After my recent post about tasting beef for the first time in a quarter of a century, several people asked about the jargon in the grocery store. What does it all mean? Can we trust the signs and labels that we see? Or are they merely euphemisms and good marketing?
Whole Foods Market would lead you to believe that their meat is all produced in a sustainable and humane way. They even have this warm and fuzzy video showing how much they care…
But what do the terms really mean?
Are some of them misleading us into thinking we are making purchases that are better for the animals and the environment than they really are?
Let’s see if we can summarize what the words all mean and what is worth prioritizing when you shop. (Luckily, my friend Rod from Rocky Mountain Cuts offered to help if I got too confused.)
We’ll start with the photo at the top of this post.
It is from our local market, on the poultry case. It claims that the chicken is “all natural,” was fed a vegetarian diet, and contains no hormones or antibiotics.
- Overall, those words tend to make me feel good – on the surface, it seems like the chickens ate a decent diet and weren’t stuffed with chemicals.
- On a closer look though, it says nothing about how they were housed. Commercial chickens are institutionalized (kept in very close quarters) and many of them are de-beaked so that they don’t peck their neighbors.
- All Natural is described by the USDA as simply being minimally processed, with no added color or chemicals being added AFTER they are killed.
- All Natural doesn’t mean that the chickens were not fed antibiotics while they were alive…which really stinks, since you might guess otherwise.
- Hormone Free chicken is just a pretty label, since hormones in chicken have been banned since the late 50’s. For beef, sadly, it’s a different story.
- Suddenly, things don’t sound so rosy any more for these chickens…
Let’s move on to meat.
One of my former high school biology students commented on my recent meat post (she’s in medical school now!) and asked about all of the labeling on Whole Foods meats. Rod shocked me when he said that because Corn is biologically classified as a Grass, that officially, corn-fed cattle can be called Grass-Fed. That’s insane. And we wonder why consumers are confused.
The term Grass-Fed implies happy cows grazing in large pastures. But often, cows with calves are started in grassy fields, but are then moved to feed lots, where they are “finished” with grains that bulk them up before slaughter. These high carbohydrate feeds are combined with required antibiotics to control the bacteria levels in cattle’s rumen. Bacteria are required to extract sugar from celluse, so the antibiotics aren’t designed to kill all of the bacteria. The combination of a highly caloric diet and antibiotics is the equivalent of “fast food” for cattle. However, it frequently yields mutated ecoli bacteria and antibiotic resistant staph.
I believe that if you want to eat beef from cattle that lived their entire lives in pasture, you need to look for a good producer. Rocky Mountain Organic meats is one that I trust. They produce Certified Organic 100% Pasture fed cattle. Focus on terms such as “100% Grass Fed” or “Grass Fed and Finished”. All other marketing claims are nothing more than marketing mumbo jumbo.
First thing’s first – let’s not confuse Natural with Organic.
We’d hope that naturally produced foods were organic, but officially that is not so. We talked about natural products with chicken above. But what does Organic Food Production mean?
The USDA defines the national organic program as one that “is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”
Organic meat is meat that is raised according to the National Organic Standards which means that:
- All ingredients must be 100% organically produced. No chemicals were used, unless the animal needs to be treated. That animal must, by law, be sold to the conventional food market and never be labeled as organic.
- 100% organic feed is required (the food was produced with no herbicides, pesticides, or petroleum based fertilizers)
- No added growth hormones are allowed
- No genetically modified feeds are allowed
- No animal by-products of any form allowed in feed
- No antibiotics are allowed. If antibiotics are used to treat a sick animal, then that animal is marketed through conventional channels and is not sold as organic.
- Restrictions on pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers
- No genetic engineering methods, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge for fertilization
- No synthetic chemicals, artificial preservatives or harmful additives such as sodium nitrite allowed in processing
- Annual inspection of producers and processors required for maintaining certification
- Third party assessment required
While some people may shy away from buying organic because of a “crunchy or hippy” stigma, there are a few key points to remember: When chemicals are used in farming to control insects and weeds, they leach into the soil, air, water and into the farmers growing the food. Organic farming protects growers, food consumers, and the physical environment from any such chemicals. This provides an immediate benefit and a long-term one. And it is clear from our obese nation that people are not typically thinking long-term…and we should.
Organic foods tend to cost more than conventional foods because they meet stricter guidelines and undergo testing and evaluation. They tend to be more labor intensive, because farmers do not take chemical shortcuts. But the overall cost reflects healthier animals, plants, farmers, and most likely consumers. If the long-term costs of health care and environmental clean-up were factored into “cheap” factory meats, it is likely that they would actually cost more than their organic counterparts.
The big picture:
- Know who grows your food, or at least find a vendor at your local farmer’s market who can tell you about how their animals were raised and what they ate.
- If you can’t know your producer, the next best choice is to look for these labels: Certified Organic AND 100% Pasture Fed and Finished