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Is Organic Meat Worth It?

While chatting about trends in organic food, my friend Sandra boldly declared, “I don’t care if it’s grass fed or spoon fed. I just want to know if it tastes good.”

She has a point. If it doesn’t taste good, the discussion ends there. However, organic meat does taste good, very good. So if that’s all you need to know, consider the issue resolved. If you still aren’t sure why you’d want to pay more to get the good stuff, you may want to know a bit more about what you’re actually eating when you sit down to that nice, juicy steak.

As I’ve become more aware of what’s involved in meat production, I’ve also become much more keen to source organic, grass fed beef for the occasions I choose to eat it.


On the organic side of the equation it boils down to this: the last thing I want entering my body is genetically modified corn, pesticides (sprayed on the corn), hormones and antibiotics, passed down to me in the form of beef.

  • Cows in the industrialized meat industry are fed GMO corn.
  • Corn is a grain, which cow stomachs are not designed to digest.
  • Mass-produced cattle are also fed animal by-products. Note: cows are herbivores. Feeding them their kin is messed up on many levels. Remember “mad cow” disease…
  • Cows are ruminants, they chew their cud. In the industrialized food process, cows are kept closely packed together and cannot lie down to chew their cud.
  • Cows are kept in such close quarters and in such great numbers that disease is easily spread, hence the heavy dosing of antibiotics.
  • The only priority in commercial farming is profit, so cows need to fatten up quick. That’s where the growth hormones come into play.

Cutting out the carcinogenic chemicals and going organic was a no-brainer, especially when I learned that all the nasty stuff collects in the fat of the animal. Fat is also what gives food its flavour so if you want tasty meat, you are eating fat.

Grass Fed

Then there’s the “grass fed” part of the equation. Why  not choose beef that’s organic and be done with it? Or choose “naturally raised” beef?

Well, if you’ve never seen how mass-produced cattle are raised, just wonder for a moment why it’s called “factory farming.” Really, it’s just like that. No pastoral scene of mother and calf, this.

  • Grass fed cows eat grass. Not grain and not other cows. That’s more healthy.
  • Grass fed means a cow has had access to grass. In a field. At liberty. With other cows, doing what cows do.
  • Cows need to chew their cud to digest their food. It’s what nature intended. In a field, there’s room for a little ruminating.
  • Stockyards used to be where cowboys drove their cattle after life on the open range. Now, they may live almost their entire short life there. To me, that is inhumane.
  • Cows are animals, not machines. The research is very clear — they have feelings, they need to socialize, they develop bonds. Providing them an opportunity to live without undo stress seems the least we can do.

If you are still one of the few who believe the treatment of animals is no big deal, you can hold to that opinion and still recognize the value of grass fed beef. When I thought that way, I still couldn’t believe there was much nutritional value in a cow eating food it was never meant to eat, in an unnatural environment.

The Final Word

Don’t take my word for it that. You need to know enough to decide what matters to you. Just don’t stay in the dark about where your food really comes from.

The resources are endless, but here are a few to get you started:

Our Daily Bread the Movie
FRESH the Movie
King Corn the Movie
Food, Inc. the Movie
The Food Revolution by John Robbins
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Ecoholic by Adria Vasil

Readers, I welcome your comments on books, movies or other resources you’ve found helpful in understanding all that goes into choosing healthy food. Please leave a comment and share…

Food Labels: Naturally Raised (or Natural) Meat

Food Label Tag GreenExcerpt from Ecoholic

“According to the CFIA, this label should mean the animal was raised without human intervention (i.e. vaccines, hormones or antibiotics). Some health stores use the term on their meat to mean hormone-, antibiotic-, GMO- and animal-by-product-free, as well as free-range. But the feed isn’t organic.”

Excerpt from GreenerChoices.org

“If you came across a package of ground beef with a “naturally raised” label on it, it might conjure up images of animals roaming freely and grazing on open pasture. But unfortunately, that’s not the case with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new voluntary standard for the naturally raised claim, which the agency issued on January 16, 2009.”

“For livestock used for the production of meat and meat products, the USDA’s naturally raised marketing claim standard:

  • Prohibits growth promotants (including growth hormones);
  • Prohibits animal byproducts in feed—which are implicated in causing mad cow disease; and
  • Claims to prohibit antibiotics (but allows ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control).

While those are important practices, Consumers Union believes only specific product claims should be allowed, such as ‘no antibiotics or hormones ever administered’. They should not be couched under a vague and misleading term that does not address how the animals were raised, their main diet, treatment of animals, space requirements, and other concerns.

“This regulation will allow an animal that has come from a cloned or genetically engineered stock, was physically altered, raised in confinement without ever seeing the light of day or green of pasture, in poor hygiene conditions with a diet laced in pesticides to be labeled as ‘naturally raised.’ This falls significantly short of consumer expectations and only adds to the roster of misleading label claims approved by USDA for so-called natural meat,” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Senior Scientist and Policy Analyst at Consumers Union, and Director of GreenerChoices.org.”

“A national telephone poll conducted by Consumer Reports’ National Research Center released in November 2008 showed American consumers want the “naturally raised” meat claim to mean more than USDA’s standard, including that it came from an animal that:

  • Had a diet free of chemicals, drugs and animal byproducts (86%)
  • Was raised in a natural environment (85%)
  • Ate a natural diet (85%)
  • Was not cloned or genetically engineered (78%)
  • Had access to the outdoors (77%)
  • Was treated humanely (76%)
  • Was not confined (68%)”

Food Labels: Grass-Fed (or Pasturized) Meat

Food Label Tag GreenDon’t “All Cows Eat Grass”? I was pretty sure it was more than a mnemonic used to teach children to read music. Apparently, commercially-raised cows have been switched to a grain feed. Apparently, the mnemonic isn’t as accurate as it once was…

Excerpt from Ecoholic

“Grass-fed cows are said to be much healthier (the animals get sick less and their meat is more nutritious to the end consumer) than a typical grain-fed cow. In fact, USDA researchers have found that hay- or grass-fed cows are less likely to have E. coli in their digestive tracts than grain-fed types (and that’s a good thing, considering E. coli might otherwise contaminate your burger). But there are no federal standards or enforcement mechanisms in place for this label.”

Excerpt from Grass-Fed-Beef-101.com

“Currently the United States Department of Agriculture has not adopted an official definition of Grass Fed Beef. There are two terms, often used interchangeably that people find confusing, they are; Grass Fed Beef and Grass Finished Beef.”

“The definition of Grass Fed Beef generally means beef from cattle that have eaten only grass or forage throughout their lives, however some producers do call their beef grass fed but then actually finish the animals on grain for the last 90 to 160 days before slaughter.

A more specific definition is Grass Finished Beef. Finishing is just another word for the time that cattle are normally fattened for the last few months before processing. Typically, feed lots finish cattle for 90 to 160 days on grain, usually corn, whereas, grass finished cattle are fattened on grass only, until the day that they are processed.”

Food Labels: Antibiotic or Hormone-Free Chicken

Food Label Tag GreenDid you know that it’s actually illegal to give hormones to chickens in both Canada and the US? Huh. Read on…

Excerpt from Ecoholic

“The CFIA [Canadian Food Inspection Agency] says no poultry can be injected with hormones in this country, so that part of the claim is kind of useless (beef cattle are the only animals that can be treated with growth hormones in Canada). As for antibiotics, the CFIA says even conventional birds shouldn’t be shipped ot the slaughterhouse until they test clean for drugs. If the product is federally registered, this label will be pre-approved for accuracy. If it’s provincially registered, it’s open to spot checks or complaint-driven inspections.”

From the US Department of Agriculture

“No hormones are used in the raising of chickens.

Antibiotics may be given to prevent disease and increase feed efficiency. A “withdrawal” period is required from the time antibiotics are administered before the bird can be slaughtered. This ensures that no residues are present in the bird’s system. FSIS randomly samples poultry at slaughter and tests for residues. Data from this monitoring program have shown a very low percentage of residue violations.”

Food Labels: Grain-Fed Chicken

Food Label Tag GreenThis term seems to be used quite a bit these days, especially on TV commercials. What does it really mean? Read on…

Excerpt from Ecoholic

“This label is meant to signal, ‘This bird wasn’t fed other birds or animals.’ The feds object to the label, saying the definition is too narrow and doesn’t account for supplements such as vitamins or even antibiotics. They prefer the more pointed ‘animal by-product-free’. Policing is the same as for antibiotic-free.”

According to FoodManitoba.ca

“All chickens in Canada are grain-fed so be assured that every time you buy chicken you’re getting a grain-fed bird. In Manitoba, farmers feed a blend of wheat and barley which gives the chicken skin and fat the white colour we’re accustomed to. In other parts of Canada, and in the USA, chickens eat more corn than wheat. Corn gives the skin and fat a yellow colour.”

However, according to a recent article in Canadian Running magazine

“‘Grain-fed’ is also a questionable term. Grain is the main ingredient of all chicken feed, including seeds and meal made from seeds, such as canola or soybean. All chickens in Canada are essentially grain-fed, but about 10 per cent of chicken feed is meat and fat. Since no one is monitoring whether farmers are giving chickens pure grain and seed feed or feed with animal by-product, you’d be smarter to buy organic rather than grain-fed chicken.”

Food Labels: Free-Run Chickens

Food Label Tag GreenYes, I too have spent significant time reading the packaging at the supermarket. Which is better? Free-Run? Free-Range? They aren’t the same?

Read on for more. Check out the definition for Free-Range Chickens as well.

Please note: Free-run chickens can also be called “cage-free chickens”.

Excerpt from Ecoholic

“These chickens get to run around open-concept barns equipped with wire grid floors, but they have no access to the outdoors. By the way, this is an industry-devised term; no feds oversee the label or inspect the farms.”

From the BC SPCA website

free-run-chickens“Free-Run hens are raised free from battery cages and are kept entirely indoors on a barn floor. Free-Run housing that provides deep bedded sawdust (or other fibrous bedding material) is often referred to as a Deep-Litter System. Free-run housing does not necessarily provide more space per hen than conventional battery cages, and is not required to provide resources such as nest boxes, perches, or a substrate for dust-bathing.

While free run hens have no access to the outdoors, the barns may be designed to allow natural light to enter and the birds are better protected from external threats, such as predators.

Note: The ‘free run’ label that may be seen on some broiler (meat) chicken can mislead consumers by suggesting that meat chickens are raised in cages. In fact, no meat chickens are raised in cages; they are either free run or free range.

Food Labels: Biodynamic

Food Label Tag GreenThis one might be new to a lot of us. I’ve only ever heard it used in reference to wine. Let’s see what others have to say…

Excerpt from Ecoholic

“Certification standards for this label are similar to those for organic but go one step further by requireing farmers to be in sync with the rhythms of nature and the cosmos and to use specially prepared herbs and minerals in compost and field sprays. Biodynamic farming embraces a philosophy focused on healing the eart; certifiers include Demeter.”dbta-logo-small

From the Society for Biodynamic Farming and Gardening in Ontario

“Biodynamic agriculture is a unique form of organic agriculture. It seeks to actively work with the health-giving forces of nature, recognizing the spirit as well as the physical. Biodynamic practitioners work to balance the life-forces and heal the earth, while producing food that is truly nourishing.

The biodynamic method is based on the insights of the philosopher and scientist, Rudolf Steiner. In 1924, he gave a series of eight lectures to experienced farmers in Koberwitz, Germany. Since then, farmers and gardeners all over the world have pursued this ongoing path of knowledge.”

Food Labels: Free-Range Chicken

Food Label Tag GreenI suspect this is much closer to the images of happy chickens we assume to be chicken-farming reality.

Read on and check out the definition for free-run chicken as well.

Please note: “Free-Range” and “Free-Roving” are interchangeable

Excerpt from Ecoholic

“These hens get to see the light of day and snack off the land. Not a government regulated term. Only backed up on certified organic eggs.”

From the BC SPCA website

“Hens that are raised in free range systems are free from battery cages and are allowed some access to the outside. As with free-run housing, free-range systems do not necessarily provide more space than conventional battery cages, and are not required to provide resources such as nest boxes, perches, or a substrate for dust-bathing.”

Food Labels: Fair Trade

Food Label Tag GreenFair Trade has been around for a while now, especially in connection with coffee and chocolate. The fair-trade logo is the same for both Canada and the US.

Excerpt from Ecoholic

“The certified fair-trade logo ensures that any coffee, chocolate, sugar, or whatnot you get from the developing world is made under strong labour standards. The logo often implies that ecologically sensitive practices are encouraged, but it does not guarantee it. Your best bet is certified organic and fair trade, but these are two expensive logos and not every farm can afford them, which means that not everyone thinks it’s so fair. Still, it’s the only way to know for sure that what you’re buying hasn’t been made in the equivalent of a sweatshop.”

Excerpt from Wikipediafooterlogo

“The currently accepted definition of Fair Trade has been agreed by FINE, an informal association of four international fair trade networks (Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, World Fair Trade Organization, Network of European Worldshops and European Fair Trade Association):

Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South. Fair Trade Organizations, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade.