Last month I wrote about how to navigate the grocery store in order to choose the best fruits and vegetables for your health. This month I thought we would take a look at the meat we consume. According to many television commercials the cows, pigs and chickens we eat are raised on green pastures, and free to roam, but is this really the case? There are major environmental, health, and animal welfare differences between conventional meat and organic meat.
According to OrganicConsumers.org, each full-grown chicken in a factory (conventional) farm has as little as six-tenths of a square foot of space. Because of the crowding, they often become aggressive and sometimes eat each other. This has led to the painful practice of de-beaking the brids. Due to genetic manipulation, 90% of broiler chickens have trouble walking. In addition, hogs become aggressive in tight spaces and often bite each other’s tails, which has caused many farmers to cut the tails off. Fortunately we do not see this occurring as we purchase our meat from the grocery store! Organic farmers practice humane treatment and slaughter of their animals. If you are interested in learning more about animal welfare there are a number of documentaries available on Netflix like Forks Over Knives, Food Matters, Fed Up, GMO OMG, Food Inc, and many more.
Even if we didn’t take the humane treatment of animals into consideration, there are many additional health and environmental reasons to buy organic. Organic Consumers states, According to the Environmental Protection Agency, hog, chicken and cattle waste has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states. Pfiesteria, a microscopic organism that feeds off the phosphorus and nitrogen found in manure, is a lethal toxin harmful to both humans and fish. In 1991 alone, 1,000,000,000,000 (one billion) fish were killed by pfiesteria in the Neuse River in North Carolina. In addition, the overuse of antibiotics in animals is causing more strains of drug-resistant bacteria, which is affecting the treatment of various life-threatening diseases in humans. The Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences has estimated the annual cost of treating antibiotic-resistant infections in the U.S. at $30 billion. Fifty million pounds of antibiotics are produced in the U.S. each year. Twenty million pounds are given to animals, of which 80% (16 million pounds) is used on livestock merely to promote more rapid growth. The remaining 20% is used to help control the multitude of diseases that occur under such tightly confined conditions, including anemia, influenza, intestinal diseases, mastitis, metritis, orthostasis, and pneumonia. (organic consumers.com)
Fitday.com states that many people are concerned about hormones found in the conventional food supply, and for good reason. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy reports that hormones given to beef cattle end up in meat and in people who consume that meat — and there may be a link between hormones in food and increased incidences of certain types of cancer, thyroid diseases, obesity, diabetes, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, infertility, asthma and allergies. Hormones can end up in animal feed when the fats of other animals are added to non-organic feeds. Organic farmers don’t use hormones or antibiotics in their animals.
The following guidelines must be met in order to be certified organic by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA):
- Must be raised organically on certified organic land
- Must be fed certified organic feed
- No antibiotics or added growth hormones are allowed
- Must have outdoor access
- The animals’ organic feed cannot contain animal by-products, antibiotics or genetically engineered material
- In addition, a third-party certifier inspects these farms and ranches annually to ensure the organic standards are met.
However, there is a substantial fee that farmers must pay in order to be labelled organic. Because of that fee you may see many farms who raise their animals in a sustainable, organic way, but aren’t able to claim the organic label. These are perfectly fine to eat! The best way to figure out where your food is coming from is to visit your local farm and don’t be afraid to ask questions! The website http://www.sustainabletable.org/2224/questions-to-ask gives great questions to ask your farmer!
Nutritionally speaking, there are many studies that show grass-fed, organic meats have higher levels of those healthy omega-3s, and less pesticide residue. Nutritionally, they tend to be similar in composition, but organic foods are lacking added hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, are better for the environment, and better for the animals!
If you don’t have access to a farm, farmer’s market or CSA- Whole Foods is a great option to learn about your meat. The meats are labeled numbers 1-5+ so you can choose what fits best for your goals.
ANIMAL CENTERED, ENTIRE LIFE ON SAME FARM
ANIMAL CENTERED, NO PHYSICAL ALTERATIONS
ENHANCED OUTDOOR ACCESS
NO CAGES, NO CRATES, NO CROWDING
Check out LocalHearvest.org to find local farms, markets and other sustainable sources of food.
- Natural or all natural – This label means “minimally processed” and that the meat can’t have any artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or any other artificial ingredients in it. Animals can still be given antibiotics or growth enhancers and meat can be injected with salt, water, and other ingredients. For example, this term can be applied to all raw cuts of beef since they aren’t processed. The natural label does not reflect how the animal was raised or fed, which makes it fairly meaningless.
- Naturally raised – This claim should be followed by a specific statement, such as “naturally raised without antibiotics or growth hormones” in order to obtain USDA approval. Read different labels carefully to understand what naturally raised really means to the piece of meat you’re buying.
- Grass-fed – This term claims that the animals are fed solely on a diet of grass or hay and have continuous access to the outdoors. Cattle are naturally ruminants that eat grass, so they tend to be healthier and leaner when fed this way. In addition, grass fed beef has been shown to have more of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids. However, if meat is labeled as grass fed but not certified organic, the animal may have been raised on pasture that was exposed to or treated with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
- Free-range or free-roaming – Broadly, this term means that the animals weren’t confined to a cage and had access to the outdoors. Unfortunately, there are no requirements for the amount of time the animals spend outdoors or for the size of the outdoor space available. The terms free-range or free-roaming also don’t apply to egg-laying hens. While it’s difficult to tell exactly what free range means on meat packaging, you can contact the producer directly for clarification.
- Cage-free – The term means that egg-laying hens are not raised in cages. However, it does not necessarily mean they have access to the outdoors. Some eggs may carry the American Humane Certified label but many cage-free claims are not certified, making it a very misleading label.
- Pasture-raised – This claims that the animals were not raised in confinement and had year-round access to the outside. Again, there are no requirements for exactly how much time the animals spend outside or the size of the outdoor space available, so it can be misleading.
- No hormones added or hormone-free – This term indicates that animals are raised without the use of any added growth hormones. For beef and dairy products it can be helpful, but by law in the U.S., poultry, veal calves, and pigs cannot be given hormones, so don’t pay extra for chicken, veal, or pork products that use this label.
- Certified Humane Raised and Handled – This is a voluntary certification regulated by the Humane Farm Animal Care, a non-profit organization aimed at ensuring the humane treatment of farm animals. The label means that animals have ample space, shelter, and gentle handling to limit stress, ample fresh water, and a diet without added antibiotics or hormones. Animals must be able to roam around and root without ever being confined to cages, crates, or tie stalls.