What’s the Deal With Grass-Fed Meat and Understanding Food Labels?

Hello All!

I'm being paid peanuts to write this blog

I’m being paid peanuts to write this blog

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that is certified to be fed mostly on peanuts.

In this edition, we’ll discuss the often misunderstood and misused terms surrounding food and nutrition such as non-GMO, organic, local, naturally raised, and grass-fed and look into the science of raising animals and livestock nutrition as it applies to animal and human heath, impact on the environment and of course taste.

Finally, we’ll delve into the rising interest from people into their food and what topics folks should really be focusing on as newly educated consumers. Regardless, it should be a topic that we all sink our teeth into.

Foodie Vocabulary: #Organic

one of the simplest organic molecules

one of the simplest organic molecules

To a chemist, organic means something completely different than in the general lexicon and on food packaging. In plain terms, organic simply means that at the molecular level, the substance contains Carbon – Hydrogen bonds and forms molecules that make up living things – so all living things are carbon based and organic (that we know of).

Organic in terms of its relation to food has come to mean that the product was grown or raised without synthetic (or human made) chemicals such as pesticides or non-organic feed. This distinction is very difficult to confirm from the farm to the table because of all the steps involved and the different distinctions and regulations on the labeling of “Organic.”

Let’s delve into this further. (I’ll wait for the kids to leave)… gone? Good.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines “organic” to be:

“A labeling term that denotes principally products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990… Organic farming entails:

  • Use of cover crops, green manures, animal manures and crop rotations to fertilize the soil, maximize biological activity and maintain long-term soil health.
  • Use of biological control, crop rotations and other techniques to manage weeds, insects and diseases.
  • An emphasis on biodiversity of the agricultural system and the surrounding environment.
  • Using rotational grazing and mixed forage pastures for livestock operations and alternative health care for animal well-being.
  • Reduction of external and off-farm inputs and elimination of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and other materials, such as hormones and antibiotics.
  • A focus on renewable resources, soil and water conservation, and management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological balance.”

Important to know is that the USDA under the updated Farm Bills and Organic Food Production Act  for the first time attempted to regulate what foods are considered organic and what can be labelled with the organic designation.

A good sign the food you're purchasing is organic

A good sign the food you’re purchasing is organic

In terms of USDA Organic labels that you will see, here are the precise definitions:

100% USDA organic means that the product was made or grown and processed with only organic ingredients. Certified Organic means that 95 – 99% of ingredients follow the organic growing and processing rules.

Also important to know is that there are distinct differences between what is considered USDA certified Organic (ie., what is regulated / allowed) and what many people consider 100% organic. While the USDA does significantly limit synthetic chemicals such as pesticides and biological stimulants, there are many allowable substances that are considered toxic or outside of other definitions of organic food production.

Foodie Vocabulary: “Local”

As the “local-vores” will ascertain, local food is better for consumers and the planet because it requires fewer steps in the supply chain, fewer resources to transport to market, supports the local economy, and is often connected with organic food production.

Farm to table

Farm to table

Sounds great, but the actual food term “local” is not specifically defined by the USDA and there is no actual geographic limit or range despite the connotation of the term. The U.S. Congress attempted to define “local food” as being sold within 400 miles of its origin. Other definitions have been recorded by farmers markets and other organizations – so the term is still a bit of a grey area.

Foodie Vocabulary: “Natural” and  “Naturally raised”

“Natural” as it refers to meat products is defined by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services as minimally processed with no artificial colors, chemical preservatives, or other synthetic ingredients. “Naturally raised” is a label that cannot be affixed to food products, only the live animals themselves as the two terms as food labels could confuse consumers.

Foodie Vocabulary: “Grass-Fed”

When people think of grass fed meats, many immediately jump to the cost aspect of the product, recalling the $17.50 / pound they paid (or didn’t pay) for a tenderloin steak at the supermarket, not realizing that the grass fed label is difficult to define and may in fact not be the best practice in raising the livestock.

blue skies, green grass, fed cows

blue skies, green grass, fed cows

The USDA grass fed marketing standard affixed to any grass fed meat product requires the animal to only have been fed on grass and forage and not have been fed any grain or grain product or animal by-products. The only exception is milk prior to weaning (see mammal, definition of).

Foodie Vocabulary: “Non-GMO”

This is the least understood and perhaps most controversial of all the labels and standards related to food products and agriculture. GMO as many readers know stands for “genetically modified organism” and is actually a very difficult thing to define. For most people, GMO has come to mean that the plant or animal had its genetic code modified through DNA manipulation or genetic engineering of a specific gene such as an insecticide producing plant. The most famous of these is so called “Bt Corn,” corn which produces a protein taken from a bacterial gene from Bacillus thuringiensis that is toxic to the corn borer worm. So, Bt Corn no longer is palatable to the corn borer worm, leaving it worm free.

well, a different kind of experiment

well, a different kind of experiment

Genetically modified could also mean simply selective breeding. Since the beginning of human agriculture roughly 10 million years ago, we have been genetically modifying organisms that produce larger yields, grow better in inclement environments, and produce more nutritious food. Though no one knew this until much later, selectively breeding certain crops and animals was modifying the genetics of crops and livestock. In a sense, since your parents probably selectively chose each other, YOU the reader, are an example of a GMO.

POW, mind blown…

Many people have issues with the fact that much of the food they purchase came from seeds that had its genetics modified to repel insects, withstand drought, or grow incredibly large. This stance has led to a massive movement and bills in the U.S. Congress to force food producers to put labels on products that are genetically modified. Through pushback from food companies and others the current bills have stalled or failed in Congress and GMO labeling has not yet become a national requirement.

Given the increased concern of GMOs, many more studies are beginning to be conducted on GMO crops to test for potential food safety issues, but simply more transparency from agricultural science companies who produce GMO seeds such as Monsanto would be a nice start to help consumers understand how their food is grown.

At the same time, many people see an enormous potential for GMOs to cut into the issue of global hunger by providing small scale subsistence farmers with crop varieties that produce more nutritious yields.Revised-Seal-copy

In terms of food labeling, if the consumer wishes to avoid GMOs (a trying prospect) they can follow the 100% USDA Organic label which does not allow GMOs or they can look for the Non-GMO project verified sticker which is an independent organization (non-USDA verified).

The GMO topic is one for a future blog post, but for now, let us return to the food before it became food.

“That Cow is like, so Overweight – The Farmer Should Put it On a Diet”

Many people think they have an idea of what livestock should be eating so that the meat product is healthy, nutritious, and that the animal lived a healthy life. While the notion of a healthy life of the animal is important to the taste and ethical treatment of animals, there are many misconceptions about what livestock should be eating.

Arteriodyctala? I didn't sign up for a phylogeny lesson!

Arteriodyctala? I didn’t sign up for a phylogeny lesson!

This is in part due to the public’s lack of knowledge of plant nutrition, animal digestive systems and the misunderstanding of food labels. A prime example of this is the pig and the misconception that “only grass-fed” is good and / or healthy for the pig as it is raised.

While foraging for grass can be part of the hog’s diet (they will eat grass, shrubs, and trees), hogs -member of the order Arteriodyctala, or the even-toed Ungulates- are omnivorous and monogastric like humans, meaning in the non-domesticated natural setting, they subsist on many different food items such as fruits, flowers, roots, insects, and yes, even meat and bones. Due to this dietary smorgasbord of options for proper growth, domesticated pigs should be a fed proper diet that can include grains or other forms of carbohydrates including (gasp!) corn and soy along with leafy plant material such as alfalfa for vitamins and minerals. Without the diverse diet, pigs would not be able to achieve their full adult growth – and pork product potential.

“Pastured pork” would be a more appropriate term to use when searching for responsibly raised pork. If it can be verified that the hog was actually raised on soil and was able to obtain nutritional requirements with the forage in the pasture (roots, acorns, pecans, legumes, etc.) with or without outside supplementation, then this is about as close to pastured pork as you can get.

Most conventional hog farms that raise pigs in large, confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) feed a diet of corn and soy only, with little to no green forage. Most of these operations also feed the hogs sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics to promote faster growth and protect the immune system in the crowded, confined environment. The risks that are posed to human health with this method of raising hogs with the constant use of antibiotics should be a concern to anyone purchasing meat. More on this topic later…

The important thing to remember for the oinkers is their living environment and the derivation of their protein. The same applies for chickens. Chickens, as birds, are not primarily grass eaters and like most birds acquire most of their nutrition from many items such as grains (seeds), fruits, insects, and more. Chickens and other fowl will consume grass, forbs, and shrubs for essential nutrients, but it is not the only part of the diet. So if you were to actually see a grass-fed chicken, you wouldn’t be getting much meat off of the nutritionally deprived bird.

Classic Barnyarders

Classic Barnyarders

The ruminants, a sub class of the Ungulates, include such classic barnyarders as cattle, sheep, and goats. The diet of the ruminant can and should consist of mainly grass because of the way their bodies can process the often indigestible cellulose and fibrous portions of most grasses. These amazing digesters have a 4 chambered stomach which enables the animals to digest cellulose and other fibrous long-chain carbohydrates that monogastric animals cannot. Digestion of plant material can be converted into long term energy storage for the animal and is important to milk production.

the beta bond shown in red

Cellulose: The Unbreakable Bond (unless bacterial friends come along)

(Specifically, vertebrates at the biochemical level cannot break the beta-glycosidic bond of cellulose in order to digest most plant fiber. Ruminants contain within them microbes which can break the bond for them and ferment the material).

Given their symbiotic relationship with bacteria and chambered stomachs, a foraging diet consisting of herbaceous plants (grass, forbs, shrubs, tree leaves) makes great sense for cattle, sheep, and goats. The grass-fed label therefore should be associated specifically with beef, sheep (lamb), and goat (chivo).

Interestingly, the raising of ruminants on grass-fed production may be a solution to issues of food distribution and hunger in certain developing countries. Grass-fed ruminants demand less grain in their diets and therefore are not competing for food resources with humans. The nutritional quality of the forage and availability of sufficient foraging space should be taken into account before such a solution is met.

What Does the Animal Want?

In relation to how livestock products taste, contain nutritional value, and their usage of resources, what is important are the conditions it was raised in (stress, space, etc…), any use of hormones or antibiotics, and then its feed. Animals raised in crowded, dirty environments with cruel treatment will experience higher stress levels and are more likely to contract illnesses and affect the taste of the meat once it reaches market.

If grazers are grass fed but are mismanaged, significant damage can occur to the landscape as has been the case in the American Southwest and the Sahel in Africa. These large tracts of formerly prominent grasslands have been desertified or have lost their soil nutrient values due to overgrazing. In certain dry grassland environments, grazers must be kept moving otherwise they will (seemingly obviously) eat all the grass in front of them, leaving nothing behind. Making sure there is sufficient grass remaining is as important as the raising of the animal itself – for the benefit of the environment as well as the future of livestock grazing.


some studies have found the antibiotic Triclosan to be one of the most prevalent compounds around

some studies have found the antibiotic Triclosan to be one of the most prevalent compounds around

The most worrying of the issues concerning livestock, agriculture, and food labels – much more than GMOs- is the overuse of antibiotics on livestock. In general, humans overuse antibiotics for themselves from hand soap to shampoo to toothpaste. Antibiotics overuse has led to the rapid evolution of harmful microbes that no longer respond to antibiotics – bacteria known as “superbugs” that have been devastating hospitals around the country. According to the FDA, more kilograms of antibiotics are used on livestock than are used on humans, or about 80% of all antibiotics sold.

In one study, estimates show the presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in over 50% of meat products – a telling statistic of the overuse of antibiotics in animals. But why are antibiotics used on animals so much? Shouldn’t they only be given when animals are sick?

Ideally that should be the case. Interestingly though, certain antibiotics called Growth Promoting Antibiotics (GPAs) given to livestock increase their growth because the antibiotics kill off some of their gut bacteria which allows the host animal (cow, etc…) to gain more nutrition from food, reduces toxins, and promotes more efficient nutrient absorption. So, farmers have an economic incentive to give animals unnecessary antibiotics to grow larger more quickly.

Antibiotics use in animals has its roots back to 1948 when scientists experimented with juvenile chickens and a variation of Vitamin B-12 from bacterial remnants. It turned out that the bacterial remnants contained traces of antibiotic which was responsible for rapid growth of the chickens. This spurred a new industry of antibiotics for animal growth.

overuse of antibiotics leads to resistant bacteria or "superbugs"

overuse of antibiotics leads to resistant bacteria or “superbugs”

Circling back to animal treatment, the addition of antibiotics to animals in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) can lead to not only stress but also easy transfer of bacteria and infections from animal to animal. This is one of the reasons why farmers and stockyards have used antibiotics in a non-therapeutic way – as a preventative measure. The problem with this is of course that this can increase the rate of antibiotic resistance from the sharing of genes from bacteria to bacteria that have acquired resistance.

Responding to public pressure, industry spokespeople have maintained that the use of Growth Promotion Antibiotics (GPAs) are necessary to maintain the economics of their industry and that the risks to humans are minimal. One review of studies concluded that the benefit of GPAs on cattle outweighed the increase in microbial resistance, but the CDC recommends that GPAs should only be administered to animals by veterinarians when the animals actually need antibiotics (ie. when suffering from a bacterial infection). Another study on the economics of GPAs tested the removal of the use of antibiotics on broiler chickens and found little to no change in cost of production and an actual increase in animal value.

Countries such as Denmark have eliminated the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in all CAFOs, and those operations are still in business. Farmers, government officials and veterinarians come together regularly to discuss, argue and finally come to a consensus on the use of antibiotics in CAFOs. If they can figure it out, why can’t we?

Conclusion: What Should We as Consumers Decide?

Now that you have now been thoroughly brainwashed with the foodie vocabulary, facts about animal digestive systems, and the use of antibiotics in confined feeding systems, what kind of meat would you prefer? All of a sudden, your new-found knowledge may change or reinforce your previous views – or have caused you to become a vegetarian, (or an animal biologist fascinated by ruminant digestion. All of these are possibilities).

This New Zealand farm is probably where all those dogs get sent away to

This New Zealand farm is probably where all those dogs get sent away to

If grass fed is the desired purchase when looking at beef and lamb, and the grass-fed lamb from New Zealand is cheaper than the grass fed lamb 20 miles down the road (local), which do you choose?

Most people would choose the former – ‘Why pay more when I can get the same thing for a better price?’

Please stop and think about this, as there should be warning bells sounding. Is there something wrong with grass fed lamb from 10,000 miles away being more affordable than grass fed lamb grown in our own country? For that matter, how do you know it is really grass fed, or raised responsibly? Was it killed humanely? How much additional carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere to get it here on that huge barge across the Pacific?

After some thought about this, you might still choose the less expensive deal as we do have to face the reality of limited budgets. However, it might be worth it to check out the more local grass fed lamb, beef, goat, pastured pork and chicken, etc. just to see how the animals are raised and if nothing else, get a better deal if you buy it directly from the farmer or rancher. Maybe at the farm or ranch you find that the meat is not certified Organic, or the pigs have a large open-air dirt lot to run around on rather than endless pasture, and the grain the pigs are fed isn’t Non-GMO because it is just not available.

An allegedly content animal

An allegedly content animal

Despite these imperfections, do the animals seem content? Perhaps you notice that the people raising the animals enjoy what they do and want to keep doing it, or they employ conservation measures on their land, or are teaching the next generation how to milk a goat.

It may not be fancy, but maybe it is worth educating yourself just to see if a local farm or ranch could supply you with healthy food. In doing so, you not only support your foodie preferences, but you support an entire agrarian way of life that only promotes overall health and well being.

Until we’re given a food label ourselves,

Your Faithful Historian / Animal and Range Scientists,

Vanessa J. and Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:

Application of biotechnology to nutrition of animals in developing countries. Chapter 3 Basic Ruminant Nutrition. Application of biotechnology to nutrition of animals in developing countries [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 20]. Available from: http://www.fao.org/docrep/004/t0423e/t0423e03.htm

Estabrook, Barry. 2015. Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York.

Graham JP, Boland JJ, Silbergeld E. Growth Promoting Antibiotics in Food Animal Production: An Economic Analysis. Public Health Reports [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 21]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc1804117/

McBride, W.D., N. Key and K.H. Mathews Jr. Subtherapeutic Antibiotics in U.S. Hog Production. Review of Agricultural Economics 30 no. 2 (2008): 270 – 88, naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/36676/PDF.

MSU Extension. Grass finished beef marketing update. MSU Extension [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 20]. Available from: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/grass_finished_beef_marketing_update

Natural Resources Defense Council, “Newly Disclosed Documents Show FDA Allows Livestock Antibiotics Use Despite “High Risk” to Humans” (press release), nrdc.org/media/2014/140127a.asp.

Home | OTA. Home | OTA. Home | OTA [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 21]. Available from: http://www.ota.com/

Organic Production and Organic Food: Information Access Tools. Organic Production and Organic Food: Information Access Tools. Organic Production and Organic Food: Information Access Tools [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 20]. Available from: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/ofp.shtml

Organic Regulations. Organic Regulations. Organic Regulations [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 20]. Available from: http://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic

UC Health – UC San Diego. UC Health – UC San Diego. UC Health – UC San Diego [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 21]. Available from: http://health.ucsd.edu/news/releases/pages/2014-11-17-dirty-side-of-soap.aspx

Union of Concerned Scientists. “Hogging It!: Estimates of Antibiotic Abuse in Livestock”, ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/industrial-agriculture-/hogging-it-estimates-of.html.

USDA ERS – Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues. USDA ERS – Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues. USDA ERS – Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 21]. Available from: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err97.aspx

Wallace, H.D. Biological Responses to Antibacterial Feed Additives in Diets of Meat Producing Animals. Journal of Animal Science 31 no. 6 (December 1970): 1118 – 126, journalofanimalscience.org/content/31/6/1118.full.pdf.

Waters, Andrew E. et al. Multidrug-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus in U.S. Meat and Poultry. Clinical Infectious Diseases 52, no 7 (April 2011), full text at cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/04/14/cid.cir181.full.

eCFR — Code of Federal Regulations. eCFR — Code of Federal Regulations. eCFR — Code of Federal Regulations [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 20]. Available from: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?sid=722a65360984947d91f48c16343dc7b7&mc=true&node=sg7.3.205.g.sg0&rgn=div7







About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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