Ethical Meat vs. Meat Hype: A Look at "All Natural", "Grass-Fed" and Other Half-Truths



“This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat will be shoveled into carts and the man who did the shoveling will not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one.”
— Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

Total post read time: 6 minutes.

I have become fascinated by meat in the last several months, after both experimenting with vegetarianism and tracking health data.

The catalysts for my newfound carnivore enthusiasm were two-fold: reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and getting to know local butchers in the San Francisco area. I’ve come to realize that, if conscious eating — knowing where your food comes from and how it’s both raised and killed or harvested — is the key to ethical eating, labels are the new battleground for your mind and dollars…

Marketing departments are excellent at inventing terms that don’t hold companies accountable, as non-enforceable claims (referred to as “puffery” in the business) don’t result in lawsuits. Hair “volumizers”, “age-defying” x-9 cream factor, and “all natural” meat, oh my!

I recently picked up an unusual magazine at the Ferry Building farmer’s market in SF: Meatpaper: Your Journal of Meat Culture. In Issue Six, there was a fantastic overview of label terms — the good, the bad, and the ugly — in an article entitled “It’s a Jungle Out There: What do meat labels mean?”

Please find it below, along with sample labels, reprinted with permission. Comments within brackets are mine.

It’s a Jungle Out There – by Marissa Guggiana

Meat is the only product in the United States that comes with a government seal of approval. Sinclair’s 1905 novel about the grotesqueries of the meat industry inspired outrage and led to the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act. The inspection label (or “bug”, as it is paradoxically referred to by industry folk) was, until recent history, the only label that mattered, promising third-party supervision of the production of an inherently high-risk, high-stakes product.

Today, a new generation of meat labels makes much more ambitious promises. Far beyond simply assuring that meat is sans rat, today’s labels seek to answer consumer concern over animal husbandry practices, like animals’ living conditions and diets. With new worries about food-borne pathogens like E. coli, and new focus on food’s provenance, just about everyone involved in meat, from the federal government to farmers, processors, non-profits, and chain supermarkets, is trying to convey its priorities, and find room on the package to do it.

Some of the claims are backed by USDA authority and have concrete definitions, dutifully recorded in the federal register; some are monitored by animal-interest or environmental groups; some are created by businesses themselves, which employ private auditors to guarantee compliance with their criteria.

Here is a survey of only some of the dozens of assurances your meat makes; hopefully, it will help to clarify.

This means meat that is minimally processed with no artificial or synthetic products. It is not regulated, however, so anyone can put it on their package. This claim has no clout.

COOL (Country of Origin Labeling)
USDA regulated. It states where meat was raised, slaughtered, and processed (and if this means multiple countries, as in the case of some ground meat, they should all be listed).

USDA regulated. It means, very narrowly, that animals eat grass. According to the USDA definition, “grass-fed” animals can also be fed grain, and can be raised on grass in confinement, as long as they have access to pasture.

[As documented in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and elsewhere, “access” can be — and often is — nothing more than a facility with a door to a small outdoor area. Livestock is transferred to this facility after they have been conditioned to remain indoors in a facility with no such exit. Get to know your local butcher or rancher and get to know your meat.]

This means strictly that the animal has some access to outdoors. There is no regulation for use of this term, except in the case of chickens raised for consumption. “Pasture-raised” is a more meaningful term concerning the animal’s welfare.

USDA and third-party certified. This certification means that livestock wasn’t treated with hormones or antibiotics and was fed a pesticide-free diet.

Refers only to an animal’s diet and does not guarantee the animal was pastured or raised humanely.

This article addresses the treatment of living animals. Producers and retailers may also make claims about how the animal is handled between slaughter and purchase. Meat may be wet or dry-aged, frozen, and packaged in various ways.

Many ranches now choose to undergo an audit by third parties such as Animal Welfare Association and Humane Farmed to high-light their extra care. This type of label wards against practices like overcrowding, castrating, early weaning, and denying animals access to pasture. It measures the entire life cycle in terms of animal health and well-being.



This pre-organic standard treats the whole ranching operation as an interrelated whole. While some meats are technically organic, a biodynamic farm assures the meat also came from a healthy, self-sustaining system.

Producers who take part in this affidavit program state in writing that the animals were raised within 20 miles. This label is not certified [or confirmed] by a third party, such as the USDA or a labeling certifier.

Related and Suggested Posts:
How to “Peel” Hard-boiled Eggs without Peeling (video)
The Science of Fat-Loss: Why a Calorie Isn’t Always a Calorie
Real Life Extension: Caloric Restriction or Intermittent Fasting?
Krill Oil 48x Better Than Fish Oil?

Posted on: February 17, 2009.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

189 comments on “Ethical Meat vs. Meat Hype: A Look at "All Natural", "Grass-Fed" and Other Half-Truths

  1. Tim, I agree that one of your best activities is getting to know your local butcher, and make sure they are pretty knowledgeable about what they are selling. I like getting my questions answered by them. For your fruits and vegetables its also good to pay attention to which country they come from since different countries have different standards for pesticides. Its pretty sad how bad food labels are manipulated. The good part is that the consumer is a lot more educated than they used to be. Now if we can lift this dumb ban in California over producing raw almonds (even though you can eat raw fish) that would be a good move.


  2. As an american now living in Brazil, I’m amazed at how much better grass fed beef tastes. The difference in the meat here is very pronounced and you’ll notice that the flavor overall is much different, it’s a stronger flavor and varies quite a bit from cut to cut so that you can choose which cuts you eat not just based on their tenderness but in the different flavors they have, it’s also extremely lean compared to American beef. If you consider yourself a connoisseur of beef I think you are missing out if you’ve never been to Brazil or Argentina(even more so) to try their beef, and no going to the Brazilian or Argentine restaurant at your local mall doesn’t count.


  3. Great article Tim. Most of the “healthy” things people eat are crap.

    When are you going to try a pure raw food diet? That just sounds like a Tim Ferriss thing to be doing.


  4. Thanks tim! We did quite a bit of research in our local area to find a trust worthy local butcher that sources locally farmed ‘free range’ and ‘organic’ meat. conscious of food miles as well. we managed to find 2 such butchers within a 15km of our house, and feel much better for it.


  5. It is perhaps valuable to note that the (appropriate) practice of Kosher law also carries with it a long and detailed list of raising, slaughtering, and handling standards that make it popular choice for MANY health and environmentally-conscious Jews and non-Jews alike.


  6. It comes down to marketing with these labels. They are a direct response to current fads. The same is true for labels on other products that claim a connection to other diets (Adkins) or who offer fat or sugar free products such as cookies. There is a bit of deception in each case. In the case of meat or poultry, it’s particulary important for regulations to be sound.

    Pollan’s most recent book was correct in saying that we are best served by eating mostly plants and limiting our overall intake of food. It’s also true that food is one of the treasures of life and we should enjoy it.


  7. This is precicely why I’ve taken up the practice of buying meat directly from the farm. I sourced out great providers of longhorn steer and bison, bought a freezer, and purchased my meat in 1/4 carcass quantities. It is working out fabulously. And because I am 100% confident in the providence and handling of my meat, I have no problems with eating carpaccio or tartar.

    Thanks for the enlightening post. A few of those murky terms were even more meaningless than I though…



  8. Hey Tim,

    What is your opinion on vegetarianism/veganism? I tried following the diet on your blog for about a month, then turned vegetarian (not sure if as a direct result of your diet :-). I don’t miss meat and it feels healtier.

    What are your experiences? Also sport-wise, since I’m performance-interested and heard animal products are bad for physical performance (source: “The Thrive Diet”, nice read also).


  9. Good info, but I think I tend to subscribe to the “not care” camp. I grew up on a farm, have seen meat processed, etc. And I don’t care. I’ll continue to buy meat at the grocer, or via the county fair, or from the livestock our farm sends to the stockyards. I’ll order steaks and burgers and whatnot from any restaurant in the US. Sure, I’ll tend to stick towards leaner meats when I can, but all in all the whole “labeling” movement seems to mostly be scaremongering by the veggie crowd. Sigh….


  10. Hi Tim,

    I was under the impression “air chilled” was related to the process after slaughter, rather than an interesting visual of battery chickens under an air-conditioner.

    “The air-chilling process, common in Western Europe for more than 45 years, is still fairly new in the United States. It refers to a specific method used to cool chickens after slaughtering. Most chickens in this country are processed by being immersed in ice water. By contrast, air-chilling cools chickens by blasting them with cold air.” – Carolyn Jung – San Jose Mercury News, March 26, 2008 (Courtesy of


  11. This is very timely, I’m in the middle of a 30 day vegetarian challenge and have discovered it’s really not that hard to achieve. I don’t eat red meat outside of the challenge but these labels make me cringe. I can only imagine the horror stories of chicken – part of me does not want to know LOL

    I’d love to see more posts on your veggie venture!


  12. I stopped eating meat and all animal products (including dairy and eggs) almost 4 months ago. Before this I was eating meat 3 meals per day. There is tremendous peace of mind knowing that generally speaking, the food you eat won’t kill or harm you, and of course, you are not exploiting animals to feed yourself. I was a serious carnivore my entire life but going vegan was not as hard as some people might think. As for sports and workout performance, I exercise hard 7 days per week, including 3 days per week of weight training. You have to pay attention to how you feed yourself, but this is no different than when you eat meat – you can be undernourished no matter what your diet is. There is plenty of protein from many non-animal sources (legumes, soy, nuts, etc.) – it makes a lot of sense to go vegan if you are concerned about the quality and health issues behind consuming animal products. You should try it!

    – Leo


  13. I raise pastured poultry and eggs, and the fact is, everyone is approaching the issue backwards. The first thing to find out is, “Who has the best stuff, and how good is it?” If the best is good enough, the next issue is, “How can I get stuff like that in my neck of the woods?” Instead, the focus is on the kind of stuff that’s already flowing through supermarkets and health-food chains, which means it’s from high-volume producers. Wrong place to start.

    Top quality in meat and eggs requires thoughtful, sympathetic handling at every stage. You can taste the level of care — it’s better than any label. Stupid tricks like giving a flock of hens a tiny, barren yard won’t make the eggs taste any better, while raising them with low-density methods on a green pasture will.

    The other Achilles heel is that the good stuff is expensive. My eggs go for $5 a dozen, but in a city supermarket, they’d have to go for $10. Lots of people prefer factory-farmed eggs with a feel-good label to that kind of price.


  14. If you are interested in further reading. I would suggest The Jungle, the book you quoted. It was a great read.I originally found it through Fast Food Nation.

    If you are interested in the talking to butchers approach, I would also recommend The Confessions of a Butcher: Eating Steak on a Hamburger Budget by John Smith. J.D. over at Get Rich Slowly did a great review if you only have a few minutes.




  15. Hi Tim,
    Thanks for trying to care.
    I’ve been a vegan for 32 years.
    I love it when my meat eating friends at least look at how the animal was
    treated and try and make the most human and healthiest choice.
    Aside from the inhumane slaughter and raising conditions-going vegan is the best thing you can do for our Greenhouse gas issues.
    United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions than automobiles. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.
    Anyway-whatever you do, it’s great you are experimenting!


  16. The lies and half-truths perpetrated by food manufacturers are astounding. What’s even more astounding is that people (literally) buy into it. For example, the term “organic”. It has been so overused to make it nearly meaningless. What is healthy about a pop-tart that is “organic”? Is it nominally better for you than a regular pop tart? Maybe, but certainly not as much as the marketers would have you believe. Mark Sisson did a great post about his awhile back. It is one of my favorites:

    He’s also touched on the meat issue recently…

    Thanks for the great material, Tim. Keep up the great work.