We all want to buy the best meat for our family...But, with labels on meat products these days being so confusing, how do you know what to buy? Where did the animal come from? What did it eat? How was it raised? These are all excellent questions that labels can very rarely answer for us. To help us decipher labels and find a trustworthy source of protein we turned to expert Liz Cunningham of Cunningham Pastured Meats. She interprets the top four labels: organic, grass-fed, free-range and Product of the USA.
Let’s start off with one of the biggest labels out there: Organic.
What is the definition of organic?
Well, USDA standards state that organic operations must demonstrate that they are (1) protecting natural resources, (2) conserving biodiversity, and (3) using only approved substances. Sounds like a great definition and we would hope a good government-run program. But just like most government-run programs, there are some problems. The biggest confusion out there about the organic label is that people assume that organic automatically means the cattle are being raised out on green grass, but this is NOT the case most of the time.
Organic beef must be fed certified organic feed their entire life. This does NOT mean that their feed was grass! In fact, there is a lot of beef in grocery stores that are certified organic, but spent most of the end of their life in a CAFO (confinement animal feeding operation) eating corn and soy. Organic pork and chicken must:
- be free from antibiotics (sort of, chicks can receive antibiotics in their first day alive)
- be fed certified organic feed their entire life.
As far as their life goes....they are most commonly in a confinement animal feeding operation their entire life and never see a blade of grass. But it’s “organic!” Can you see how this can be misleading?!?
The hottest label on the market right now for beef is “grass-fed," and I would say this could be the most misleading label for people trying to live a healthier lifestyle.The truth is that not all grass-fed beef is raised equally. The biggest problem at this point is that grass-fed doesn’t have a standard definition. The USDA has legal control over the word organic. If you claim your product is organic but you're not certified organic you can get in trouble and fined.This is not the case with grass-fed.
Since there's no standard or oversight, it seems "big ag" is happy to use this buzzword wherever they see fit.
Since there is no standard for grass-fed it really can mean anything. But for those who are using the term lightly, it means that the animal was basically on grass at one point in its life.
Who knows for how long, or what else it was fed later on.
Almost all cattle start their life on grass (except for dairy calves). Typically, calves are born on ranches, and when they are weaned from their moms (around 6 months of age), they are kept on grass until they are ready for finishing. At that point, they are typically shipped to a major feedlot and fed as much feed (corn, soy, etc.) as they possibly can eat until they are obese and ready for butcher.
Why does it matter if they are finished in a feedlot?
The quality of the meat, flavor and overall health of the meat is really determined in the last 90 days of the animal's life. If that beef is just lounging around eating junk for the last 120 days of his life, that’s what his meat is going to be… junk.
Grass-fed doesn’t really apply to chickens or pork because they are not designed the same as cattle. They actually require a grain source in their diet. The label most people are seeing now is “free range” on chickens. This is also a joke because, once again, there is no real standard. A chicken having “access” to a dirt lot behind the chicken shed is considered free-range.
Green grass is not a requirement in the free-range label. Misleading?? Yep.
Product of USA
One would think you would be safe buying meat that says “Product of USA” on it.
Unfortunately, not even this is a trustworthy label! How So?
During the Obama Administration in 2015, COOL (country of origin labeling) standards were terminated. This allows animals raised in other countries to be butchered in the other country and then brought to America and processed as a “Product of USA”.
Did you catch that?
Animals that are raised and killed outside of the United States and then shipped and cut here are considered Product of the USA.
Give me a break. No wonder people don’t trust labels anymore! This label concerns me the most all for health safety reasons. Here's why, these animals are being raised and butchered outside of the USA. Every country has different standards for butchering and processing animals. The USDA swears they monitor meat coming into the USA and that it’s completely safe. Massive recalls say otherwise.
There are plenty of other labels out there on meat products, but you can see the point. Most labels have vague definitions or don’t tell the whole truth. If labels are not trustworthy then where can you go to find meat? You do what more and more consumers across the country are beginning to do: Build a relationship with a local rancher or farmer to know exactly how your meat is being raised.
This article was penned by Liz Cunningham of Cunningham Pastured Meats They are a Boise local ranch and one-stop-shop for all your protein needs. For five generations their family has been ranchers raising meat. Selling pasture-raised meats you can trust. See how they raise their animals with their virtual farm tour on their site.
Readers receive $10 coupon on their first order.