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If you’re concerned about environmental and animal welfare issues, you probably lean toward buying organic, free-range, and other “good” meat. But labels can be confusing at best and, at worst, misleading. Here’s an overview of current beef labels to help guide your choices.

Conventional. Without specialty designations (see below), you’re probably getting beef that was fed corn and other grains on an industrial feedlot, even if it started out on grass (true of all beef, though three-fourths end up on grain). Why use grain feed instead of grass? Because it’s quicker and cheaper, meaning a faster turnaround and higher profits. Unfortunately, cows aren’t designed to eat grain; it’s tough on their digestion, which means they can get sick, which requires antibiotics. Conventional beef is also routinely given growth hormones “to promote efficient growth” (in other words, to fatten them more quickly). Antibiotic and hormone residues must be below FDA levels before slaughter, but their use (and overuse) may lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains and contaminate water supplies (remember the recent news on drugs in the drinking water?). And these issues don’t even touch on problems with how animals are treated.

USDA Certified Organic. Beef is raised on grass or grain-based feed that does not contain animal by-products. Animals are never given antibiotics (unless required by a veterinarian, and then the animal loses organic status) or growth hormones. Cattle also must have “conditions which allow for exercise, freedom of movement, and reduction of stress appropriate to the species” and “access to pasture” —vague terms that leave room for a wide range of interpretation by the grower. Still, the standards are the strictest currently available.

Grass Fed or Pasture Finished. These cattle are raised only on grass or hay, no grain. Studies indicate that grass-fed beef contains higher levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids than conventional beef. But the standard has no legal teeth, so it’s up to the interpretation of the rancher. The USDA is proposing a level of 99 percent grass or forage for this label, but it doesn’t mean the cattle get pasture; they can be fed hay in a feedlot. And it doesn’t address the antibiotic or hormone issue, either. Even so, ethical grass-fed beef growers offer a better environmental option than feedlot cattle growers.

Free Range. This USDA term applies only to poultry (and only means they were given “access” to the outdoors). On beef, it’s meaningless.

No Hormones/No Antibiotics. The USDA allows this label for growers who provide documentation, but they don’t check up on the claims. “Hormone free” and “antibiotic free” are not USDA approved designations and so are meaningless.

Animal Welfare Approved. This new seal comes from the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute, and its main aim is to support family farms and the humane treatment of animals. Its strict standards—and they do check up on them, once or twice a year—ensures that animals were raised on independent farms and were given seasonal access to the outdoors (even if they are finished on grain feed), as well as an appropriate diet without routine antibiotics or hormones. It also emphasizes humane treatment during all life stages, including transport and slaughter.

Also look for these humane-treatment labels:
American Humane Certified (American Humane Association)
Certified Humane Raised & Handled (Humane Farm Animal Care)

Natural. This doesn’t really mean anything in regard to how the cattle was raised. The USDA’s policy is that all fresh meat is natural, and it can’t contain any artificial flavors, colorings, or preservatives. It doesn’t have anything to do with what the animal was fed or how it was treated before slaughter. Producers throw around the term “natural,” often in addition to claims of no hormones or antibiotics, but there’s no way to verify these claims.

The takeaway:
Do your homework and study those labels. Organic might not mean a humane slaughter, nor does grass fed automatically imply hormone free. And natural … well, let’s just say that could mean anything at all. Ask your butcher for the source of the meat you buy. And whenever possible, look for beef raised on a local, sustainable farm.

Also, think about it. Most of us prefer to ignore the fact that we’re eating animals. But if you do eat meat (and yes, we Americans could stand to eat a lot less of it), you should at least know where it came from, and you’ll be glad you made the effort to determine whether it was humanely raised. I recommend a new book called The Compassionate Carnivore: Or, How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald’s Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint, and Still Eat Meat (Da Capo Lifelong), by Catherine Friend, a sustainable farmer and carnivore. It comes out in May.

USDA article: “Beef … From Farm to Table.”

Organic standards

Animal Welfare Institute

American Humane Society

Humane Farm Animal Care