Organic, Natural, Grass Fed, Free Range. What Does it Mean?
If you are reading this article, you’re most likely concerned about the quality of the food you put in your body. So are we! That’s why today we’re taking a closer look at the differences between the labeling on meat products. Natural, Grass-Fed, Organic, Fresh, Factory Farmed...what does it all really mean. More importantly, how can you know for sure that you are getting a product that is free of harmful stuff and is super-packed with really good stuff!?
The organizations responsible for oversight of labeling and marketing standards for meat are the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Like any other government organizations, they produce long documents with confusing language on what’s acceptable for companies to include on their labels. There are some strong lobbying organizations that spend a lot of money trying to convince lawmakers to put the power of inspection in the hands of the companies as opposed to third party inspectors. Why would the top companies want to be responsible for their own quality control? Well, to make more money, of course! Third party inspection slows production significantly, obstructing the principles of free enterprise. Wenonah Hauter is the director of Food and Water Watch, a D.C. based watchdog organization focused on corporate and government accountability relating to food, water and common resources. In her book “Foodopoly,” she explains the historical evolution of this phenomenon:
“The meat industry wanted inspectors out of the slaughterhouses. USDA inspectors had the power to stop slaughter lines when they saw contamination, and that cost money. Meat production had changed dramatically because of technological advances allowing animals to be killed and processed at lightning speed. From the 1970’s onward, the meat industry’s resistance to USDA inspection increased...Lobbying during the Ford administration resulted in the commissioning of a study...to make recommendations for changing the meat inspection system. The study‘s focus was on improving cost-effectiveness and eliminating unnecessary interference with commerce. The study recommended cutting back on the role of government meat inspectors and encouraging ‘corporate quality control.’”
This boils down to one fact - many large corporations have only one interest in mind: profits. How can they have both your health and their infinite wallet lining as a priority? You’ll hear this many times throughout this article, but the only way to truly know what goes into your meat is to spend a little time doing your own research on the source of your food. The tradeoff in spending this time is that you can be sure you are eating meat that is doing you good and not harm. What are some of these risks and benefits of each label, you ask? Great question!
Most conventionally raised cattle are fed a diet of nothing but grain. It’s cheaper than maintaining a pasture for them to graze on and it packs on the pounds, making super-bovine sized cows that yield more profits at market. A heavy grain diet makes for an acidic digestive system, leaving cows depleted of a host of nutrients that not only make us healthier, but it makes the cow healthier too! A healthier, happier cow that lives a stress-free life means more nutritious meat. Think about it...when we get stressed we release hormones and chemicals that remain in our muscles. Same thing happens to cattle, if they are stressed, those hormones and chemicals are going to have an effect on the texture and flavor of your steak! When cows are allowed to graze freely in a pasture of green grass, we get less saturated fat and more healthy Omega 3 fatty acids and B Vitamins.
What you’re getting with this label: cows that have been allowed to continuously forage on fresh grass, herbs and other stuff that grows in an open pasture and cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts.
What you’re not getting with this label: the assurance that cows have not been treated with unnecessary antibiotics or other growth hormones. These products, when we consume meat that’s been treated with them, disrupt the functionality of all of our bodies’ systems. Ew!
Meat with an organic label means the cattle were not confined in a feedlot for any extended period of time, are not kept in unsanitary conditions and were not directly or indirectly exposed to artificial pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, GMOs or other synthetic contaminants. This label does not ensure the animal was given the freedom to graze or that its diet is very low in grain or corn. Again, the language is vague and open to interpretation, so the only way to know how much grain vs. pasture food an animal had access to during its life is to talk to the farmer herself! However, if your busy life doesn’t allow for that, you can be fairly certain that a Grass-Fed or Organic label is going to be worlds better for you than factory farmed beef. Let's talk about that for a second…
A typical farm that produces a high volume of cattle has very little incentive to produce meat that is in any way good for you. There is a very convoluted system for inspection in these settings and most often inspectors are encouraged to not disrupt the assembly line. These cattle are packed into small areas and stand in their own fecal matter for the duration of their short lives. That stuff is usually not cleaned off the animal before slaughter, so it typically ends up getting on the meat during that process. Double Ew!! Because this setting is quite unsanitary, they are fed huge amounts of antibiotics and hormones that help them resist infection and cause them to grow to unnatural sizes in unnatural time periods. Conversely, the organic certification includes this stipulation:
The producer of an organic livestock operation must manage manure in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, heavy metals, or pathogenic organisms and optimizes recycling of nutrients, and must manage pastures and other outdoor access areas in a manner that does not put soil or water quality at risk.
This term is a bit less defined by law. The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service says that fresh meat can be labeled “natural” if it contains no artificial flavors, flavorings, coloring ingredients, chemical preservatives, or other artificial or synthetic ingredients. Additionally, it must not be more than “minimally processed.” I will personally pay you $20 if you can find a reliable definition for “minimally processed.” What’s more, this label only refers to the final product of the meat, it is not intended to regulate the way the animal was raised.
Legally, there is currently not a definition for “free range” or “pasture-raised” in the US, however, the USDA website does say that “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” Although this means you don’t get the assurance of uniform definitions of these terms, if you see that label on packaging, usually for poultry, go to the trusty interwebs and do a little digging, see what you can find in terms of contacting the producer. Typically, if you can find information about how to contact the producer, you’ve won 75% of the battle...companies who have a lot to hide from their consumers will make it really tough to get a hold of them! Ask what their definition of “free range” is. Some farmers consider a 2’x2’ coop in the sunshine for 25 chickens as free range. If you were a chicken in that coop, I’ll be you’d have a different definition of that term!
Basically, you should become a vegetarian. Ha! Only kidding, meat is so good! And when it’s raised properly, it’s good for you too! This is a time in the human evolution of eating where we’ve let a small group of very wealthy people dictate how our food is raised, grown and processed. We’ve got to take the power back from those people! How do we do this? Great question...the answer is not a simple one, and it involves shifting our mentality around the quality of meat and how we verify that as consumers. Meat that is raised well not only benefits us, but it benefits the environment too, ensuring that the land will be fertile enough for generations to come to continue to raise good quality meat. Unfortunately, this costs a bit of extra money. This is where the mentality shift comes in….we have to start looking at spending a few extra dollars on quality meats as an investment in our health and the sustainability of our grandchildren’s health. It is not cheap for a farmer or rancher to follow high ethical standards, and they have to pass on that cost to us. It will take some creativity, but if you want to be your best self, you can do this! FKD is committed to serving you the best quality meat we can, so by choosing to spend your dollars with us, you’ve already won half the battle!
Don’t take our word for it...check out these sites for more info!