“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.
HUMANELY RAISED; CERTIFIED HUMANE
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.
OTHER LABEL ITEMS:
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.
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