Decoding Meat Labels
“So much of the intelligence and local knowledge in agriculture has been moved from the farm to the laboratory, and then returned to the farm in the form of a chemical or machine...As a culture we seem to have arrived at a place where whatever native wisdom we may once have possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety.” - Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
The number of marketing terms used to describe the meat we eat is enough to make your head spin! What’s worse, many of these terms are unregulated and practically meaningless (but designed to sound good).
Free-range? Cage-free? Grass fed? Naturally raised? What do these really mean when you see them at the butcher counter?
The unfortunate truth is almost all the meat we consume in Canada comes from factory farms, which has extremely negative consequences for our health and the environment. That’s why it is more important than ever to know what you are buying and what your food dollars are supporting.
No matter where you get your meat from, here is a cheat sheet so you know exactly what to look for the next time you talk to your butcher.
First, some basics...
This is an unregulated, meaningless term that is almost always used for “greenwashing” – unless it’s substantiated by specific practices like some mentioned below. It is typically meant to deceive consumers into thinking they’re getting a higher valued product. Don’t fall for it!
While organic is an important (and regulated) label to look for when buying produce, “organic meat” is more complicated. When it comes to meat, organic certification primarily means that antibiotics, hormones, GMOs, and chemicals were not used in the feed or the raising of the animal. It doesn’t necessarily assess if the animals were ethically raised on pasture or in a crowded barn. It also doesn’t consider if the animal was fed their natural diet. To put the Certified Organic standard into perspective, cattle raised exclusively indoors and fed organic grains (which they’re not naturally meant to consume) could be labelled Certified Organic. If you only have the choice between organic and non-organic (with everything else being the same), the organic version will be better...but there are other important factors to consider when it comes to meat.
“Pasture raised” is the opposite of commodity / factory farmed meat and is one of the most important terms to look for. Pasture raised is what it sounds like – animals raised out on natural grass fields, where they consume their natural diets, including a variety of wild grasses, bugs, etc. On pasture, animals avoid unnecessary stress (and outbreaks) from confinement and absorb valuable nutrients from nature – benefits that get passed along to you in the form of nutrient-rich protein!
Raising animals on pasture is more time consuming and requires working with the land’s natural cycles. For example, when pastures are covered in snow during the winter, cattle are fed dried/fermented grasses harvested from the prior summer. Unfortunately, pasture raised is an unregulated term, which is why it’s critical you know your farmer or trust where your meat comes from! It’s important to note that “pasture raised” is not the same as “free range” or “free run”, which we’ll talk about below.
“Antibiotic free” vs. “Raised without antibiotics”
Antibiotics are used extensively in factory farming. They are commonly used to prevent disease and outbreaks, which are largely the result of unnatural diets and confined living conditions. When overused, antibiotics can become less effective and lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These bacteria, including Salmonella and E. coli, can be transferred from animals to humans through their meat, sometimes causing serious infection and even death. Making matters more complicated, “antibiotic free” does not mean the animal was never given antibiotics – it just means the animal hasn’t had any antibiotics in its system for a predetermined period before being processed. “Raised without antibiotics” on the other hand should mean the animal never received antibiotics.
Hormones are used to unnaturally accelerate animal growth. Hormone treated beef has been banned in the EU since 1988 due to its links to reproductive cancers and risks to child growth development.
Canada still permits the use of growth hormones in beef, but not in dairy cows, poultry, and pork. It’s a misleading marketing gimmick when you see “hormone free chicken” or “hormone free pork” – all meat (except for beef) is hormone free in Canada.
Genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”) are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated through genetic engineering. Most GMOs have been engineered to withstand the direct application of herbicides. In other words, animal feeds that come from GMO crops are much more likely to have been sprayed with harmful chemicals – you definitely want to avoid these.
Regenerative agriculture describes a variety of farming practices that improve the land, rather than degrade it like most of conventional agriculture. These practices rebuild soil organic matter and restore degraded soil biodiversity, which improves soil health and, as a result, actively draws carbon out of the atmosphere to store (or “sequester”) in the soil. Because regenerative agriculture can actually remove carbon from the atmosphere, it is widely regarded as one of our best tools in the fight against climate change.
Sustainably Raised, Humanely Raised, Ethically Raised.
These are unregulated terms in Canada – so while they’re important in practice, they might be completely meaningless. This is another reason why it’s critical you know your farmer or trust where your meat comes from.
Cage free / free run
Cage free and free run are very similar and don’t mean a heck of a lot when it comes to meat (eggs are a slightly different story). Unlike “free range”, which requires some access to the outdoors, cage free animals are only required to be able to move freely within a barn. By law, chickens (and turkeys) raised in Canada for meat consumption are never housed in cages – so when you see “free run chicken”, you can quickly dismiss that as a meaningless marketing tactic. In fact, if you see “free run” on a package of chicken in Canada, you should (by law) also see a tiny star next to it accompanied by tiny print saying, “like all chickens in Canada.”
In contrast to free run birds, free range birds must “have access” to the outdoors. However, since there is no legal definition of free range in Canada, this can vary from farm to farm. While some farms can provide great outdoor access for their animals, other farms still pack their “free range” animals into overcrowded conditions with only a small access point to the outdoors (which many of the animals don’t even know exists!).
Now some specifics for each meat type...
100% grass-fed beef or grass fed AND finished (vs. “grass-fed”)
This is one of the most important distinctions to look out for – and unfortunately, many food companies and butcher shops (even high-end ones!) frequently use the misleading, unregulated “grass-fed” label.
Remember, almost all cattle (even those from factory farms) eat some grass even though they were unnaturally fattened up on a grain-based diet. Unfortunately, only 2% of beef in Canada comes from cattle that are 100% grass-fed – it’s incredibly difficult to reliably find.
But why should cows only eat grass?
Cows are “ruminant animals” as they possess a complex digestive system, which includes a rumen. This makes them highly specialized to digest grass and take in those valuable nutrients (something humans can’t do), and ultimately pass those nutrients along to you! As a result, 100% grass-fed beef has a much higher nutritional content (and a more authentic flavour) than conventional beef. By comparison, cows fed an unnatural grain-based diet are exposed to numerous health problems, often resulting in high uses of antibiotics. Instead of passing along the nutrients of grass, grain-fed beef pass along an unhealthy fat composition (as well as anything else they are given to offset their unnatural grain-based diet).
Don't get fooled by labels. Instead, look out for the term "100% grass-fed" or "grass-fed and grass-finished" so you know you're getting the good stuff. But once again, it pays to know your farmer and if they have sprayed their grasses with harmful chemicals.
A, AA, AAA, Prime
The grading of (conventional) beef in Canada is rated from A to Prime and is perhaps one of the most meaningless things to look out for. This system essentially just looks at the amount of intramuscular fat the meat has (“marbling”). This system doesn’t give any consideration to how the cow was raised or what it ate (or any other important information, for that matter).
Pasture raised chicken
Unlike free-range or free-run chicken, pasture raised chicken come from birds that have spent most of their lives on pasture, where they can graze naturally. Chickens are naturally omnivorous, so out on pasture they get to live out their natural tendencies by pecking/scratching for grass, worms, and bugs – their favourite! Better yet, those natural nutrients get passed along to you in the form of more nutrient-rich protein.
To protect chickens from predators (primarily at night), they are often housed in portable shelters, which are moved frequently to fresh pastures. One thing to keep an eye out for is if the farmer sprays their pastures with harmful chemicals.
Grain-fed or corn-fed chicken
Unlike cattle, chickens are omnivores, so eating grains / corn is not a bad thing – in fact, almost all chickens are fed grains. Most grains (including corn) are industrially produced (i.e. sprayed with harmful chemicals), so you should ask if the chicken was fed organic or non-GMO grains. Also, as omnivores, chickens should be consuming wild grasses, worms & bugs – something they’ll receive if they’re raised on pasture.
Heritage breed pork
Most factory farmed meat comes from breeds of animals designed to produce high volumes of meat for the lowest cost. In other words, breeds (like the Yorkshire pig) that gain weight in horrible conditions and get sick less frequently are the ones commonly raised in factory farming.
On the other hand, heritage breed pork tends to grow slower and require more care. These breeds (including Berkshire, Tamworth, Mangalitsa, and others) are better suited to living a natural outdoor life, where they root around in the soil, wallow in the mud, and consume natural nutrients. They often have better flavour (read: more fat!) and are unlikely to be raised in a factory farm. Once again, it pays to trust where your meat comes from and know if your farmer raised their heritage breed pigs outdoors.
Unfortunately, almost all of the meat we consume in Canada comes from factory farms – which is wreaking havoc on our health and the environment. Trying to find meat that checks off all the “important” boxes above can be very time-consuming and frustrating. Making matters worse, many grocery stores and butcher shops use a variety of misleading marketing terms to make you think you’re receiving a high-quality product.
There are some companies shaking up the status-quo. If you’re finding it difficult to reliably source top quality meat, check out Sunday Farms. We work with many local farms who raise animals the old-fashioned way – out on organic pastures and fed their natural diets. We do all the heavy lifting for you and then bring everything right to your door.
Charlie Iscoe is the co-founder of Sunday Farms, and a passionate foodie. He worked in the fast-paced investing world in New York for over a decade before returning home to Toronto in 2020. After spending his entire career in research and investing, he started Sunday Farms after researching and uncovering the many shortfalls of industrially produced meat.
>>Sunday Farms is a participating business with Healthy Moms, offering a discount on their subscriptions to our Healthy Moms cardholders. Check out their listing here for details.