(Article original published on The Dirt on Organic Gardening)
Buying anything from the grocery store these days can be confusing.
There are so many items to choose from that it’s easy to get lost in all the labels, prices and lingo. It’s no surprise when people wonder, “What am I actually buying?”
Meat is one of the worst culprits.
Like with eggs, there is regulation on the terms applied to different kinds of meat. It’s understanding those terms that’s the challenge.
Different stores have different means of categorizing their meat, but most places label their meat according to the USDA.Meat labeling is a complicated process. It isn’t only about what happens on the farm, but also about where the animal is being processed—where it’s being cut, packaged and sold.
These days, though, even conventional groceries are adding more descriptive packaging that shows in many cases how the beef was raised, and even on what kind of diet.
Most of the terms used have very specific meanings:
Organic—To be labeled “organic,” a product must be certified by a USDA approved agency. Organic meat and poultry must be fed only organically-grown feed (without any animal byproducts) and cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics. The animals must have access to the outdoors, and animals that chew cud must have access to pasture—although they don’t actually have to graze on that pasture to be considered organic.
Natural—Meat and poultry labeled “natural” should not have any added artificial flavoring, coloring, chemical preservatives, or artificial ingredients, and should be “minimally processed”—defined by the USDA as a process that does not fundamentally alter the raw product. “Natural” has no bearing on the way the animal was raised or the food and additives that it was fed.
Grass-fed— A grass-fed animal’s diet should not be supplemented with grain, animal byproducts, or synthetic hormones. They should not be given antibiotics to promote growth or prevent disease (though they may be given antibiotics to treat disease). Note that “grass-fed” does not guarantee that the animal was pastured or pasture-raised.
Cage-free—This means that birds are raised without cages. What this doesn’t explain is whether the birds were raised outdoors, or in a pasture, or in overcrowded conditions indoors.
There’s a great glossary put together by SustainableTable.org that thoroughly defines all of this meat processing lingo. Knowing these terms will definitely help to guide you through the grocery store!
Some stores, like Whole Foods, have an entire chart that attempts to clear up the confusion so that as a consumer you feel a little more in control of your purchases. Whole Foods Market works in conjunction with a non-profit organization called Global Animal Partnership that aims to classify meat based on the environment where it’s raised.
Whole Foods claims to have a high standard of meat, and even Step 1 (the lowest classification), “… requires more from our farmers and ranchers than we have ever asked before.”
This statement is quite vague if you think about it—what was being asked before?
Step 1 also states: “Animals live their lives with more space to move around and stretch their legs.” Again vague. Unless you go see this farm, who knows what they’ve classified as “more space”?
Step 2: “Animals are provided with enrichments that encourage behavior that’s natural to them—like a bale of straw for chickens to peck at, a bowling ball for pigs to shove around, or a sturdy object for cattle to rub against.” Again, that sounds good. I am sure the typical consumer would read this and think “That’s so great! What a nice thought, a bowling ball for pigs!”
Step 3: “Pigs, chickens and turkeys might live in buildings but they all—yes, each and every one of them—have access to outdoor areas.” This step makes me think of the “cage-free” farce.
The marketing team that came up with these steps was very clever. The wordage is put in a way that makes the consumer see positivity, but at the same time there is a lot of wiggle room. On the cage-free spectrum, you’ve got a packed barn where they’ve simply removed the cages but they’re still cramped—all the way to a farm where animals have so much free roaming space they can spend the day avoiding that other animal they had that awkward interaction with the night before.
Step 4: “When living outdoors, chickens and turkeys get to forage, pigs get to wallow and cattle get to roam.” This is sounds a little better, but there is still the question of why they say “when living outdoors.” This could mean that they are packed away most the day but get a few hours here and there to roam freely and be animals. This step is pasture-centered, so it is clear that the animals here are offered more freedom, and allowed to be more animal-like. Yay for them!
Steps 5 and 5+ are the most positive sounding, and tend to be the highest quality meat you could acquire from Whole Foods. “At Step 5, the well-being of the animals is the primary focus; efficiency and economy are secondary. Animals raised to Step 5+ standards must be born and live their entire lives on one farm.”
Pasture raised vs. grass fed
A common misunderstanding is that pasture-raised and grass-fed go hand in hand. If an animal is pasture raised, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the animal was 100% grass fed. Many cows, sheep and goats are grain finished. (It’s a common practice to change a meat animal’s diet from grass to grains in the last few months of its life to fatten it up before slaughter. There is controversy over whether this is healthy for the animals, and ultimately, the consumer.)
Like I’ve said before and will say again, if you want confidence in what you’re eating, the best way to buy any product is directly from the farmer. I currently buy most of my meat from Kookoolan Farms in Yamhill, Oregon.
The regulations for farms that offer meat shares, Like Kookoolan Farms, are very different than the USDA regulations.
Regardless of which grocery store you are buying your meat from, getting meat directly from a farm is a completely different experience.
The ground beef in my fridge from Kookoolan came from one cow, not many. When I ordered my half lamb, I got to speak to the butcher and specify my cuts.
There’s a sense of control you get when you buy meat directly from the farm that you could never get from the grocery store. Large-scale meat production especially is incredibly detrimental to the environment. It’s important as a consumer to understand not only what it is you’re buying, but the entire process that its production is a part of.
What does “custom-exempt” mean for slaughter or processing?
A custom-exempt plant, exempt from continuous USDA-approved inspection, can only slaughter and process livestock for the exclusive use of the owner, the owner’s family, and non-paying guests.
Packages of custom-processed meat and poultry must be labeled “NOT FOR SALE” (and cannot be labeled with “grass-fed” or other claims). This label is required because by law, the meat cannot be sold, traded, bartered, or given away to a food bank or similar charity, for example.
And this is why you have to buy your beef when the cow is still alive. You’re not buying beef—you’re literally buying the cow!
Custom operations are typically thought to process game meat for hunters, but they usually offer processing services to anyone who wants an animal slaughtered or processed for personal use. Slaughter and processing businesses that operate under this exemption are inspected by both USDA and state inspectors on a regular basis—typically once or twice annually. Custom-exempt slaughter and processing (also called “cut and wrap”) plants are expected to meet the same requirements for sanitation and construction that USDA-inspected plants must meet.
In summary, it’s most ideal if you can buy your meats locally from a small sustainable or organic family farmer—assuming of course that you’re not growing your own.
If you don’t have the option of buying from your local farmer (you need a lot of freezer space to store even a quarter of a cow), try to buy the most humanely raised option whenever possible.