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Green Choices: Meat & Poultry Buyer’s Guide
WebMD Feature from "EatingWell"
By Kimberly Lord Stewart
When it comes to buying meat and poultry, the greener choices are not always obvious.
Meat and poultry labels are confusing these days. What does “Natural” on that package of chicken breast mean? Why does “Certified Organic” cost so much? What’s a meat-eater to do? Our green guide to meat and poultry will help you make choices that are best for you.
Grass-Fed and -Finished (beef, lamb, bison)
Grass-fed animals eat nothing but their mother’s milk, fresh grass and cut hay for their entire lives—versus animals raised conventionally, which graze until they reach a certain weight, then are sent to feedlots, where they are “finished” on grain diets until they reach market size.
Health benefits: Some research suggests that grass-fed meats are richer in omega-3 fats and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than those raised on grains.
Eco-benefits: Grass-fed-meat farms voluntarily certified by the American Grassfed Association (AGA, americangrassfed.org) do not use antibiotics (which can end up in water systems) or grains (which require land to grow them and fuel to transport).
Is it regulated? A definition of “grass-fed” proposed by the USDA is still in a comment period. Many, including the AGA, consider the USDA’s proposed definition too lax as it allows for hormone and antibiotic use and some grain feeding.
Keep in mind: “Partially grass-fed” means cattle are grain-finished. Not all grass-fed beef is organic.
Certified Organic (beef, pork, lamb, bison, poultry)
Organic standards prohibit all use of antibiotics and hormones. (Hormone use in poultry and pork production—even conventional—has been banned since 1959.) All feed is vegetarian and certified organic—including pastureland—which means that it is not treated with pesticides or herbicides and cannot be genetically modified. Animals have access to pastureland, sunlight and enough land for exercise, and grazing is done in a manner that does not degrade the land through erosion or contamination. Animal cloning is forbidden.
Health benefits: Since USDA-certified organic labeling requires that animals be traced from birth to slaughter (including feed sources and medications), problems related to animal diseases and human foodborne illness can be easily traced to the source.
Eco-benefits: Organic standards ban the use of antibiotics and growth hormones, which leach into groundwater and ultimately end up in public water supplies.
Is it regulated? The USDA regulates the Certified Organic standard and independent agencies conduct farm inspections.
Keep in mind: Organic doesn’t necessarily mean grass-fed; however, certified organic livestock generally graze on open-range land three to six months longer than conventionally raised livestock to reach market size.
Certified Humane (beef, pork, lamb, poultry)
This label guarantees that animals have freedom to move and prohibits crates and tie-downs in stalls, as well as artificial means to induce growth, such as continuous barn lights for broiler chickens.
Eco-benefits: Certified Humane prohibits the use of antibiotics and growth hormones, two factors in groundwater pollution.
Is it regulated? Yes. Certified Humane standards are endorsed by several animal-rights organizations, including the ASPCA and the Humane Society. Producers are audited by third-party groups.
Keep in mind: This label does not mean animals are certified organic.
Natural (beef, pork, lamb, poultry)
No additives or preservatives were introduced after the meat or poultry was processed. (Certain sodium-based broths can be added to poultry and pork labeled “natural.”) This term does not ensure organic feed. The term “natural” is often confused with “naturally raised,” a term proposed by the USDA that would mean the animals were not given antibiotics and/or growth hormones.
Health benefits: Natural meats have no nitrites or nitrates, preservatives that have been linked in some children and women to various types of cancer.
Eco-benefits: “Natural” has no substantial environmental benefit.
Is it regulated? It is a term defined by the USDA but not regulated.
Keep in mind: “Natural” alone says nothing about how an animal was raised.
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