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Got a Beef With Meat Labels? How to Demystify Their Meaning

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Confused by all the different meat labels used these days? We help break down the facts for you.

Kermit the Frog once said it's not easy being green. Mindful carnivores know this maxim to be true: every year seems to bring new or redefined terms that let consumers know how livestock are being raised prior to slaughter.

To help you decipher what's USDA-regulated, what's not, but ethical, and what's just plain bull---- (pun intended), here's the latest on meat labeling (beef, pork, lamb, goats, and buffalo; poultry and eggs have their own wildly confusing labels, which I'll cover in a future article).

Conventional: This term is more often seen in conjunction with produce, although may also be used to refer to industrial-scale ranching (also known as factory farming or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations/CAFOs).There's no legal definition, but it's important to understand how it differs from other forms of animal husbandry. For purposes of brevity, I'll use beef cattle as an example.

In general, most cattle are raised on open pasture before being shipped to a feedlot for three months prior to slaughter. Grain-finishing and growth hormones enable them to achieve a specific fat and weight ratio in a short period of time, which allows for a faster turnover per animal. The detrimental humane, environmental, and human health side-effects of factory farming are well-documented.

Does this make you a bad person if you continue to buy factory-farmed meat, even if it's just in the form of a burrito at your favorite taqueria? Of course not. But as consumers, we should be informed of the global and local impact our choices have, and do the best we can to offset negative consequences. You have to pick your battles, and my personal crusade is to promote more humane, sustainable livestock management.

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Image: Socially Responsible...

Natural: The USDA provides a legal definition of this term only as it applies to meat, poultry, and eggs. These foods must be "minimally processed," meaning the raw product isn't fundamentally altered and contains no artificial ingredients. What your meat and poultry can contain are growth hormones and antibiotics as well as fed genetically modified grains. Animals may also be raised under confinement, because the USDA guidelines only include processing, not methods for raising the animals.

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From the Organic Authority Files

Pasture-raised: Like "free-range (which is used for poultry)," this term has no legal definition, and doesn't ensure animal welfare standards are met. It's a claim that any producer can make, so, caveat emptor. It's best to purchase products labeled with this term at a farmers market, where you can ask questions and (ideally) see photos of animal husbandry methods or schedule a ranch visit.

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Image: John Morris

Humane: This claim, or others similar to it, isn't regulated by the USDA, and verification is difficult to achieve. In many cases, it's become little more than a marketing term. Be leery.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled®: This label "requires the humane treatment of farm animals from birth through slaughter," in accordance with consumer demand for more ethical farming practices. To be Certified Humane®, ranchers must ensure that animals have "ample space, shelter, gentle handling to reduce stress, and a "healthy diet of quality feed, without added antibiotics or hormones." Cages, crates, and tie-stalls are prohibited, and animals must be allowed to engage in natural behaviors; regulations are overseen and implemented by a national non-profit.

Animal Welfare Approved (AWA): This voluntary program was developed in response to consumer demand for meat, eggs, and dairy products raised under rigorous humane and environmental standards. Considered the "gold standard" for food labeling with regard to sustainable livestock production, AWA "audits, certifies, and supports independent family farmers raising their animals according to the highest animal welfare standards." This means animals must be permitted to engage in natural behaviors, "be in a state of physical and psychological well-being," and raised on pasture or range. The program doesn't charge fees to participating farmers (unlike, say, organic certification), which is a critical step toward sustainable food production, in the truest sense of the word.

Grassfed: While USDA-regulated, this term denotes that cattle and other ruminants (cud-chewing mammals including bison, sheep, and goats), may have their predominantly pasture-based diet supplemented with grain. Use of antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides (on pasture) are also allowed. Note that "grass-finished" is a self-made, unregulated claim. Grassfed meat has become an increasingly popular choice amongst consumers due to its considerable health benefits.

AGA-Certified Grassfed: TheAmerican Grassfed Association has applied a third-party audit system to create a label that they say "takes USDA standards to a higher level." Animals must consume nothing but pasture forage from weaning to slaughter, can't be raised in confinement (this includes no feedlots), must be allowed to engage in natural behaviors, and are free of hormones and antibiotics. An AGA-certification also guarantees that "meat is produced in the United States from beef cattle and other ruminants born and raised in this country."

Organic: Since the federal government became the regulating agency for organic standards, organic meat production has remained a source of contention. According to the USDA, meat labeled "organic" may not contain hormones or antibiotics. The animals must be fed 100% Organic Certified vegetarian, pesticide-, herbicide-, and GMO-free feed grown without synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, or sewage sludge, or irradiatedf, as well as free of animal by-products, but the diet can include grain and feedlot grain finishing. According to the Organic Trade Association's website, organic livestock "are given access to the outdoors, fresh air, water, sunshine, grass and pasture...Any shelter provided must be designed to allow the animal comfort and the opportunity to exercise." This doesn't mean that livestock are necessarily raised on pasture or in a pen- or cage-free environment, or permitted to graze.

Learn more about USDA labeling as it pertains to meat and other foods and agricultural products their Marketing Service site.

Top image: aMichiganMom

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