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.

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. Pingback: Tuesday 1/12/10 «
  2. Tim,
    Thank you, now I can take this list with me and find cheaper, qualified cuts. Beats paying their advertising budget!

    Kosher sounds like another avenue of approach too. Instead of passing that section, I might be better off expanding my tastes.

    Any good results with “Paleodiet”?



  3. I`ve been contemplating this topic for years. From Westin Price, who traveled around the world in the 1930`s for a decade studying the health of people and how it is influenced by what they ate, to the newer China Study and Paleolithic Diet material.

    I think there is a big genetic influence on how meat affects our health. There has been no major culture in history that was vegetarian that I know of. Meat minus the man made poisons that can get in there seems to be very health promoting, provided it is not over consumed and not over cooked.

    For my vegetarian patients, I strongly recommend they supplement a cold processed whey protein powder. In addition to providing essential amino acids, the research done shows that it increases glutathione levels in the body that detoxify us and keep us healthy.

    I don`t know if any of you have been to a biodynamic farm, but they are totally ridiculous on how stringent everything is done with alignment of the planets and stars. The herb grower I use for my natural medicines did a test run on growing crops in the regular organic way and another field done biodynamically. They found the the colors and smells were much more intense and fragrant in the biodynamic field. Reluctantly he made the switch. Even though it is a lot more labor intensive, the health that it produces in the crops and then to people is unmistakable.


  4. I’ve been a vegan for 6 years, and haven’t been sick once in that time period. My vitamin and nutrient levels were just checked and all well within average ranges, and my cholesterol is 122. My ‘good’ cholesterol is actually better than my ‘bad’.

    As for the ethics of it, it’s my view that future societies will surely look back in horror that our species routinely made meals out of sentient, intelligent beings. It seems that one of humanities greatest evolutionary accomplishments, is the ability to choose compassion — to not harm another creature, when surely, we easily could.


  5. Personally I find a rather interesting connection between two ideas here:

    As ‘modern’ society has become more and more dependent on refined starches, causing massive health problems and widespread diabetes and other endocrine disorders. I’ve read several very good books that seem to point in the same general direction as the “Slow Carb” diet Tim speaks of on the blog.

    When we started feeding cattle grain instead of grass, they get fat, they get sick, they become unhealthy for us to eat, even “disastrous to our health” as some would say. This clearly should NOT apply to healthy, naturally fed animals, now should it?

    Likewise, shouldn’t we see that the mammals we enjoy eating, when overfed and gorged on starches and carbs, become sickly and fat? We’re not that different. Now…I haven’t done extensive research on this, but the ‘meat is harmful to humans’ rhetoric of many veggies (especially in these comments) sets off my BSometer.

    (It does seem clear in many ways, that some people do have the genetics to thrive on carb rich diets, I’ve always been one who could eat anything I want, but my wife has spent her life sliding down toward a hereditary case of obesity and associated health problems, following her mother, sister, and both grandmothers, thankfully we’re putting a stop to that)

    Personally, I believe we were *given* domain over the animal kingdom, and the NEED to eat animal protein to truly thrive. That doesn’t give us the right to abuse or neglect the creatures we raise, nor to treat them harshly. The Law covenant from ancient Israel even forbade boiling a kid in it’s mother’s milk, I see that and other guidelines as evidence of a very caring Creator.

    (I’ve seen a rather severe rash of prejudice against religious beliefs in the comments here, which I really don’t understand. People that say things like “one religion is as stupid as any other” quoted from the comments here, simply make themselves sound ignorant. To some, science is every bit a ‘religion’, believed blindly, with shouts of ‘hallelujah’ and fainting in the aisles when they feel a new bit of evidence for their theory has arrived.

    I learned the scientific method something like this: Hypothesize>Test>Examine Results>Conclude. A huge crowd seems to Conclude>Look for Evidence>Ignore any evidence that contradicts your conclusion. Likewise, religious sorts shouldn’t look at the earth and say it’s only 6000 years old, cause that isn’t the case. The words don’t say anything like that.)

    On that note, I really like the way Tim’s posts work most of the time. He notices a pattern, either in research or in experience, and comes up with a hypothesis. Then, he tries it out. IF it works, great! If not, adjust hypothesis and try something different. THIS, kids, is SCIENCE.

    Personally, I see merit in becoming a 5th level Vegan, don’t eat anything that casts a shadow. Definition of Vegetarian > Bad Hunter XD (I’m an excellent marksman, but I hate hunting.)


  6. Tim, have you found out what the optimal intake of meat is to lead the healthiest lifestyle? E.g. meat every day, twice a week, twice a month? And what kind of meat, e.g. pasture-raised, organic, etc?


  7. I just watched Food Inc. which makes this post very relevant to me. I strongly recommend everyone watch this movie, it is a great insight into the daunting machine that is America’s food industry.

    Having just moved to Sweden to pursue a more education (don’t remind me) I have found myself surrounded by vegetarians. Up until this point I have eaten meat carbs and good fats. I have paid little attention to vegetables because they don’t provide the “caloric return on investment of time” that the others products do. With that said, I am really enjoying being pseudo vegetarian.

    Long winded post, but long story short, both the combination of education and environment has steered me away from the meat industry.


  8. Some powerful vegan quotes (some from some of the most profound thinkers of our history): –

    One farmer says to me, “You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make the bones with;” and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying himself with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle. ~Henry David Thoreau

    You put a baby in a crib with an apple and a rabbit. If it eats the rabbit and plays with the apple, I’ll buy you a new car. ~Harvey Diamond

    Man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat until he eats them. ~Samuel Butler

    We don’t need to eat anyone who would run, swim, or fly away if he could. ~James Cromwell

    The beef industry has contributed to more American deaths than all the wars of this century, all natural disasters, and all automobile accidents combined. If beef is your idea of “real food for real people” you’d better live real close to a real good hospital. ~Neal Barnard

    A mind of the calibre of mine cannot derive its nutriment from cows. ~George Bernard Shaw

    You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Truely man is the king of beasts, for his brutality exceeds theirs. We live by the death of others: we are burial places! I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look on the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men. ~Leonardo da Vinci

    I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other…. ~Henry David Thoreau

    While we ourselves are the living graves of murdered beasts, how can we expect any ideal conditions on this earth? ~George Bernard Shaw

    I think if you want to eat more meat you should kill it yourself and eat it raw so that you are not blinded by the hypocrisy of having it processed for you. ~Margi Clark

    “Thou shalt not kill” does not apply to murder of one’s own kind only, but to all living beings; and this Commandment was inscribed in the human breast long before it was proclaimed from Sinai. ~Leo Tolstoy

    We manage to swallow flesh only because we do not think of the cruel and sinful thing that we do. Cruelty… is a fundamental sin, and admits of no arguments or nice distinctions. If only we do not allow our heart to grow callous, it protests against cruelty, is always clearly heard; and yet we go on perpetrating cruelties easily, merrily, all of us – in fact, anyone who does not join in is dubbed a crank. ~Rabindranath Tagore

    Can you really ask what reason Pythagoras had for abstaining from flesh? For my part I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of soul or mind the first man did so, touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, he who set forth tables of dead, stale bodies and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived. How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the stench? How was it that the pollution did not turn away his taste, which made contact with the sores of others and sucked juices and serums from mortal wounds? ~Plutarch

    To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. I should be unwilling to take the life of a lamb for the sake of the human body. ~Mahatma Gandhi

    Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet. ~Albert Einstein

    Would you kill your pet dog or cat to eat it? How about an animal you’re not emotionally attached to? Is the thought of slaughtering a cow or chicken or pig with your own hands too much to handle? Instead, would hiring a hit-man to do the job give you enough distance from the emotional discomfort? What animal did you put a contract out on for your supper last night? Did you at least make sure that none went to waste and to take a moment to be grateful for its sacrifice? ~Anonymous

    My body will not be a tomb for other creatures. ~Leanardo da Vinc

    Live simply so that others may simply live. ~Gandhi

    Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. ~Gandhi

    A nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way it treats its animals. ~Gandhi

    Silly person….. Eating flesh is for zombies, ~Anonymous

    You can’t eat your friends and have them too ~Franz Kafka

    All the arguments to prove man’s superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: In suffering, the animals are our equals. ~Peter Singer

    There’s no such thing as ethical meat I’m afraid.


  9. One thing that always get’s me lately are the amount of people that are against the killing of bulls in Spain. I can understand if the argument comes from a vegetarian, unfortunately those screaming the loudest are rabid carnivores who have most likely never been to an abattoir.


  10. Very interestin site i like the part about different beef and diffrent methods of production beef gotta be one of the best sources of protein you gotta love it.
    keep up the good work ill be back again thanks john gray


  11. I buy from a local butcher shop that sells only traditionally Mennonite raised meats. I find it annoying at times that meat labelled ‘organic’ can be SO MUCH more expensive… I literally pay the same amount (and sometimes less) buying Mennonite-raised meat than the crap they sell at the supermarket. So I highly recommend this, or Kosher of course. I used to be a vegetarian for a few years but no matter what it gave me health problems – some people cannot function with no animal products no matter how much they tweak and supplement their diet (this is actually a principal of Chinese medicine too).

    One thing I find interesting that people never point out when making a case for vegetarianism/veganism is that there are literally people who, besides having certain metabolisms or genetic types, CANNOT be vegan because of food allergies. For example, my sister is allergic to nuts, soy and yeast… so how in the world could she ever be vegan? It’s impossible, she would die of malnutrition. To me this proves that at the very least, veganism is not for everyone.


  12. Great article. I’m going hunting this weekend. Something I’m really scared of doing. I was a vegetarian for a while.

    I think if I am going to be sticking to meat for health reasons, I should be able to hunt my own natural, organic animals. If I can’t do it, I am determined to go back to being veggie once again.

    If I can do it, I am going to try to stick to eating more game meat. The most natural, organic and healthy food you can get hold of out there!


  13. I was expecting to see something about corn fed beef or something to that effect. I’ve heard multiple people say that it’s not good to eat corn fed beef, but haven’t confirmed it myself.

    Tim, you should do a followup on this talking about what meats YOU personally eat. (Maybe you have and I haven’t seen it.)