Friday, March 12, 2010

What's In My Meat?

It’s getting harder and harder to be an informed grocery shopper today, particularly when it comes to buying meat. Between “free range,” “organic,” and “natural,” options, it’s hard to know what kind of lives our chickens lived before they became thighs and breasts, or what hidden ingredients might be in our hot dogs. But behind these often vague labels are specific regulations that are monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Safety Inspection Service. What the label says about your meat:

Organic: Animals have been fed organic feed and raised without antibiotics or growth hormones using other management methods to minimize disease. They must be allowed access to the outdoors, but the amount of access is not specified under regulations. Organic farms are inspected by government-approved officials. Products labeled “made with organic ingredients” must be at least 70% organic; those labeled “organic” must contain at least 95% organic ingredients.

Natural: Meat has been minimally processed (in a way that does not “fundamentally alter the raw product”) with no artificial (synthetically- produced) ingredients.

Free range: Animals must have open-air access for at least five minutes a day. Other factors such as the density of animals are not specified.

Grass-fed: After weaning, animals are fed only grass and other forage, are able to engage in natural grazing behaviors, and can continuously access to a pasture during the growing season. However, at other times they may be confined and fed grass indoors. (See more on grass-fed beef in a recent New York Times blog post.)

Cage-free: Virtually all poultry raised for meat is “cage-free,” but egg-laying hens that are not cage-free are often kept in cages that greatly restrict movement. Cage-free animals do not have to have access to the outdoors.

Certified humane raised and handled: A non-governmental organization certifies farms that allow animals to engage in natural behaviors with sufficient space and that do not use antibiotics or hormones.

For the perpetually curious, the USDA also has a Meat and Poultry Hotline that accepts food-safety related questions.

Photo: Cage-free chickens
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