When it comes to meat, unfortunately the industrialized, conventional production model has obscured what large-scale food production looks like in reality. Here, we’re pulling back the curtain to take a look at what various label terms really mean, how they differ from one another, and why they matter.
Walk through any supermarket and you’ll quickly realize there are many terms presented on beef product labels that can be quite confusing. Let’s start by clarifying those terms.
Conventional/Grain-Finished Beef: All cattle raised in the U.S. start out eating a diet of grass. Typically around 6-9 months old, after calves are weaned, conventionally-raised cattle will be transported to feedlots (known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs). They are then fed grain for several months to fatten them quickly before slaughter.
Because conventionally-raised cattle are restricted to feedlots where food (mostly corn) and water is brought to them, their movement is limited. They gain weight faster than cattle that have access to pasture. At the time of slaughter, conventionally-raised cattle are often in poor health and obese. From an ethical standpoint, the unnatural and restrictive model of CAFOs also significantly diminishes the animal’s quality of life.
Grain-finished beef results in fattier, more marbled meat that is lower in omega-3’s and higher in omega-6’s. Unless beef is specifically labeled grass-fed/grass-finished, you can assume it has been grain-finished.
Grass-Fed/Grass-Finished: Cattle are fed a diet exclusively consisting of grass if they are grass-fed and grass-finished. In many cases, cattle raised this way are also allowed continuous access to pasture as well, but it’s smart to look for “pastured” or “pasture-raised” on the label as well to be sure. Pastured cattle are allowed to express their instinctive behaviors of roaming and grazing, rather than being confined to a feedlot. Animals that move around to forage and access water are naturally leaner and take longer to gain weight. Natural weight progression leads them to remain healthy and strong throughout their lives.
Grass-fed and grass-finished beef will have higher levels of omega-3’s and vitamin E. You may also notice the meat is leaner with a slightly more gamey flavor. Research shows that a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats may improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.¹
Organic: Any product labeled USDA Certified Organic is subject to strict rules and inspections. To be labeled organic, the product must be produced without synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, genetically modified ingredients, or irradiation. Organic beef means that the cattle may not be raised in feedlots for an extended amount of time, overcrowded, or kept in unsanitary living conditions. Organic, however, does not mean the animals were exclusively grass-fed or pastured. They may be fed organic grain in a feedlot for a portion of their lives.
Organic is still an important label to look for, though, as conventionally-raised cows are preemptively given antibiotics to prevent the rampant spread of disease that can happen in overcrowded feedlots. Antibiotic use is prohibited for organically-raised animals.
Many small, local farms raise their cattle using organic methods but are not certified organic due to the significant expense it incurs for their small business. Talk to your local farmers to learn about their production methods and how they raise their animals. Farmers’ markets are a great place to start. Get to know your local farmers!
Natural: As defined by the USDA’s Food and Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), natural products can contain no artificial ingredients or chemical preservatives. They must be “minimally processed,” though that term is loose and rather undefined. No certification or inspection process is required for manufacturers. Think of “natural” as an eye-catching term designed to appeal to health-conscious shoppers at first glance. It may look enticing on a label, but it holds very little meaning.
Free-range, cage-free, natural, organic…the list of confusing label terms in regards to poultry is long and tough to navigate! Let’s sift through the terms with a quick primer.
Cage-free: Poultry/eggs that are cage-free simply means the animals must live in an uncaged environment. Birds can still be packed 20,000-40,000 to a barn with very little room for movement and no access to the outdoors.
Free-range: Poultry must have access to a minimum of two square feet per bird. That still does not mean they have access to the outdoors. Free-range production is not subject to inspections or oversight regarding the time the birds can spend outside.
Organic: As with beef, organic poultry is produced without synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, genetically modified ingredients, or irradiation. Birds are fed organic feed and must be raised cage-free with access to the outdoors.
Pastured or pasture-raised: Birds are given freedom to roam, peck, and forage in an unconfined outdoor environment. They eat the natural diet of healthy birds, which consists of feed provided as well as anything they forage (insects, grubs, plant matter, etc.). As with cattle, a pasture-based environment is the most optimal for poultry.
Want to try a fun experiment? Crack open a conventional chicken egg, then crack open an egg from a pasture-raised chicken. The difference in the color of the yolk is shocking! Yolks from conventional birds are often a muted yellow or pale orange at best. Pastured chicken eggs, particularly those purchased in the summer months when birds have their most naturally diverse diet, are a deep and bright shade of orange.
Remember, you aren’t just what you eat. You are what your food ate! Research suggests that most of an egg’s nutrients are found in the yolk.² Pastured eggs contain up to 10 times as many omega-3’s as conventional along with higher amounts of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, all of which support immune health and disease prevention.
Allergic to chicken eggs? Duck eggs are a great alternative offering an equally strong nutrient profile! A surprising amount of natural grocers and local farms now offer duck eggs. Learn more about the differences between chicken and duck eggs here. If you are uncertain if you have allergies to chicken eggs or other foods (including the proteins we’re discussing here), we recommend finding a clinic near you that can help you discover your unique nutrition needs!
Many of the same label terms that apply to beef apply to pork as well. As with both beef and poultry, pork that is pasture-raised will have access to roam, forage, and spend ample time outside.
Conventional pigs are raised entirely indoors and are fed a diet of corn and soybeans. Pigs raised outdoors on pasture and in wooded areas are able to eat a diverse diet of plants and insects, in addition to being fed silage and grain. Any pork product labeled USDA Certified Organic ensures the animal was raised using the organic methods discussed in regards to beef and poultry.
Heritage pork is a label you may see from time to time when shopping. Perhaps you’ve eaten heritage (or heirloom) tomatoes, which are grown from rare endangered seeds and not crossbred. In the same way, the bloodlines of heritage pigs go back hundreds of years to the time when pigs lived wild in wooded environments, not on concrete slabs in factory feedlots. The modern conventional agricultural system has bred pigs that fit the factory farm model. Heritage breeds, however, are the “old-fashioned” breeds that are centuries old and provide meat of dramatically different flavor and quality. Factory-farmed pigs have been bred to be very lean, which often leads to dry and bland meat. Heritage pork typically contains more fat, juiciness, and richness of flavor.
Sourcing Quality Meat
With this information in mind, read your meat labels carefully and closely! While the grocery store is a convenient starting place, it will often lack the diversity and quality of products you can find by going directly to farmers themselves.
Shop at farmers’ markets, talk to your local farmers, and maybe even consider visiting some farms in your area. Many farms welcome visitors and are happy to share all about their practices, animals, and product lines on site.
Local Harvest is a helpful resource for finding farms, CSAs, and markets near you. EatWild also hosts a directory of over 1,400 pasture-based farms that offer beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb, goat, elk, venison, rabbit, dairy products, and more.