the USDA does require documentation). “Pasture raised” probably means that the cattle were able to roam freely outdoors eating grass (this appears to be a less used and regulated term than grass fed, but the USDA does require documentation to use the term). Have more questions? The best, easiest to use labeling information I have found is in the Environmental Working Groups meat eaters guide.

Does the way cattle are raised and what they eat have an effect on the meat you eat?

Mark Hyman, MD says that it shouldn’t be “you are what you eat” but rather “you are what your food eats.” Grass fed meat, compared to grain fed meat, contains healthier fats (up to five times the Omega 3 fatty acids compared to grain fed meat and lower Omega 6 fatty acids); more CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid); more nutrients such as B vitamins and vitamin E; more antioxidants such as lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, superoxide dismutase, glutathione; and more beneficial minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, zinc, and iron. So, yes, it appears to have a huge effect on your health.

More to come. Please share any questions that you have or meat-related topics that you would like covered.

Sources:

  1. American Grassfed Association
  2. Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eater’s Guide
  3. Food, What the Heck Should I Eat? By Mark Hyman, MD
  4. The Truth About Grassfed Beef, Food Revolution Network
  5. The USDA’s Abdication of Defining ‘Grass-Fed’ is Good for Consumers, January 16, 2016, Reason.com, by Baylen Linnekin
  6. USDA Organic Livestock Requirements
  7. What do we feed to food-production animals? A review of animal feed ingredients and their potential impacts on human health. Environmental Health Perspectives, May 2007; 115(5): 663-70 by AR Sapkota, LY Lefferts, S. McKenzie, et al.

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