The Eat with Care blog

Writing about humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian. Your comments and feedback welcome. (All replies are screened and posted, if thoughtful and respectful.)

What makes a great meat label?

October 23, 2017


I know, this topic sounds like a snooze,  but humaneitarians should get really excited when they see a helpful label on an animal product. By ‘helpful,’ I mean a label that provides meaningful info about how the animal was raised.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need labels. We’d all shop at farmers’ markets and talk directly with farmers about their animal welfare practices. We’d even visit their farms. But most of us shop at grocery stores. And so we’re label-bound.

Recently I came across two labels that are exemplary. In a small amount of space, they convey a lot. Not everything, but a lot.

One is from Mountain Home Farm in Tunbridge, Vermont — a dairy farm. I don’t write about dairy on this website, but Mountain Home raises cows so they’re eligible for praise.

Here is what the back of their label says:

At Mountain Home Farm in the heart of Vermont, we produce a cultured, single-source, artisanal butter of exceptional quality. We treat our Guernsey cows like family. In the summer they graze in lush mountain pastures. In the winter they eat hay harvested from our meadows. The result is a golden butter high in beta carotene with rich, complex flavors. Our cows thrive with NO GRAIN!

From this, we know the cows are 100% grass-fed. We know the breed of cow. We know they live outside in the summer. And we know they remain grass-fed in the winter — a time when some farmers supplement with grain. (According to Mountain Home, the cows even live in an outdoor shed in winter and can roam about if they want to — another unique feature.)

It’s helpful to have the non-animal information, too — the farm only uses their own milk (single-source) and they make their own hay. But the animal info is particularly helpful because it does a bit of educating: 100% grass-fed means NO GRAIN!

A second label that impresses me is from Thousand Hills Cattle Co., a Minnesota-based producer that aggregates beef from numerous farms. Go get your reading glasses, because the print on their labels is very small – presumably so they can fit all this in:

Our products are made using only 100% Grass Fed Beef from hand-selected family farms adhering to our strict requirements of cattle raised with NO antibiotics, NO added hormones, NO grain, NO grain byproducts. Never. Ever. Our cattle never experience confinement feeding but instead graze diverse forages in open pastures for their lifetime (hay is provided in the winter). Holistic grazing techniques are utilized to build soil health, prevent erosion/runoff, and regenerate grasslands. We believe all Hills were intended to be responsibly grazed while providing year-round ground cover.

They have a little asterisk next to “Holistic grazing” to explain what they mean by that: “Thousand Hills Cattle Co. defines holistic grazing as managed rotational grazing, leaving ground cover, allowing 2-6 month rest periods.” In other words, the pastures are not overgrazed.

Granted, there’s more on this label about pasture management than animal welfare, but when’s the last time you saw the phrases “rotational grazing” and “diverse forages” on a meat package?  Mountain Home and Thousand Hills prove that “lack of space” is a poor excuse for failing to put meaningful info on a meat label.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the big — very big — issue of label enforcement. It’s pretty weak in the United States. Did you know a producer can put a “pasture raised” claim on a label even though there is no government definition of the term?  Did you know that to use the phrase “grass-fed,” all a producer has to do is send a letter to the USDA saying they adhere to their own grass-fed standards?

This is why humane certifications are the gold standard for labeling. If, for example, you see “Certified Humane” on a package, you can know that the farm was visited and audited by the non-profit Humane Farm Animal Care, whose detailed animal welfare standards are posted online. (Humane standards go into vastly more detail than a label ever could — no matter how small the font).

But many humane farms choose not to get humane certified, for a variety of reasons. These farms should nevertheless treat their customers like adults and provide as much into on their label as possible about their good practices.

May these two labels from Mountain Home Farm and Thousand Hills Cattle Co. inspire us to seek out meat, egg, and dairy producers who share as much info as possible with us, so that we can truly eat according to our ethics!