Free Range, Grass-fed, Pasture Raised..... Making Sense of Confusing Consumer Labels.
Grass-fed beef. Grass finished beef. Pastured pork. Free range chickens. Natural. Never has there been a time in the food industry where there has been so many claims, so much terminology, and so many LABELS. Gone are the days of choosing between Wonder Bread and brown bread, American or Velveeta, or simply white or brown eggs in a styrofoam container--oh, and then there was margarine. When I was little my mom would buy margarine (which was white in color) that came with a little packet of yellow dye. She would take that little packet of dye and knead into the margarine by hand to make it look more yellow; you know, look more natural. YIKES! That's like spray painting a dead yard the color green.
Fast forward to today, we find ourselves rediscovering that old school cooking methods are now new again, and brands are catching onto that too. The grocery store has SO many choices and SO many labels--many of which promising a return to an old school, more natural way of cooking), that I often feel an INFORMATION OVERLOAD. Sometimes I just want to fugetaboutit and send my better half to the store, and have a Calgon moment:
By the way, does your husband ever go to the store for you and bring home items you never knew existed?
We are all told to "Read the Labels," but some labels are confusing and they can be misleading with claims that are not all what they are cracked up to be. I was once a misguided shopper until I started reading and researching what all these labels mean. I agree with the lyrics from the 80's band The Fixx: "Why don't they do what they say, say what you mean, one thing leads to another".
So to help you know your labels, here is simple list of label definitions mostly pertaining to beef and chicken to help you the next time you head to the store.
According to the USDA, "natural" products must be minimally processed; does not fundamentally alter the product, and contains no artificial ingredients, or added color (there goes my mother's margarine). It really has nothing to do with what the animal was fed. Fresh meat that was minimally processed, can be labeled as "natural," but does not necessarily mean it's organic.*
Organic does not mean that it is grass-fed. "Organic is a term meaning that the meat is being raised without antibiotics or hormones and must have a diet free of synthetic products, pesticides, or fertilizers and GMO's. The animal can either be grass-fed OR grain fed with certified organic grains free of GMOs, pesticides, and fungicides."* For a farmer to become certified organic, they must pass strict regulations set by the USDA. We grow certified organic crops on our farm, and for our operation, we are required to fill out the necessary paper work, keep a journal of our farm activities, and be inspected by an organic certifier from California. With increasing demand for organic food (according to Organic Market Analysis the revenue for organic products reached $49.4 billion in the U.S.), the U.S, is importing organic products from other countries which do not always meet or guarantee the same quality standards. My suggestion would be that if you're wanting to purchase organic products, look for produce grown in the USA, or--better yet--shop locally.
* The Grass-fed Gourmet Cookbook by Shannon Hayes: pg 24
"Conventional" cattle (grain fed or grain finished) usually begin their first part of their lives being raised on grass before beginning a diet of grain. Conventionally raised calves may supplemented with a "free choice" grain ration. Conventional cattle are "finished" for the last 150-200 days in a feedlot operation where they will receive a diet of grains, forages, and other nutritional supplements.
One might think the labeling of grass-fed and grass-finished is basically the same. But it was originally confusing for me. When I hear the word "finished" I assume that it was most likely finished on grass but maybe had grain some time early in its life. But on the contrary, beef labeled as grass-finished means refers to animals ONLY fed a diet of grass and forages after it's time of weaning until time of butcher. Animals that start on a diet of grass but eat a diet of grain the last thirty days can still be considered grass-fed. This does not automatically mean that they are hormone or antibiotic free or organic. One would have to certify their pastures in order for the beef to be certified organic. We opted to certify our grass-fed beef as "100% grass-fed." This means that the animal is given grass 100% of the time: NO GRAIN EVER. Giving a cow grain would ruin the health benefits why one raised a cow on grass in the first place. The best way to know about where your beef comes from and how it is raised is to find a local farmer and ask questions. Take a visit to their farm and see their operation first hand.
There are so many options today when it comes to the incredible, edible egg which, by the way, was blacklisted a few years as toxic to your health .
Surprise! It's not. Eggs are one of natures most perfect foods and come in all sizes, colors, and.....LLAAABBBEEELLLSSS.
Here are a few definitions:
According to the USDA guidelines, in order to be "free-range," "Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside."* This can mean the chickens are kept indoors (not in cages) with some access to the outside. If you have a huge building with 1000s of bird and only a tiny percent going outside, you can still be considered a "free-range operation".
I know this from personal experience. I purchased a flock of "cage free" birds a while back to add to my collection of layers, and after arriving home I proceeded to put them into our barn for a few days. The stall had a door that was open for them daily, but to my dismay they refused to go outside because they didn't understand the concept of going outside. I don't know if they were scared of the sunlight or what, but eventually I had to acclimate each one to the fresh air by literally tossing them outside, one by one and shutting the door behind them.
"Free range” is one of the most potentially misleading labels because of the discrepancy between what it implies and what is required to make the claim. The “free range” claim on a label suggests that the animals were able to range freely outdoors; however, the claim does not have to be verified through on-farm inspections, and producers can make the claim on a label as long as the animals were given some access to an outdoor area of unspecified size. For chickens, this outdoor area does not have to be big enough to accommodate all birds. Source: greenrchoices.org
The USDA Cage Free definition: "Eggs packed in USDA grade-marked consumer packages labeled as cage free must be. produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle". Therefore, cage free does not mean any access to natural light or to the outdoors. There is no improvement for the quality of the egg.
PASTURED RAISED OR LOCALLY GROWN
Pastured chickens are birds that are raised in such a manner that they spend most of their days being chickens; eating bugs, scratching the dirt and enjoying the sunshine as well as eating a daily ration of grain (chickens as well as pigs are omnivores, which require grain). The use of mobile chicken tractor are often used to move the flock to fresh areas of grass daily. If you are going to look for truly pastured eggs, be ready to pay, Vital Eggs, a pastured organic egg company receives $8.99 per dozen. If you are concerned if the quality is worth the price I suggest that you seek out a local farmer to whom you can ask questions and see for yourself how they are raised. Local eggs are fresh eggs.
I hope this helps you become a more label educated consumer. In summary: ask questions, get to know your local farmer, and be thankful that we live in a country blessed with so many options.