Giving veganism an honest try in my late teens ended in failure. Don’t get me wrong, I love eating mostly plants but my body and soul demanded more. It wasn’t an easy transition back as I became wise to the inhumane treatment of animals and the fact that so many of them are laden with hormones and antibiotics. So I re-entered an omnivorous way of life with my eyes wide open in a way that they never were before.
Wanting to gain insight into how animals were being raised, I learned about factory farms and the use of antibiotics and hormones on livestock. I went to college in a cow-tipping community thus I was surrounded by animals in open pasture just beyond the hills of the school. My wheels were turning. Niman Ranch popped up on my radar just about then—someone actually cared about our furry friends!
Practically speaking, I started reading labels with a more scrutinizing eye. I only wanted to eat meats that were humanely treated, raised without drugs and were given vegetarian feed (if not grass fed)—not easy to come by at that time. By the late 1990’s into Y2K, more consumers were starting to catch on. The Meatrix, a public awareness campaign on factory farms hit the scene and I no longer felt like the only one asking questions.
But there was a ton to navigate, as meat and poultry producers started using terms like “natural” and “free-range” very loosely on their packages causing more consumer confusion. So let me help you by de-mystifying some of the most common terminology when it comes to animal foods (with deep gratitude to Grace Communications Foundation for the info):
This term is most often applied to egg laying hens, not to poultry raised for meat. As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as “cage-free” are raised without using cages, but almost always live inside barns or warehouses. This term does not explain if the birds had any access to the outside, whether any outside area was pasture or a bare lot, or if they were raised entirely indoors in overcrowded conditions. Beak cutting is permitted. No independent third party verification.
Defined for poultry meat only. In order to use “free roaming” or “free range” on a poultry meat label the producer must demonstrate to the USDA that poultry have access to the outdoors. However, the type of outdoor access provided (such as pasture or dirt lot), the length of time animals are required to have outdoor access, and how this is verified is not legally defined, and therefore varies greatly from facility to facility. There is no guarantee that birds actually go outside. When used to describe laying hens and other animals, the terms “free range” and “free roaming” are not legally defined at all, and there is no requirement to demonstrate that birds and animals have even had access to the outside, let alone any reference to other management practices. No independent third party verification.
100% of the diet of grass-fed animals consists of freshly grazed pasture during the growing season and stored grasses (hay or grass silage) during the winter months or drought conditions.
This term refers only to the diet of cattle, sheep, goats, and bison. It does not indicate if an animal has been given access to pasture, or if it has been raised in a feedlot and/or given antibiotics or hormones. The USDA definition goes on to state that “if for environmental or health of the animal reasons supplementation can be used if the producer logs the type and amount.” Hence, feedlot cattle could be fed harvested forage and supplements, antibiotics and synthetic hormones and still bear the USDA grassfed label. The American Grassfed Association (AGA) has an independent third party certification program available to ranchers. The AGA certified program is recognized by FSIS (the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service) and verifies a 100 percent forage diet, raised on pasture that has a minimum of 75 percent cover, no confinement, no antibiotics and no added hormones. Meat purchasers seeking truly grassfed meat should source AGA certified products.
A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed). As defined by the USDA, the term applies only to how meat from the animal is processed after it has been slaughtered. It is important to note that this commonly used term is used for meat or livestock products it does not refer in any way to how an animal was raised, so the farming system may have involved feedlot and confinement systems or the routine use of antibiotic growth promoters, for example. No third party verification.
Defined by the USDA. The terms “no antibiotics added” may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the Agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics. Antibiotics are given to animals, such as cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens, to prevent or manage diseases. Although the USDA is accountable for proper use of these claims, there is no verification system in place.
The term “no hormones administered” may be approved for use on the label of beef products if sufficient documentation is provided to the Agency by the producer showing no hormones have been used in raising the animals. Hormones are commonly used in the commercial farming of animals such as cattle to speed the growth rate or to increase milk production. Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
All products sold as “organic” must meet the USDA National Organic Program production and handling standards. Certification is mandatory for farmers selling more than $5,000 of organic products per year, and is verified by an accredited certifying agency. In general, organic production limits the use of chemicals, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other inputs. However, it does not strictly define production practices related to space per animal or outdoor access requirements – for example, confinement areas are permitted to fatten organic beef cattle.
In general, pasturing is a traditional farming technique where animals are raised outdoors in a humane, ecologically sustainable manner and eat foods that nature intended them to eat. Animals are raised on pasture rather than being fattened on a feedlot or in a confined facility. Note this term is not regulated.
Animals have been fed a diet free of animal products. This does not mean animals were raised outdoors on pasture or were fed a 100 percent grassfed diet. No independent third party verification.
So, clearly I am not begging you to be a vegan—that’s not realistic for many. But I am asking you this:
- Learn how to navigate labels
- Buy from your local farm or farmers markets whenever possible—it supports your health and that of your community
- When you go out to eat, ask questions about your meat like where it comes from (or stick with the non-meats if more comfy)
- Understand the environmental impacts of factory farms (if you are so inclined to dig a little deeper)
- And try to go vegan just one day a week as it’s better for your health and the environment
You know something is “hip and cool” (or at least worth talking about) when it makes the Saturday Night Live cut. A few weeks ago, Justin Timberlake, dressed as a large piece of tofu, promoted Veganville in a hilarious tribute to the benefits of going vegan!
Let’s keep this conversation going. Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions. I would love to hear from you!