As a butcher working behind a meat counter, everyday I see the confused look on people’s faces as they are presented with the choices as to which meat to buy. You just want some ground beef to make tacos after a long day of work. Simple enough, right? So you walk up to the meat counter and ask for some ground beef, and then I chime in: “Do you want grass fed or grain finished beef? Would you like organic or all natural meat? What percantage of fat do you need?” I see the look in your eyes, the look that says, “I JUST WANT SOME GROUND BEEF!” It’s like walking into Starbucks (or your favorite non-corporate local java joint- whatever floats your boat) and trying to get away with just ordering a latte. You just figured out that ‘tall’ means ‘small’, and now it’s happening with your meat too; there’s a whole new vocabulary to learn.
I hate to break it you, but it’s not going to get easier. And just like you learned how to order your venti-non-fat-no whip-extra shot-hazelnut latte, you’ll soon be able to make informed choices about purchasing meat. I’ve put together a list of the most common terms associated with meat and a rather lengthy description of what they mean. This is going to be long, and if you aren’t interested in the current trends of food, this will bore the shit out of you. If this is you, no hard feelings; just skip to the end, watch the funny video, and patiently wait for my next awesome post about bacon. If, however, you do find yourself growing more confused over the rapidly expanding lexicon of meat terminology, you may find this useful.
Let’s get to it.
This is probably the most abused term of all. ‘Natural’ is one of the greatest marketing scams in the grocery business. I could launch into the topic of how the FDA doesn’t even bother to define ‘natural’, but I’m going to stay on track and discuss how these labels apply to meat and poultry, not your Doritos. Meat and poultry are generally under the USDA’s jurisdiction, so according to the USDA, natural is defined as:
“A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).”
Or you can read the longer version here.
You were probably doing fine until you got to ‘minimally processed’. What that heck does that mean? In a nutshell, minimally processed means that from the time the animal was killed to the when it gets sealed in a package to be shipped to the grocery store, it didn’t come in contact with more machines or ingredients than necessary to make safe and ready to eat.
Now that sounds like a good thing, right? Of course it’s a good thing; I’m not trying to suggest it isn’t. It’s not what ‘natural’ means that causes a problem, it’s what it doesn’t mean that can cause the most confusion.
For most consumers when they see the term ‘natural’ on a package of chicken, they don’t think to themselves, “That means minimally processed with no artificial ingredients or colors.” Most likely that word will trigger images of a chicken hopping around eating worms, sun shining on it’s feathers, birds chirping in the background, Louis Armstrong singing ‘What a wonderful world’, etc, etc, you see where I’m going with this. That’s how the term is such a marketing scam. To label meat or poultry as ‘natural’ means jack squat about how the animal was raised. The animals can still be pumped full of antibiotics and steroids, raised in a cage without enough room to turn around in, never see the light of day, and still be ‘natural.’ It’s what happens after the animal has been killed that determines whether it’s a ‘natural’ product.
There are companies that do go above and beyond this standard, and use the term ‘natural’ to also include “meat that is raised without the use of antibiotics and growth hormones.” To help clarify, the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA has created a new term, ‘naturally raised,’ to refer to meat from animals never treated with hormones or antibiotics, but these are still not standards for the living conditions of the animal.
It may seem as if I am suggesting that all companies that sell ‘natural’ meat are not to be trusted, but this is not the case. Some companies really do offer a product that fits with the image of natural you have in your mind; they take good care of their animals and they feed them a healthy diet, but still use ‘natural’ to describe their product, mostly for lack of better terminology. ‘Natural’ sells and it has become ingrained in our description of food.
Bottom line- When you see meat that is marketed as natural, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask, “Could you please explain what ‘natural’ means in regards to your product.”
Unlike the claims that a product is ‘natural’, the organic label has national standards. For a product to bear the organic label the consumer can be assured that their food is produced without antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, irradiation or bioengineering. There are also rules that apply to the humane treatment of animals. That’s the short and sweet version, but here’s some more detailed info:
The organic label on meat implies several things:
1: That the animals diet is certified organic. Whether it is grains, corn, potatoes, or grass, whatever the animals are eating has been grown in compliance with organic standards.
2: The land that the animals graze on has undergone the three-year process of converting the soil to organic status. There is a conversion process consisting of building up the fertility of the land. Soil and natural fertility building are important parts of organic farming. This relates to point 1, in that everything the animals eat must be organic.
3: The animals are eating a diet with no GMO’s. You can find more info on GMO’s here. An important note on this- GMO’s are practically in everything we eat. If you don’t see an organic label on something, it has been made with GMO’s, or (if it’s meat) it was fed a diet containing GMO’s. If you are concerned about GMO’s in your diet, the organic label is currently the only way to ensure that a certain food is devoid of them. GMO’s are kind-of a hot topic; I’m not an expert and, if you want more information, I encourage you to do your own research.
4: The animals must be slaughtered and processed on equipment that either a) only processes organic meat, or b) has been completely cleaned and sanitized after processing non-organic meat. This is also true on a smaller scale, e.g., in our butcher shop we have organic and non-organic meat; we have to grind and cut the organic meat before we contaminate the equipment with non-organic meat. If we cut a non-organic item on our butcher block and then cut an organic item on the same block without sanitizing, the organic meat loses it’s organic integrity and can no longer be sold with the organic label.
5: The USDA states that organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and direct sunlight, opportunity to exercise, and appropriate clean, dry bedding.
6: This applies to all food items but I’m bringing it up in reagrds to meat items that are more than just a single ingredient, ie: sausages, lunch meat, bacon, etc. A product can have the USDA Organic label if 95% of all the ingredients meet organic standards. If the product is 100% Organic it will say exactly that, and if a product uses 70%-94% organic ingredients it will say Made with organic ingredients.
Now, one last point I want to make about organic, just to confuse you, is that some farms do practice organic farming and ranching and are not USDA certified organic. Why, because to become certified a farm or ranch must be audited through a third party organization that is accredited by the National Organic Program. Some states offer this through their state’s agriculture department and some states require a private party certifier. Some of these private party certifiers demand a certain percentage of the ranch or farms’ gross income in order for them to maintain their organic certification. So while there are some ranches out there that would like to become certified organic, they have to politely say, “F**k you private party certifier” and just keep on doing their thing without the ‘organic’ label.
A quick note on the use of antibiotics and growth hormones. We think of antibiotics as something you take when you’re sick, but antibiotics are routinely added to grain feed as a growth stimulant. This means it helps fatten up cows and chickens so they can be sold for higher prices. In herds that are being raised organically, or to be sold as ‘antibiotic free’, if an animal does become sick and require the use of antibiotics for medical reasons, the animal will be treated but then removed from the herd and sold to another rancher who doesnt make those claims for their meat.
Growth Hormones have been prohibited in the use of all poultry since the 1980’s, but are still used in beef and dairy cattle.
Ok, those are the two big ones. If you’re about ready to start banging your head against your desk I assure you the rest of these terms aren’t nearly as lengthy and complicated. Let’s keep chugging along, the only way out is through.
(Actually, another way out is to just stop reading, close this page and start watching cat videos on youtube, but this is way more entertaining, right? Right…?)
This term usually only applies to the four legged creatures commonly raised for human consumption, like cattle, bison, sheep, goats, elk, and venison. For something to bear the Grass-Fed label, the animal must have only consumed grass it’s entire life, no grains. This might also be marketed as “Grass-Finished” (I’ll explain what “finishing” is next). A common misconception is that grass- fed also means organic, which is not true. The animal can be 100% grass fed, but if the grass isn’t certified organic, then neither is the animal. Grass-Fed beef is higher in omega-3 fatty acids, some vitamins, and minerals than grain finished beef. It is also very lean and usually lacks the marbling that you can find in grain-finished beef.
Cattle generally spend the first two-thirds of their life grazing on grass and are then ‘finished on grain.’ This means that the last one-third of their life their diet is either supplemented with grain,corn, and soy, and, in most cases, are sent to a feedlot for this finishing stage. The purpose of this is to fatten them up. Grain-finished beef generally has superior marbling than grass-fed beef. Another benefit to grain-finishing is financial; cows are sold by weight, so the heavier the animal the more money the rancher can sell them for.
This means that the animal was raised on a pasture it’s whole life, i.e., that the animals can roam freely in a natural environment, and (for cattle) are never sent to a feedlot. Pasture-Raised doesn’t necessarily mean that the animal is 100% grass-fed; the animals diet can still be supplemented while still allowing the animals to roam.
In the United States this term only applies to poultry. I’ll probably do another post on the humane treatment of poultry where I’ll discuss ‘free-range’ in more detail, but for now I’ll just keep it brief. Free Range means that the animal has been allowed access to the outside. This term gets tricky, as it also sometimes cashed in on as marketing tool. To “be allowed access to the outside” does not necessarily mean the chickens are raised outside for the better part of their lives. Chickens are usually raised in either cages or large houses and, if they are raised in a large house, free range could just mean that there is a small door on the side of that house that the owners can open for an hour a day to allow several chicken outside. Its definetly better than nothing, but if animal welfare is a concern or priority of yours, a product with the free-range label is similar to something being natural; it’s better than nothing, but doesn’t tell the whole story.
This is another term that applies to poultry. You’ll see lots of eggs marketed as ‘cage-free’. Again, this is hard to get into without discussing the humane treatment of poultry, but it is common for chickens to be raised in cages; cages that don’t allow the birds enough movement to stand up or even flap their wings. Again, if animal welfare is a concern of yours, at the very least, buy cage-free.
This is less common, but some poultry companies are now offering ‘air-chilled’ chicken. Air-chilling is a processing term that has nothing to do with how the animals are raised or what they are fed. After a bird is slaughtered (or killed, polished off, snuffed out, whatever euphamism you like) it is required that the carcass be cooled down to a certain temperature within 2 hours. The most common practice is to use an ice water bath. During this water bath the chicken will absorb some of the water which is why on all packages of poultry (except air-chilled poultry) you’ll see, in fine print, some text that says: “retains 3% (or more) water from processing”. Seriously- go to your fridge and look at your package of chicken; it is required to say that somewhere on there. This water retention is from the water bath, and is also why chickens usually shrink a little when you cook them- because that water is cooking out. Also, if you buy poultry by the pound, you are paying for that water weight. Air chilling is a process of cooling the poultry carcass by hanging it in a cold room, thus negating any water retention. Air chilling generally results in a juicier chicken with a better flavor and texture than water-cooled chicken. The process of air-chilling is very popular across Europe and is slowly becoming a trend in the United States.
And we’re done! You made it, hopefully you found this to be helpful. I tried to cover all the big ones, but if I left any out feel free to drop me a line and ask away. That’s one of the points I really want to get across as well, ASK QUESTIONS! It can be confusing buying groceries with all these regulations on food. Never feel dumb for asking questions, the only reason I know any of this stuff is because it’s my job. I had to learn all this from square one and I still have to do research sometimes. If your brain hurts, maybe this will help: