4 Tips for Sizing Up ‘Grass-Fed’ and ‘Organic’ Meat

What the labels tell you about nutrition and humane care

Mature woman checking package of meat, rear view, close-up

Labels let farmers trumpet the virtues of their meat and poultry to consumers. Some of these labels impact your health. Others appeal to your conscience. All can lighten your wallet.

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Which labels should you pay more for? That depends on whether you care about nutritious food, humane farming methods or both. Here are four points to consider.

  1. Grass-fed meats give you the edge nutritionally

The health benefits of eating meat from grass-fed animals vs. grain- or corn-fed animals are clear. A new study documents 50 percent more omega-3 fats in meat from grass-fed, free-range animals than from conventionally raised animals. Grass-fed beef also has less total fat and more polyunsaturated fat.

Grass-feeding also lowers the risk of diseases spreading from animal to animal. However, the USDA no longer determines the standards for “grass-fed” labeling, so products labeled this way do not represent identical conditions. And grass-fed labeling does not address the use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides.

  1. Organic means better food for the animal — and you

The USDA’s organic label means animals were never given antibiotics or hormones, which can lead to antibiotic resistance and other problems for humans. Feed must be organically grown — without genetically modified organisms, synthetic fertilizers, chemicals or sewage sludge — and contain no animal byproducts.

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The organic label also means animals have outdoor access, and for grazing animals, that means constant access to pasture. Still, that access may be very limited, and humane raising and handling are not addressed.

  1. Don’t assume grass-fed means 100 percent grass-fed

Those of us who grew up with cows tend to think that beef cattle spend their entire lives eating only grass. But the truth is that most of these animals are “grain-finished.” This means that after spending the bulk of their lives eating grass in pastures, they are moved to feedlots to be fattened up with grains.

The “grass-finished” label is used by some producers to indicate that animals were allowed to forage on pastures their entire lives..

But don’t be fooled by the “free-range” or  “pasture-raised” labels. The USDA free-range label only means animals have access to the outdoors; it doesn’t say how much access. And there is no legal U.S. definition for pasture-raised animals. So animals may roam pastures and forage for grass and plants during growing season, then be switched to grains during the winter.

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  1. Third-party labeling is the most trustworthy

Auditing and certification by third parties is the surest way to guarantee humane treatment and organic meat. Animal welfare approved (AWA) is the gold standard. Meat with this label comes from animals fed organically, raised on pastures or ranges by independent farmers, and handled in strictly humane fashion.

If you can’t find meat with the AWA label, look for American Grassfed Association (AGA)-certified. This means beef, bison, goat, lamb and sheep never received antibiotics or hormones. Raised, unconfined, on pastures, they received a 100 percent forage diet and were born and raised on American family farms.

Another good bet is the certified humane label from Humane Farm Animal Care. This ensures humane handling and treatment of cattle, goats, pigs, sheep and bison. Animals were not confined, their access to the outdoors was unlimited, and they received no hormones or antibiotics (except for sickness). This label also guarantees humane methods of slaughter.

The bottom line

Tinkering with how animals live and with how they eat results in lower quality meats. You’ve got a lot to gain by reading labels. Those that show that an animal lived close to nature mean more nutrient density for you, the consumer.

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Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian and wellness manager for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
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