It's About Time You Learned What Your Meat Labels Mean

Photo: Agencia

As far as fruits and veggies are concerned, there's one major label that people know they can trust. The USDA Certified Organic seal makes it easy to find produce you can feel good about eating (just make sure it's 100 percent organic). Shopping for meat, on the other hand, isn't nearly as straightforward.

That's because there are actually zero federal laws governing how animals are raised on farms and very few that regulate the claims meat companies can place on packaging. While a lot of the words in the meat aisle may sound great, it's hard to know what they really mean and how legitimate they are.

As more and more wellness-minded people begin to incorporate meat into their diets, it's important to know how to do so in a way that protects animal welfare and doesn't feed into harmful factory-farming practices. Thankfully, animal-first organizations like the ASPCA have noticed encouraging shifts toward more consumer awareness.

"People are more aware and more concerned about farm animal welfare than ever before," Daisy Freund, director of ASPCA Farm Animal Welfare, tells mbg. "Our recent studies found that 77 percent of those polled were actively concerned about the welfare of animals raised for food. And 74 percent of consumers are paying more attention to the labels that describe how an animal was raised than they were five years ago."

In order to clear up some of the confusion, Freund demystified what we should be looking for on meat and what we're better off avoiding.

According to Freund, meat eaters should be skeptical of the following terms:

Humane.

There is no legal definition or regulation for this term, so unless it's backed by a certification scheme (more on those below), it's pretty meaningless.

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Cage-free.

Cage-free is relevant when describing eggs, since egg-laying chickens have traditionally been kept in cages. However, it means next to nothing on a product like turkey meat, since birds raised for meat are never raised in cages.

Hormone-free.

By law, farmers are not allowed to use hormones on pigs or birds, so this label doesn't add anything to your eggs, chicken, or pork products. On the other hand, if you see it on your milk or beef, it's relevant.

Organic.

The world of organic meat is a murky one. Studies show that 70 percent of shoppers think that organic meat comes from animals that had access to unlimited outdoor time. However, lax standards mean that even an animal that only has access to an enclosed, concrete outdoor porch is still technically organic.

Photo: Global Animal Partnership

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These are the labels that actually matter:

Now that the bad news is out of the way, let's move on to the comprehensive, reliable labels that you can trust. Each one is backed by an independent auditing program that sets strict standards for animals' physical, natural, and emotional needs. "With these certifications, there are no cages, no crates, no extreme confinement, no misuse of antibiotics," explains Freund. "There's a requirement of enrichment in the animal's living environment, which means hay bales, perches—the kinds of things animals need to enact their natural behavior."

Animal Welfare Approved.

This seal certifies meat and dairy products according to rigorous standards set by scientists, veterinarians, researchers, and farmers. It ensures that animals are able to roam free in a setting that feels natural and promotes physical and psychological well-being.

Certified Humane.

When the humane claim is backed up with a certification, it means that animals have access to fresh water, quality feed, and ample roaming space and are antibiotic- and hormone-free.

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Global Animal Partnership.

This is a five-step scale, so make sure to look for meat with a rating or 2 or above, which means the animal was at least raised in an enriched environment.

Keep these questions in mind the next time you go shopping:

Don't forget that the certification process is often an expensive and time-consuming one, and not all farmers have the time or money to go through it. If you usually buy your meat straight from a small, local farm at a market, there's a chance that it isn't labeled—and that's totally OK. In order to make sure that you're getting the best product possible, the ASPCA recommends asking the following questions of your supplier:

"Are your animals raised indoors or outdoors? Do they have access to pasture?"

Ideally, animals have spent the majority of their lives out on pasture, and if they're indoors, you want to make sure they're not raised in cages.

"Do you alter your animals in any way?"

Factory farms partake in cruel practices like beak and tail trimming to keep animals from pecking each other out of frustration. If farmers are altering their animals, it's a sign that they probably aren't giving them enough space to roam around.

"Do you use antibiotics?"

The answer you're looking for with this one is "Only when an animal is actually sick."

Check out the ASPCA's shop with your heart database for more information on farms that prioritize animal welfare and how you can support them. Then, check out this primer on the next frontier of sustainable meat: regenerative farming.

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