Sunday, July 18, 2010

Understanding Meat Labels

I am a vegetarian at heart. I've been a vegetarian off and on for most of my adult life, and while I'm not currently eating a completely vegetarian diet, I'm still fully convinced of its benefits... benefits to health, the environment, and of course to the animals themselves. Our household eats mostly vegetarian, and we are happy and healthy doing so.


We do eat meat occasionally, and what I eventually came to realize is that the majority of issues I had with meat eating (mainly those pertaining to non-humane treatment of the animals) could be remedied by eating the right kind of meat. The right kind of meat is also far healthier than traditionally raised meat, it is better for the environment, and it is more socially responsible.

So what IS the right kind of meat? Labels are confusing, and largely misleading. You may pay far too much for a cut of meat because it claims to be "all natural" or "organic" or "grass-fed." Depending on where you buy it, and where it originally came from, these labels can mean - or not mean - very different things.

Here are a few things to know if you're buying beef at a grocery store:

Organic - Beef that is labeled organic is not allowed to have been given antibiotics. It can, however, have been given other drugs. It could have been treated inhumanely, and fed corn and other materials outside of its natural diet. It could be shipped from other countries, and it could have been fed animal by-products. Its production could have used environmentally harmful practices.

Humane - Just as the label implies, beef that is marked "humane"  did not receive any inhumane treatment.  It was not restricted access to free range roaming and feeding, and it was not fed animal by-products.  It could still have been given antibiotics and other drugs.  It could have been fed corn.  It could have been from foreign countries, and had multiple ownership.  Its production could have used environmentally harmful practices.

Grass Fed -  Unless you know where it's coming from, and are aware of the source's practices, grass-fed means just that - it's from cattle that are fed grass (which is what cattle are designed to eat!), and not allowed corn and other non-native materials.  They could still be treated inhumanely, given antibiotics, restricted access to free range, had multiple owners, participated in environmentally harmful practices, etc.

Natural -Natural beef is not allowed to be given antibiotics, nor fed animal by-products.  It could still have been fed corn and other non-native materials (including grain treated with pesticides and herbicides), treated inhumanely, restricted free-range access, be from foreign countries, etc.

Antibiotic/Hormone/Pesticide Free -  This label simply means they weren't given whatever drug is stated.  Any or all of the other harmful, unnatural, or inhumane practices could still have taken place.

Any of the above labels could be meeting the criteria for healthier, natural, more humane meat, but the problem is that the labels as they stand do not require them to do so... which means that you really don't know what it is you're getting, no matter what the packaging says.

So where DO you want to buy it?  Locally!   A local farm or ranch that raises its animals from birth to slaughter the old-fashioned way:  100% grass fed and free-range, with no antibiotics or other drugs, no corn, and no animal-by products.  Animals that are treated humanely their entire lives.  Farms that do not use practices that could harm your environment, and farms that directly benefit your own local community.  Farms that you let you visit!

A good farm or ranch will be able to answer "NO" to all of the following:

  • Antibiotics
  • Pesticides and Herbicides
  • Fed corn and other non-native materials
  • Inhumane treatment
  • Feed-lot finishing
  • Prolonged restriction to access to free-range
  • Multiple ownership before slaughter
  • From foreign countries
  • Fed animal by-products
  • Environmentally harmful practices
  • Practices that don't directly benefit the local economy
Buying local, 100% grass-finished meat is the best way to know that you are getting meat that is healthy, as well as environmentally and ethically conscientious.  Buying locally also ensures you know exactly where your meat is coming from.  The ranch that just sold us our beef will, upon request, give you the number of the actual cow your cuts of meat came from.   That's a big deal, especially to a former/quasi-vegetarian like me.


  1. Yes!

    The biggest green (or red) light is if the farm will let visitors come, and if they do, can they see the animals up close? Or do they need to wear a space suit to visit?

    We are so happy with our decision to buy local, grass-fed meat. I feel like it's a happy medium, between not eating meat at all, and being a over-consuming, unconscious, commercially-grown meat eat eater.

    I like this one, Jen. Very informative!

  2. Jen...where do you buy your local beef from here in the Phoenix area?

  3. Well we *were* buying from OX Ranch, and loved them, but they just recently stopped their sales. So bummed!! I think we're going to try Date Creek Ranch next. We've picked apples there, and they seem like a wonderful place as well.