Demystifying Meat Labeling
Heritage refers to unique meat varieties that are genetically different from commercial ones that are common in industrial meat farming. Note that it does not refer to the type of feeding or grazing practice. Heritage animals are important to cultivate because there is a danger in having a handful of livestock breeds all sharing the same genetic traits because a new illness or a radical change in the world's climate could wipe them out. Many natural farmers are breeding heritage cattle. One I have personally visited and seen how beautiful the herd is reared is Bobolink Farm in Milford, N.J. You can order directly from their website. (www.cowsoutside.com/).
Hormone-Free/No Hormones carries no legal or regulated definition and is not to be used on labeling of beef, pork or poultry. There are naturally occurring hormones in all animal proteins. Only foods that carry the “USDA-Certified Organic” label (see below) are proscribed from containing any artificial hormones. According to the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Relating to Public Health (SCVPH), six natural and artificial growth hormones in beef production pose a potential risk to human health. These six hormones include three that are naturally occurring – oestradiol, progesterone, and testosterone – and three that are synthetic – Zeranol, Trenbolone, and Melengestrol. When synthetic hormones are injected into cattle, some naturally occurring hormone levels increase 7 to 20 times. The committee found that “no acceptable daily intake could be established for any of these hormones.”
Certified Humane and Handled is a term used by the Humane Farm Animal Care organization, an independent non-profit association, to describe the living conditions and slaughtering process of food animals in this country. The label is backed by the Humane Society and the ASPCA. Vetted farmers can be found on their website. (www.certifiedhumane.org).
Natural is very commonly used term defined by the USDA to regulate how meat is processed after the animal has been slaughtered. It is important to understand that it does not refer in any way to how an animal was raised e.g. on a feedlot or given antibiotics or hormones.
Naturally Raised is a USDA term that indicates how an animal was raised, including nonuse of antibiotics, growth hormones, or the feeding of animal by-products. The certification does not state if the animal has been pastured, raised in a feedlot, or caged.
Organic/Certified Organic is defined by the USDA and refers to animals raised on grass or grain. Organic pesticides and/or fertilizers may be used in their feed. Animals may not be given antibiotics or hormones, and no genetic engineering or radiation can be used in their rearing. However, it does not strictly define production practices related to space per animal or outdoor access requirements, such as confinement areas are permitted to fatten organic beef cattle.
Pastured/Pasture Raised is a term that has no legal or regulated definition. It implies that animals are able to graze on grass. In the best case scenario they may be rotationally grazed, foraging in a contained area for a day or so, then moved to let the first area recover and maintain healthy grass growth. The term has been popularized by famed uber organic farmer/author Joel Salatin to vet broiler chickens raised on grass pasture all their lives (except for an initial incubation period). Pastured meats are known for having less fat, fewer calories and more omega-3’s. See the AWA website for a list of farms certified by their organization (www.animalwelfareapproved.org/farms/).
I have started visiting local farms in upstate New York and buying directly from them after seeing how the animals spend their days. If the cattle are out in the fields and have a healthy look to them, I will buy their meat. If the chickens are running around actively pecking in the dirt and grass, count me in for a dozen eggs, not to mention some broilers. It is definitely more work, but can be very rewarding. My family notices the difference too. They deemed a recent holiday meal of locally natural, grassfed, organic, free-range, hormone-free, pastured chicken from Full Field Farm (www.fullfieldfarm.com/) to be the best ever! To your health!