Ethical Meat and Unethical Hype -- A Look at 'All Natural', 'Grass-Fed' and Other Half-Truths
March 07, 2009
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Marketing departments like to invent terms that sound good but mean anything -- non-enforceable claims don’t result in lawsuits. Here’s an overview of what labels on the meat you buy actually mean:
All Natural: This means meat that is minimally processed with no artificial or synthetic products. It is not regulated, however, so anyone can put it on their package. It is a claim with no clout.
Cool (Country of Origin Labeling): A USDA regulated label stating where meat was raised, slaughtered, and processed.
Grass Fed: A USDA regulated label meaning, very narrowly, that that animals ate grass. According to the USDA definition, “grass-fed” animals can also be fed grain, and can be raised on grass in confinement, as long as they have access to pasture -- although "access" can be, and often is, nothing more than a facility with a door to a small outdoor area.
Free Range: This means only that the animal has some access to the outdoors. There is no regulation for use of this term, except in the case of chickens raised for consumption. “Pasture-raised” is a more meaningful term.
Organic: This label is USDA and third-party certified. It means that livestock wasn’t treated with hormones or antibiotics and was fed a pesticide-free diet.
Vegetarian Fed: This refers only to an animal’s diet and does not guarantee the animal was pastured or raised humanely.
Air Chilled: This refers to the treatment of living animals. Producers and retailers may also make claims about how the animal is handled between slaughter and purchase. Meat may be wet or dry-aged, frozen, and packaged in various ways.
Humanely Raised/Certified Humane: Many ranches now choose to undergo an audit by third parties such as Animal Welfare Association and Humane Farmed to highlight their extra care. This type of label states that no practices such as overcrowding, castrating, early weaning, or denying animals access to pasture used.
Biodynamic: This pre-organic standard treats the whole ranching operation as an interrelated whole. While some meats are technically organic, a biodynamic farm assures the meat also came from a healthy, self-sustaining system.
Local: Producers who take part in this affidavit program state in writing that the animals were raised within 20 miles. This label is not certified or confirmed by a third party.