As of 2012, the US Department of Agriculture has yet to release guidelines for certified grass-fed labels on meat products and poultry. Navigating this world is complex and labels can be misleading. Understanding the label nuances allows you to make better decisions that are more in line with your ethical or nutritional values and save money on high priced items that are not what they claim to be.
Whole Foods Market has done a great job with their 1-5 scoring system. But if you’re not at Whole Foods, what do you do? You need to know the basic differences between each tier of labels, from grain-fed to pasture-raised.
Prior to World War II, all American beef was “grass-fed/grass-finished.” Today, the vast majority of US cattle graze on rangeland from birth until they reach a weight of 650 pounds, when they are shipped to feedlots. There they are fed a cheap mixture of grain, plant and animal by-products (peanut hulls, seed meal, bone meal and blood). This makes them gain weight quickly to fetch a higher market price, in a shorter amount of time.
Unfortunately, the price of this rapid weight gain means the animals are far less healthy than their pasture-raised cousins. Cattle disease can be prevalent, so antibiotics are constantly administered.
From less healthy cattle, comes less healthy meat. Grain-Fed/Grain-Finished meat is higher in fat, higher in inflammatory amino acids and far lower in nutritional content. (More on the health benefits of pasture-raised and wild caught meat here).
Because these cattle may spend some (limited) time in pastures, their meat sometimes is misleadingly labeled as grass-fed beef. So be sure to check your labels and read up on the suppliers.
The trend is growing to label beef as “grass-fed.” Unfortunately, this can be misleading when the cattle are kept in close confinement, but fed with grass, moist, fermented plant material or hay.
Genuine grass-fed cows receive food higher in nutritional content from grazing on a wide variety of grasses, shrubs, and herbs. Grass-fed meat is higher in nutritional content, however these animals often are not allowed to roam around to exercise. But every ranch varies, so again, check your labels.
Certified organic beef is from commercial livestock that still is finished with grain. The difference is certified organic grain is used as feed. Though it sounds better, it may actually be no healthier than grain-fed beef.
The more precise term for truly grass-fed beef may be pasture-raised beef. This term refers to livestock raised entirely on the pasture. In the pasture, the cattle are allowed to roam and graze on fresh grass. Because of this grazing, they take more time to gain weight compared to grain-finished cattle, making this meat leaner and higher in nutritional content.
When no label is present, poultry is almost always raised with conventional farming methods, which include tiny cages and close confinement with other birds. Their feed is processed plant and/or animal matter. This method of raising poultry is pretty stressful and unnatural, resulting in meat and eggs lower in nutritional content and higher in inflammatory amino acids.
Poultry raised “cage-free” have significantly more space, but technically, they still live in cages. This significantly improves their quality of life, even if they are still fed commercial, less natural feed. “Cage-free” is a real step up from conventional poultry ethically, but meat and eggs are still of lower nutritional value.
Vegetarian feed is gaining popularity in industrial chicken farming because it reduces the risk of latent animal diseases in poultry feed. Like “organic beef” this designation can be very misleading. It is a warning sign that the poultry did not get to spend any time on pasture nor eat their natural food of bugs and worms.
This often is the highest quality poultry you can get at your local mega-mart. “Free-range” or “free-roaming” means poultry producers must demonstrate to the USDA that chickens were allowed access to the outside. However, the agency’s regulations don’t specify the size or quality of that outside range, nor how much time the animals have access to it.
Pastured poultry is from birds allowed to roam freely on their own, without confinement, almost all of their lives. Pastured poultry has access to grazing pasture that is rotated, providing fresh pasture and small numbers of worms, grass and insects. Some farmers provide supplementary feed, so be sure to read up on the details of each supplier. However, unlike birds in crowded poultry factories, free-ranged poultry eat more natural foods, get more exercise, and are raised in a much more humane way. This leads to higher quality eggs and meat.
Moving just few labels up from grain-fed meat can significantly improve the nutritional content in your diet. The costs may be higher, but they are a fraction of the expense of the degenerative diseases that result from low nutrition and chronic inflammation.
So the next time you are at the grocery store, take a few extra seconds to read the labels of your meat. If you have any questions at all, ask your butcher. They will be happy to assist you and your body will thank you.