We live in a country where we are fortunate enough to have options when it comes to the food we eat. Food is produced abundantly and is readily available. Grocery stores don’t just have one kind of bread, but actually most have over 200 options. You can find eggs and meat in a similar manner with labels toting “Organic”, “Grass-Fed”, or “Free-Range”. Food is also produced in a way that is affordable for most people, and while there remain starving people in this country, the United States is far better off compared to those countries with no established agricultural industry, where food is limited.
The ability to turn down food is a LUXURY. Walking into a grocery store and being able to choose the organically raised carrot versus the conventionally raised carrot is a lavish experience that many Americans take for granted. This is possible because American farmers have found a way to produce an abundance of food in the most efficient way possible in order to feed the growing population. Because our food supply is stable, there is room for other (less expeditious) options.
Regardless of what the label says, the farmer strives to produce a wholesome and safe product for consumers. Labeling of products became more apparent when consumers decided they wanted more information about what they were buying. What was initiated in order to provide clarity for consumers eventually became a way for companies to market and differentiate their products, resulting in the exploitation of labeling to confuse the consumer into thinking they have a superior product. When consumers were asked if this change caused them to feel better informed about their food they said no because they found the labels confusing and frustrating. Additionally, when consumers were asked why they wouldn’t buy food that wasn’t heavily labeled the response wasn’t “I don’t know what’s in that food” but rather, “This food has this label, and this food does not, therefore the one that doesn’t must be worse.” That is NOT what food labeling is supposed to do, it should not create fear that one product is inferior, but should provide transparency to the product so that the consumer can decide what is right for their lifestyle.
Ultimately, I want to dive into some specific meat labels and let you know what they really mean so that you can decide if it fits your lifestyle, household, and budget, and not let fear steer your grocery cart.
Free-range or cage-free
The USDA requirement for the use of this label is “producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside”. Usually this label is placed on eggs and these facilities often look like this:
In my opinion, allowing them access to the outside like this is good and safe. It allows producers to supply the world with eggs and it keeps the chickens safe from diseases and predators. It is efficient and the best way to raise eggs so that everyone has access to them. However, if you think that these chickens are out roaming in a field all day, this supermarket label is not what you are looking for. If you want eggs from chickens that roam free, I suggest you look to your local farming community and see if these smaller farms suit your desires. Additionally, cage-free does not inherently mean the chicken has a better life. On one hand the chicken is able to do what comes naturally, but often when chickens are put in groups they become aggressive and can hurt one another. The decision on how they are raised has to be made by the farmer understanding what is best for his flock. I also want to show that all meat birds are raised cage-free in facilities that look like this:
They are raised inside climate-controlled barns so they stay healthy and outside diseases and predators cannot reach them. There are also curtains on the barns that can be opened to allow natural light in. Again, this is the most efficient way to raise chickens to supply the world with food. The poultry industry became experts on raising broilers, ideal living temperatures, and the specific food to feed the chickens. In these barns they are able to control everything from the atmosphere to tracking the daily actions of the birds. “Since healthy, top-quality animals are needed for food, proper treatment is not only an ethical obligation, but it just makes good business sense.” (National Chicken Council)
The definition of this term is “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. The label must also include the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients”; “minimally processed”).” The issue with this label is that it can be slapped on anything that has no additives and is not further processed, which most whole cuts of meat are. So, even if there is no “Natural” label on a package, you can still see from the ingredients whether it is or not. Why pay more money for the one labeled “Natural” on the front instead of essentially same product simply lacking the label in big bright letters. Be an informed consumer; just because something is not flashing the “Natural” label does not mean that it is unnatural. You might view a product without a “Natural” label as being concocted in a way completely opposite to nature’s intention, which is simply not true. A product unable to tote a “Natural” label could be one that has a preservative, for example, which is safe to consume and would increase that product’s shelf life, all good things for the consumer.
Firstly, hormones are prohibited in raising hogs or poultry. If there is a label on pork or chicken that says “No Hormones” it must be followed up with the statement “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones”. This is another example of how labeling can confuse the customer, just because the hot dog package says “No Hormones” does not mean the other package that does not have that label was made from pork raised with hormones. No pork or chicken you buy is raised with hormones because it is illegal. However it is legal to raise beef with hormones. If you want to learn more about this process please visit this fact sheet from the North American Meat Institute.
In short, it has been scientifically proven by the FDA that the use of supplemental hormones in raising beef is safe for consumers. The hormones are administered in very low doses through a small implant in the ear, having very little effect on the hormone levels already present in the beef. The implant only increases the amount of growth hormone that is naturally produced by the animal and the implant is discarded at slaughter. By increasing the growth of hormone by a small amount this “increases feed efficiency, protein deposition and growth rate. Implanted calves usually result in a 10-20% increase in average daily gain (growth rate) compared to non-implanted calves.
“Moreover, because of the increased feed efficiency, less feed is required, which decreases production costs by 5-10%.” According to Drovers facts about hormones and beef. This is very important because it allows beef production to have a lower environmental impact and lowers the cost of production so that your meat is affordable and farmers can continue to raise beef and earn a profit.
If you have health concerns regarding implanted beef, such as cancer or early puberty, it should be noted that the amount of hormones consumed by eating implanted beef is negligible compared to what the human body produces every day:
Of course it is your preference to purchase meat that is not implanted. Our farm offers such beef because we are so small and it would not be financially beneficial for us to implant hormones. My purpose is to make sure that you know as a consumer that implanted beef is safe to eat, poses no environmental risks, and in fact makes producing beef in this country viable, environmentally friendly, and affordable.
I have discussed antibiotic-free in a previous blog post and I suggest you take a look at it if you haven’t already. It is titled “No our livestock are not raised without antibiotics.”
If you haven’t read that post, the most important thing I want to say about this label is that the term “antibiotic-free” means that the living animal was raised without any antibiotic treatments. This label might imply that meat not labeled “antibiotic-free” has antibiotics in it. However, no meat you consume will ever have antibiotic residue. Every animal that has been administered antibiotics has to go through a withdrawal period from that antibiotic before it is slaughtered and there is extensive testing in place to make sure that the animal has no antibiotics in its system.
The second most important thing is that antibiotics are necessary for animal welfare. Animals get sick just like humans and appropriate use of antibiotics can be necessary to make sure the animal recovers quickly. If farmers are not allowed to use antibiotics on a sick animal, that animal will suffer because it will not be treated properly and will not be as healthy as it could be when it goes to slaughter.
I want to be very careful with this label. Organic farming is just another method of farming and can be very useful when looking at how farmers can improve practices and produce products sustainably. It is good for farming and I believe that everyone has the right to choose to eat organic or not, but I want to make sure you are doing it for the right reasons as an educated consumer. If you believe organic foods are healthier, that is a lie. If you believe organic foods do not use any pesticides, that is again, a lie. If you are spending money on more expensive foods labeled organic because you feel guilty about feeding your family conventionally raised food because you think it is inferior to organic food, that is also, not true.
In terms of nutrition, food that was raised organically has no greater nutritional value than the same food grown conventionally. 95% of consumers believe that organic means pesticide free when in fact, organic growers use naturally derived pesticides. The term naturally derived does not mean anything in regard to toxicity or effectiveness of the pesticide. These naturally derived pesticides are often applied more frequently than pesticides not approved as organic.
In terms of livestock production you can see what is required in this spreadsheet from the Agricultural Marketing Service.
I tried to find a helpful chart that would compare organic farming to conventional farming to show you some similarities. However everything I found was extremely biased and misleading, so I am going to try and make one for you:
Just because something is not certified organic does not mean that the product doesn’t have what you’re looking for or the quality you expect. Ultimately ALL farmers want to produce wholesome, safe food for their consumers. Organic is an important choice for consumers, but we need to accept all types of safe production. We need conventionally raised food because there is a growing population to feed; by utilizing technology that is not “certified organic” farmers are able to feed the world.
This is a newer labeling trend I am starting to see in stores. The vast majority of livestock are fed a plant-based diet. Soybean meal is the main source of protein for cattle, hogs, and chickens. While there are other sources of protein, such as bone-meal, fish-meal, or blood-meal (which is safe to feed responsibly) these are very rarely fed to meat-producing animals. Therefore, most of the meat in your grocery store is “vegetarian-fed” whether it is labeled so or not. Additionally, hogs and poultry are omnivores by nature. If an insect or small animal happened to get into the barn where a chicken was, the chicken’s natural behaviors would drive it to consume it. This label just does not make much sense.
By not asking the critical questions about what is really in your food, you are basically asking to be deceived by marketing schemes through labels. As a consumer you need to figure out what is important to you and do research to see what products support those needs. It does not have to be confusing.
Conventional farming is very important. Without modern agriculture a significantly greater portion of the country would have to be farmers. Right now only 2% of the population feeds the rest. Luckily, we have innovations that produce healthy, safe product for billions of people efficiently and affordably. My little farm cannot feed the world, but I can do my part to show you where your food comes from. Lastly, I want to add that if you really want to know about the practices that go into growing your food, stop by a local farm, talk to the farmer, and support local growers. Instead of asking what isn’t in the food you eat, ask what is and learn about why that matters.
I only talked about meat labels because that is my chosen field of study. If you would like to learn more about other labels on dairy, vegetable, and other food products here are good sources to look at:
- Food Labeling Podcast – I HIGHLY suggest listening to this 30 minute podcast. This conversation conveys everything I tried to discuss with you! download and listen on your way to work, better yet subscribe to the podcast Talking Biotech on itunes!
- Genetically Modified Organisms Info:
- Meat Labeling Terms: