Shopping at the grocery store is a daunting task when a person just wants to make healthy, educated purchases and all the labels are incredibly confusing. From cage-free, to free range, to grass-fed, what means what and how do you choose? Is it really that important to buy organic? What the heck does all-natural even mean?
I can understand (ish) when people opt to buy farm-raised fish, or CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) meat and eggs. What I do not stand for is when people do not know the implications of consuming and purchasing those choices. Even more so, it is the worst when people KNOW the implications and DON”T want to consume, but are just so baffled and confused by food labels that they so often purchase the very products they are trying to avoid without even knowing!
So, I am here to clear up some of the misleading labels, and give you some understanding of what means what in the animal product world.
Say N O to C A F O
First, a little background as to why avoiding CAFO animal products is SO IMPORTANT. I don’t want to get too graphic here… after all, we have a few documentaries out there that give us the visual. I just want to make sure you understand the difference between CAFO and sustainably raised animal products. From their lack of nutrient density, to the negative effects on the environment, the despicable living conditions, to the health repercussions, CAFO animal products should NOT be in your grocery cart. With that said, if you are still not quite convinced, let’s just bullet point some of the main considerations in CAFO meat.
- Ethical considerations:
- Animals are knee-deep in their own feces
- Animals never see the light of day
- They suffer shocking cruelty and abuse
- Farm workers suffer chronic illness due to their toxic work environment
- Corporate takeover destroys thousands of small farming businesses every year
- Rampant disease runs among the animals as a result of their atrocious diet and living conditions
- They are pumped with drugs and antibiotics to combat the disease, the latter of which has been detected in the animal products at low levels (2), DESPITE the required USDA withdrawal period before slaughter
- The low-dose antibiotics given to the farm animals contributes to the spread of deadly antibiotic-resistant disease (4).
- Antibiotic residues have been detected in meat and other animal products at low levels (2), despite the required USDA withdrawal period before slaughter to try to reduce the amount consumed by humans
- Millions of pounds of waste end up polluting water and air
- Local communities suffer from damaged ecosystems
- Meat from grass-fed animals has 2-4x MORE omega-3s than meat from grain-fed.
- Meat and Dairy from grass-fed ruminants are the richest known source of a good fat called Conjugated linoleic acid, “CLA”. CLA is a one of the most potent defenses against cancer (7).
- Meat from grass-fed animals tend to be lower in fat. This is particularly important because endotoxin, a highly inflammatory and damaging toxin to the body, resides primarily in the fat of animals, and is much more prevalent in the fat of conventionally raised products.
Data from: J Animal Sci (1993) 71(8):2079-88.
Data from: Smith, G.C. “Dietary supplementation of vitamin E to cattle to improve shelf life and case life of beef for domestic and international markets.” Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523-1171
*Please note, not all “unconventional”, or anything that isn’t CAFO is grass-fed. You still want to be on the lookout for some red flags.. please read further. 🙂
What does USDA Organic Mean? (2):
- Requires livestock to be given year-round access to the outdoors, except in inclement weather
- Only given antibiotics when ill
- CANNOT have added growth hormones
- CAN be fed mostly corn or grain
- Prohibited feed ingredients like animal byproducts, urea, and arsenic compounds
- Must be raised on certified organic land that meets organic crop production standards
- Cattle, sheep, and goats must have free access to organic pasture for entire grazing season; 30% of diet must come from organic pasture
- Land must not be exposed to chemicals for at least three years (8)
- Most organic meat in the U.S. is fed grain at some point prior to slaughter
A note about Organic (8)
Obtaining the USDA Organic stamp on products is not an easy feat. It involves a huge amount of record keeping that proves your land has not been exposed to artificial chemicals for at least three years, that the living conditions of the animals meet certain standards, and that the feed comes from an organic source. It is also quite expensive. Farmers have to pay the USDA official to come and double check their work every year, which means there are some farmers out there that do not want to pay and therefore do not get the official USDA credit. However, that means that just because it is not USDA does not mean that the quality is less. There are farmers that stick to similar USDA standards and just opt out of paying for the certification. You just have to look into it and talk to your local butcher.
What about Grass-fed?
- Cattle’s lifestyle enforced. They get to roam freely, given alfalfa in winter months.
- May use antibiotics in rare cases when animals are actually sick
- 5x more omega 3 fatty acids; 2x CLA-fat burning compound
- Leaner cuts
- More humane, less stressful, more sanitary which means their immune systems are under less pressure, don’t require artificial assistance, and the meat will therefore be much less likely to be contaminated with diseases like E. coli (8)
- Pastures are essentially wild, with balanced ecosystems and help from cow manure, so pesticides and fertilizers are unnecessary
What to get:
Good: Grass-fed OR organic will be better choices than conventional meat, of course. Both have better requirements with treatment, feed, and productions of animals, but there are still some grey lines in the process…such as the total grains fed, the treatment and free roaming requirements, etc.
Better: Grass-fed AND organic. This combination gets a little closer with your optimal meat with still some grey area like the aforementioned…
Best: Talk to the butcher and find out the diet and treatment of the animals. I know this may seem like quite the task, but once you find out, you don’t have to do it again! You’ll create a relationship with your local farmer/butcher, and be guaranteed the most nutrient dense, flavorful animal products while feeling good about your choices for the environment and the animals.
Eggs and Poultry
- Regulated by USDA
- Hens don’t live in cages, but doesn’t specify how much space they have or whether they even live outdoors at all.
- If they have a Certified Humane Status given by HFAC, they have at least 1.5 square feet each (1)
- Regulated by USDA
- Hens allowed access to outdoors during production cycle
- Does not guarantee that the hen actually stepped outside
- NPR “few small doors that lead to a screened-in porch with cement, dirt, or a modicum of grass”
- Means they are also cage-free
- Certified humane requires a minimum of 2 square feet of outdoor space per bird
- Organic– similar requirements to ruminant animals
- 100% guaranteed to be antibiotic-free
- few synthetic pesticides involved in production (2)
- Improved health and less environmental impact
- Requires organic feed- without use of synthetic chemicals, irradiation, sewage sludge, or GMO’s
- Cage-free and free-range
- Requires inspections and enforcement
- Not regulated by USDA
- Certified Humane requires that the hens were given ample space to roam about (108 square feet), and access to a barn for cover (1).
- Chickens have room to walk around in open fields and woods, foraging for food (seeds, insects, worms)
- Does not have a legal meaning or certification process; tend to come from small farms (9)
- Eggs have 3-6x more Vitamin D than CAFO (7)
- Eggs have 2x more omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally raised (7)
What to get: Ideally, you want poultry and eggs that are certified organic AND true pasture-raised from your local farmer. However, getting the organic certification can be quite costly to some farmers, as mentioned before, even if their poultry is raised organically. This means that it is in your best interest to talk to your local farmer and see how the chickens are raised. Make sure they forage freely for their natural diet, and are not fed antibiotics, corn and soy. Given that this can be problematic if you are finding your eggs in a more conventional store versus a farmer’s market, you can instead look for the organic and pasture-raised labels. Just know that sometimes the free-range label doesn’t always mean they roamed freely in much space, and that cage-free means they simply aren’t in cages. They can still be significantly cramped and mistreated.
Another way to tell if the eggs are the higher quality is to look at the egg yolk. Foraged hens produce eggs with bright orange yolks versus pale yellow yolks from caged hens.
You can also check out this site to see if where the eggs you get fall in line:
Alright, I hope that helped clear up some confusion! Please let me know if you have questions!
Therese Martinez, MS, RD, CPT