PINE RIVER – In a previous article, we looked at how the corporate takeover of food production has changed the production practices of the food we eat, how nutritional value has declined, and highlighted some of the adverse effects on animal welfare and the environment.
This article presents the alternatives to conventional agricultural products available to us. We will try to understand the maze of labeling associated with these products.
Each year, a greater percentage of food purchased in the United States is organic. This food contains the “USDA Organic” label.
In 2019, 5.8% of food sold was USDA Organic.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s organic certification program prescribes rules for how food is produced and processed, and how animals are managed. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are not allowed and plants are grown without exposure to synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.
However, organic pesticides are acceptable and can end up on fruits and vegetables. To date, the long-term effects of biological pesticides on health have not been studied.
With meats labeled “USDA Organic”, animals must be fed organic diets. Unless the packaging specifically says “Grass Fed”, the cattle were most likely grain fed.
Animals must also have access to the outdoors. However, access to the outside is not clearly defined, so in practice having access to the outside does not mean that they actually go outside.
Additionally, animals cannot be treated with medications, including growth hormones or antibiotics. Although this decreases drug residues in meat, it can increase animal suffering because sick animals cannot be treated with antibiotics and other drugs.
These sick animals can then be sent to the slaughterhouse since their illness cannot be cured. This increases the risk of more diseased meats ending up in the human diet.
Another packaging label we find is “Grass-Fed Beef”. Numerous studies have shown that cattle, fed mostly grass, have less total fat, six times more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, less saturated fat, more antioxidants, and fewer calories.
These findings have led many doctors and hospitals to recommend eating grass-fed beef instead of conventional grain-fed beef.
Despite the fact that “grass-fed” conjures up an image of contented cattle grazing in lush pastures, there is no requirement that the animals graze on pasture. In practice, many of these cattle are raised in feedlots, and while they don’t eat grains, they may be fed a variety of industrial food waste, like discarded fruit (think pesticides and herbicides), potatoes, sweets, etc.
“Grass-fed beef” labeling allows the use of growth hormones and other medications. Three organizations verify “grass-fed beef:” American Grass-fed Association, A Greener World, and Pro-Cert.
These certifications probably give more assurance about the handling of the animals, but the certification does not guarantee that the farming practices have been inspected and approved.
Other packaging labels, found especially on poultry, are “Free Range” and “Pasture Raised”. These terms give the impression that chickens and turkeys are raised outdoors and are free to roam.
However, the terms are poorly defined. The USDA requires some outdoor access but does not specify how long or for how long.
Additionally, there is no space requirement for the birds and the USDA does not inspect farms. In practice, most poultry are housed in overcrowded barns and may stick their heads out on occasion.
“High pasture” has no definition and it is unclear what this label implies.
An alternative label is “Certified Humane”. This tag defines “free range” as no more than two birds/square foot and outdoor access for at least six hours a day, weather permitting.
Certified humane “high pasture” is defined as no more than 1,000 birds per two and a half acres, and birds must be rotated between fields.
You will also find many other food labels. Most labels do not have a standard definition and have often been added by the processor to market their product.
For example, chicken and pork products frequently state “No hormones or steroids added” or “No hormones or steroids”. If you look closely, you will also find a disclaimer stating that federal regulations prohibit hormones or steroids. Therefore, it is nothing more than a sales gimmick.
In conclusion, the labeling is confusing with terms that do not necessarily represent what they say, and are limited to non-existent on-site inspections to verify compliance.
Knowing what these terms don’t mean, as well as what they mean, helps us be informed buyers. In a future article, we will look at the additional choices we have in buying healthy foods.
(References to all factual information cited are provided upon request and comments and questions are encouraged: [email protected])
Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann are custodians/directors of the nonprofit Balsam Moon Preserve at Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability, and renewal.