Staying Humane: A Guide to Sourcing Ethical Meat

Two cows laying on a grass

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In an industry based on factory farming, is it even possible to source ethical meat?

The good news is that there are options out there if you want to avoid industrial feedlot raised meat.

Unfortunately, the industry is awash with confusing certifications, labeling, and then there’s all the marketing and jargon.

Keep reading to learn exactly what the various labels and terms mean, what to look for, what to avoid, and how to ensure that you’re getting meat raised as ethically as possible.

The problem with meat labels and certifications

If you shop at a supermarket or store like Costco you’ll be relying on packaging labels to give you the information you need on how the animal was raised, kept, and fed.

Unfortunately, standard grocery store packaging labels run the gamut from uninformative to downright misleading.

The owner of craft meat company Crowd Cow sums it up perfectly:

“I’ve traveled the country meeting with chefs and farmers in search of the world’s best craft meat, and over and over I hear that labels and certifications aren’t meaningful or helpful, and can be abused to misrepresent the truth.”

Joe Heitzeberg – Why I no longer pay attention to labels like “organic”

So, let’s break down some of the more common labels and see what they actually mean.

Grass-fed meat: Worth the hype of another fad?

Grass-fed beef has been rapidly growing more popular.

Who could disagree that feeding cows grass was bad?

The truth is a little more complex.

Animals raised on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, also known as factory farms, are most commonly fed on grain. This is because a high-calorie diet causes them to lay down more fat and to grow faster.

Unfortunately, most ruminants did not evolve to eat a grain-only diet, which causes digestive issues that need to be treated with antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics is one of the more common concerns with factory farming.

Packaged ground beef label
Source: Flickr/Mark Bonica

By comparison, grass-fed animals, which eat grass for most of their lives, tend to suffer fewer digestive troubles and are more likely to be kept on pasture land to graze.

However, it is worth noting that the term grass-fed only refers to an animal’s diet. It does not mean they were raised in a humane manner

In fact, because of the rising popularity of grass-fed meat, factory farms have taken to using organically-certified grass pellets to finish their animals. This allows them to advertise their meat as “grass-fed” without any change in the manner in which the animal was raised.

There’s also the matter of taste.

Grass fed meat tends to have a beefier, gamier flavor that doesn’t appeal to everyone.

This is why many producers use a grain-finishing process, resulting in better marbling and tenderness.

If you want to learn more, we have a guide that goes through all the differences between grass and grain-fed beef.

In our opinion, buying quality meat from small scale farms is more important than worrying about if meat is strictly grass fed or grain finished.

But if you want to avoid grain completely, look for the “100% grass-fed” label, which ensures the animal was fed on grass for the entirety of its life.

The problem with the “humanely-raised” label

While a “humanely-raised” label might seem ideal if you’re looking for humanely raised meat, the reality is that the USDA has no clear standards by which they can evaluate a meat producer’s humane practices.

In order to qualify for a humanely-raised label on their meat, food producers are only asked to submit a few details to the USDA, who do not visit the farm in question to check if they are true.

Without a set of standards, the “humanely-raised” label basically means nothing. It could be an indication that the farm the meat was bought from cared about the animals they were raising and attempted to give them the best life possible, or it could just be a cynical marketing ploy.

Look for Pasture-raised instead

One of the most significant issues associated with industrial meat production is the conditions in which the animals are kept. Buying meat marked as “pasture-raised” means the animals in question were grazed in fields or woods.

Wagyu cattle

It is worth noting that pasture-raised does not automatically mean 100% grass-fed, as many pastured animals have their diet supplemented with grain. 

However, if you are looking for ethically-raised animals, the increased space for the animals to move around in and a more varied and natural diet are clearly more beneficial to their well being than the cramped confinement and unnatural grain diet of factory farming methods. 

Be skeptical of the “naturally-raised” label

The “naturally-raised” label is something of a trap, as it seems to suggest that the meat you are buying comes from animals raised in a natural environment, similar to being pasture-raised. 

In reality, naturally-raised means nothing of the sort. The label simply means that the package contains

“a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.”

USDA – Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms

Meat branded as naturally-raised does not give the consumer any insight into how the animals the meat came from were raised, the conditions they were kept in, or what they were fed. It’s just a deliberately confusing marketing strategy.

The Free-Range label is a good sign but still ambiguous

As per the USDA, the term “free-range” simply means that the “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”

While the producer must demonstrate that their animals have access to the outdoors for at least 51% of their lives, the size, and type of outdoor enclosure are not regulated, and the USDA does not visit the farm to confirm their claims.

This could mean one free-range farm allows their animals access to a large grass pasture while another only uses a small concrete yard.

Despite this variance in what free-range means, any access to the outdoors is clearly beneficial to livestock.

The animals most commonly marketed as free-range are pigs and chickens.

The ability to move around freely for at least 51% of their lives is undoubtedly an improvement on cages so small they can’t spread their wings  – or a raising crate, which means they can’t even turn around.

Ignore ‘locally-raised’ claims

Much like “naturally-raised,” the term “locally-raised” doesn’t tell you anything about the manner in which the animals were kept. 

As long as the producer is within a certain distance of where the meat is being sold, usually the same state or administrative region, they can advertise as locally-raised, even if the meat being sold was raised in utterly inhumane factory farming conditions.

Certifications to look out for

As you can see from our breakdown of common grocery store labels, many of them suggest that you are buying ethically raised meat, while having enough variance that you can’t guarantee you are. Others, like “naturally-raised” or “locally-raised,” are downright misleading. 

Most package labels also only require the producer to submit a claim to the USDA, who does not visit their operation to check if the information supplied is accurate.

Unlike package labels, certifications do guarantee a level of oversight, and two of the most common are Certified Organic and Certified Humane.

Certified Organic

As per USDA regulations, animals producing Certified Organic meat must be fed livestock agricultural feed products that are 100 percent organic, although they are allowed vitamin and mineral supplements.

Packaged chicken fillet

In addition to the restrictions on their diet, ruminants, such as cattle, must be out on pasture for the entire grazing season of no less than 120 days and receive at least 30 percent of their feed from pasture. All organic livestock and poultry are required to have access to the outdoors year-round.

As you can see, in addition to regulating what the animal eats, meat marked as Certified Organic comes from animals that are allowed to graze in pasture land and have constant access to the outdoors.

Producers applying to be Certified Organic are also visited by an inspector to verify their claim before they receive their certification. 

Certified Humane/Certified Animal Welfare Approved

Unlike Certified Organic, the Certified Humane and Certified Animal Welfare Approved programs are not overseen by the USDA, but rather by non-profit charitable organizations such as A Greener World (AGW) and Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC).

These certifications require producers to prove that they are adhering to the charity’s high standards for high-welfare production, transport, and slaughter practices.  After the certificate is awarded, AGW or HFAC conducts yearly inspections to verify those standards are consistently being met.

The Certified Humane Animal Care Standards are much more stringent than those of the USDA’s Certified Organic Program. They are arguably the best way to ensure that the meat you are buying comes from ethical providers.

Where to buy ethically raised meat

Around 99% of all meat raised in the USA comes from factory farms, making it partially hard to source meat that has been raised ethically and humanely. 

However, now that you’ve got a better idea of what all the labeling and marketing jargon means, there are some steps you can take to ensure that the meat you buy comes from responsible sources.

In the grocery store

As we said, the reality is that most of us buy our meat from the grocery store, the majority of which is supplied by factory farming. This is why big chain stores can offer such large quantities of meat at such a low price.

If you are shopping for meat at the grocery store, the Certified Organic or Certified Humane/Certified Animal Welfare Approved marks are the best way to ensure that the meat you are buying was raised in a reasonably ethical manner.

The Certified Humane/Certified Animal Welfare Approved, while far from widespread, is becoming more available. 

If you can’t find meat marked as Certified Humane/Certified Animal Welfare Approved, then the far more widespread USDA Certified Organic mark is your next best bet.

The Certified Organic does not keep producers to the same high standards that the AGW and HFAC do. It does, at least, mean the animals that your meat came from had access to the outdoors, were pastured (in the case of ruminants), and had a more natural diet than factory-farmed animals.

In your local butcher shop

Lack of access to information is arguably the greatest block to sourcing ethical meat.

Your local supermarket might mark a product as “free-range,” but all that tells you is how long the animals are allowed outside for, not how they were treated.

The benefit of sourcing your meat from your local butcher is that they can usually find out that kind of information for you. Most butchers maintain a close relationship with their suppliers and may be able to source ethically raised meat on your behalf.

Get craft meat delivered

In a time where most of us do the majority of our shopping on the internet, it shouldn’t be surprising that there has been a rapid expansion of quality online butchers in recent years.

Many of these online butchers specialize in providing meat that has been raised to the highest ethical standards.

Crowd Cow, for instance, only provides meat from sources that use the highest regenerative and ethical standards in the rearing process, and they offset the carbon impact of every shipment.

crowd cow review

As with other meat suppliers, finding out more information is the key to making sure the meat you’re eating lives up to the ethical standards you want.

Most companies that keep to stringent humane standards for the meat they supply, like Crowd Cow, are proud of their commitment to sustainable and ethical practices and are happy to answer any questions you might have.

As with most of these methods of sourcing ethically sound meat, doing a little research is the best way to make sure you’re getting the product you want.

Wrapping it all up

While the movement towards more humanely sourced meat is picking up pace, the vast majority of meat available to us still comes from factory farming methods. 

In order to find meat raised to the standard you want, it’s best to prioritize certifications like Certified Humane/Certified Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Organic wherever you can and buy free-range or pasture-raised meat if they are not available.

Better yet, find yourself an online supplier, like Crowd Cow or Porter Road, that specializes in sourcing meat taken from animals raised to the highest ethical standards. 

John McCloy

John McCloy

Formerly a brand manager for the UK high street, John gave up that life for the far less stressful job of running his own business. He now likes to spend as much of his free time as possible hunched over a grill, reading about grills, or staring forlornly out of a window as the British weather makes it impossible to use his grill."

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