Walk into a grocery store and the meat choices can be quite confusing. For clarity, try focusing on a few key words/labels (described below). Wherever you shop, you have to rely on meat labels if you want to eat humanely. But don’t let labels mislead you.
Here’s some guidance as you navigate the meat aisle!
Note: If you have questions about a particular brand, I might be able to help you. Email email@example.com.
Look for a "grass-fed" label
Grass-fed animals eat grass for most of their lives - unlike most industrially raised animals, which are fed grain. If you want 100% grass-fed meat (also known as grass-finished), look for "100% grass-fed" on the label. Otherwise, grass-fed means the animals were also fed grain for a portion of their lives.
How does this benefit animals? Ruminants evolved to eat grass. Grain creates an acidic environment in their stomachs, often leading to digestive troubles and the need for antibiotic treatment. Also: grass-fed animals tend to be kept on pasture for the grazing season, allowing them to roam freely and engage in natural behaviors with fellow animals. And: the benefits of grass-fed meat to humans and the environment are numerous.
Pasture-raised animals live primarily on fields or in woods, where they eat grass, plants, or shrubs. A farmer might add grain to their diet, but the emphasis is on where the animal lived, not what it ate.
How does this benefit animals? Animals on pasture are like schoolkids on a playground: they have room to roam, fresh air and sunshine, and the company of other animals. They eat what they evolved to eat, lessening the chance of illness. And if a farmer is managing her grassland well, the chance of health problems for animals is reduced. Pasturing is currently experiencing a rennaissance in America and there's lots of info about how it benefits animals.
This label is primarily used on poultry products. Free-range chickens and turkeys are raised in barns and given access to the outdoors. (How much time they actually spend out there, and whether the outdoor area is pasture, concrete, or bare ground, varies from farm to farm. Indoor conditions might also vary. You can't be sure how a farm or company defines "free-range" unless you dig deeper.)
How this benefits animals: These birds have more access to fresh air and roaming space than indoor-only birds. If they have well-managed pasture, they can eat the seeds, worms, bugs, and vegetation that they evolved to eat.
These organizations certify farms for humane treatment of animals. Look for these labels! Each organization has different standards but all of them require animals to be raised more naturally than in the standard factory farm.
Certified Humane animals are never housed in cages, crates, or tie stalls. They're not required to be pastured (though they could be) and the poultry systems are not required to be free-range, but indoor environments must allow animals to engage in natural behaviors. Details here.
Animal Welfare Approved is a pasture-based certification, meaning animals on AWA farms were raised primarily outdoors and on pasture. For this reason, AWA is considered to be the most rigorous certification program for animal welfare. It requires that no animals be kept in cages, crates, or tie stalls, and animals must be allowed to engage in natural behaviors. Details here.
The GAP program (Global Animal Partnership) is used at Whole Foods stores. There, you'll see meat labeled Steps 1 through 5. A Step 3, 4, or 5 label means the animals were raised in a free-range or pasture-centered environment. (Steps 1 and 2 indicate that more industrial agricultural practices were used; they do not offer much of a difference over standard meat.) Details here. Right now, GAP labels are only found at Whole Foods stores but the program could expand to other stores in the future.
A farm that is "certified organic" is audited annually and must follow the federal organic standards. A farm can simply call itself "organic" and not be certified -- but in those cases, you have to trust that the farmer is actually following organic practices. The federal standards require that animals eat only organic feed (no GMOs or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers) and they cannot be given antibiotics or synthetic hormones. Whether they eat grass or grain is not specified.
How this benefits animals: All certified organic animals must have access to the outdoors, though for how long and how often is not specified. Cows, sheep, and goats must have pasture aduring the grazing season. Pigs and poultry aren't required to have pasture, only access to the outdoors. Because certified organic farmers are banned from treating their animals with certain conventional medicines, they must take more care to prevent animal illness and disease before it happens.
Farmers and food companies might use the term "humanely raised" to make their products sound appealing, but as noted elsewhere on this site, there is no generally accepted definition of "humanely raised," nor is there any governmental regulation of that term. Even a standard factory farm could use "humanely raised" on their products. If this is the only phrase you see on a package, be skeptical. Seek out products with one of the 5 labels mentioned in the previous section.
Industrial farms use antibiotics and synthetic hormones to prevent illness and promote rapid animal growth. Unfortunately, there's lots of evidence that use of antibiotics in animal feed is encouraging the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans. So it's important to support the removal of antibiotics in industrial farming. But this label says nothing about animals' living conditions.
"Local" simply refers to food that is grown or raised within a state or region (or within a 100-mile or 250-mile radius of the point of sale). "Local" offers no information about how animals were raised. While it makes a lot of sense to buy food from local farmers, dig a little deeper and never assume that local equals humane. A local chicken farm could house birds in cramped barns. A local pork farm might never let pigs outside.
"Natural" means the meat has no artificial coloring, flavoring, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients. It says nothing about the animals.
"Naturally raised" indicates the animals didn't receive antibiotics, growth hormones, or feed containing animal by-products. While such things can be harmful to animals (and people), this label says nothing about animals' living conditions.
If you want to know more…
See Behind the labels to learn about label enforcement and accountability. Also, the Animal Welfare Institute has a guide to meat labels (.pdf) that is quite comprehensive and discusses more obscure labels, such as heritage breed and biodynamic.
A note about store brands…
Grocery stores often sell their own brand of meat – it has the store’s name and logo on it. The store buys meat from another company and re-brands it as their own. As with any meat you buy, these store-branded products should be evaluated using the above criteria.
Here are two popular supermarket chains that deserve a bit more explanation:
Trader Joe’s (store locater here) sells meat under its own Trader Joe’s label, as well as meat from other companies. I contacted Trader Joe’s to ask about their store-brand meats and did not hear back from them regarding how much of what they sell under their private label is grass-fed, organic, free-range, etc. Even though Trader Joe's is strong on organic and non-GMO products, you should treat TJ’s-brand meat like any other company’s meat: look for one of the 5 labels listed above – otherwise it’s conventional meat. (Update: I am hearing from frequent TJ shoppers that the chain sells quite a bit of organic meat under the TJ’s label; here's a blog post about organic meat.)
Whole Foods (store locator here) sells a lot of humanely raised meat, thanks to its Global Animal Partnership (GAP) program, which labels meat from Step 1 - 5. None of the fresh meat sold at Whole Foods has antibiotics or synthetic hormones in it, no pigs were raised in gestation crates, no physical alterations were done to the poultry, the cattle and lambs spent at least 2/3 of their life on pasture, and veal calves were not raised in crates. Any company that sells meat at Whole Foods must at least meet those standards. But if you truly want to ensure that your meat was raised well above factory farm standards, buy at Steps 3, 4 or 5. Read more about their 5-step meat labeling system here, or look at the "Humane Certifications" link above.
Co-op food stores and natural food stores are small enough to source meat from the kind of local, independent farms that tend to raise animals with the highest standards of care. Check out what your local co-op has to offer; find it with the help of the Co-op Directory Service.
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