Staying Humane: A Guide to Sourcing Ethical Meat

Jason Webster
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The problem with meat labels and certifications

With a seemingly endless supply of meat being sold, it can be difficult to differentiate high-quality meat from bad-quality meat.

Take the USDA, for example. This fancy-sounding acronym means that meat comes from animals raised in government-inspected facilities.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean that these animals have been raised humanely! As a matter of fact, over 90% of the animals raised in USDA-inspected facilities are raised for the “convenience” of food manufacturers.

So even if the USDA sticker appears on the packaging, you know that this animal had a very short life in a very small space.

In my opinion, an animal raised for meat is better off dead than being raised in a small confined space, eating a sub-standard diet, and living a life that is completely unnatural for it.

That’s why I personally only eat kosher meat.

Kashrut has a strong emphasis on humane animal slaughter. In Judaism, it states that animals should be able to see the sky, they shouldn’t be cramped together, and they should be fed an entirely vegetarian diet.

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

According to the largest study of its kind, humans convert grain and grass into beef with vastly different efficiency.

Cows raised on grains yield a paltry 18 to 21 kilograms of meat, fat, and bone per 100 kilograms of grain they consume. Meanwhile, grass-fed cows can yield up to four times more.

It has been known for a while that grass-fed beef is healthier for the people who consume it. It is lower in fats, higher in omega-3 fatty acids, and contains more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which is a potential cancer-fighter. It also has more muscle fibers, and yields a healthier ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids.

But these health benefits to humans of eating grass-fed beef ignore a key question: is it better for the cows? That question is important to consider, given that nearly all of beef consumed in the United States is from cows raised on grains.

Unless these cows have been certified organic, that grain likely comes from a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO. These industrial-scale operations control the entire process from raising the cattle to delivering meat and products to grocery stores.

The problem with the “humanely-raised” label

For the most part, “humanely-raised” is used as a marketing strategy to differentiate meats produced in an environmentally sound manner, from those of large-scale livestock operations.

While I applaud efforts towards environmentally sustainable farming, the truth of the matter is that this phrase is almost completely arbitrary and provides very little information for consumers to make decisions with their dollar.

The majority of the labels used by grocery stores these days to differentiate meats are disingenuous marketing terms, which serve to make the buyer feel good but provide little to no real information.

The common use of these labels is that meat marked “humanely-raised” comes from small farms, free range, made without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics, and/or grass-fed.

Look for Pasture-raised instead

More than a million chickens are raised for their eggs every day in the United States. The largest number of chickens are those raised for their eggs, followed by those raised for their meat.

Chickens are not vegetarians. Meaning, they’re not meant to solely eat the corn-based feed and live full-time inside a cage. Most chickens are raised in confined spaces where they never see sunlight. This practice is the reason why they are given antibiotics to keep them from getting sick.

It’s important to note that because chickens are easier to raise and yield more eggs, the use of antibiotics has become a significant source of profit for farmers. This is the reason why you can find these chickens in every grocery store.

If you’re looking for a source of humane and ethical meat, go for chickens that are raised outside on pasture. You can identify them by the “pasture” or “no antibiotics” label on the chicken label.

These chickens are fed a natural diet, which is usually supplemented with organic feed. You can find chickens raised this way in many farmers markets, micro-grocery stores, or by direct sourcing from farms.

Be skeptical of the “naturally-raised” label

When it comes to meat, “naturally-raised” doesn’t mean the same thing as “humane-raised.”

According to the USDA, the term “naturally-raised” is not defined or regulated, and has no industry standard. The term is just a marketing ploy by large food companies to trick consumers into thinking that their meat is humanely raised.

For example, “Free-range” chicken is not necessarily “humane-raised”—>.

Chickens raised for meat often spend their days in crowded, windowless sheds, with no access to sunlight, grass, insects, or dustbathing.

The “Naturalmente confortevole” brand of chicken found at Costco is from chickens raised in intensive, cramped conditions, similar to those on factory farms, and then slaughtered.

According to an article in the New York Times:

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

A free-range label on a meat product is a positive indication that the meat came from an animal that had access to outdoors and was able to live a natural life. But the term is still ambiguous, open to a wide variety of interpretation. In fact, the only thing that is clear is that free-range doesn’t clearly mean that the animal wasn’t raised in a cage.

Continue reading to learn more about different compassionate food labels you can rely on, we'll also provide you with those you need to avoid.

Ignore ‘locally-raised’ claims

Generally speaking, the great majority of meat in supermarkets, is neither local nor humane. It’s been trucked across state lines or even country lines, and may have traveled for days. Not great news for the animals, nor for the environment.

Here’s a guide for what to look for in stores:

{1}. Cruelty-free: As already mentioned, free-range and organic do not necessary mean humane or cruelty-free.
{2}. Grass-fed doesn’t mean humane-in many cases, any feed given to animals at all is meant to promote growth and not kept to a natural diet. Grass-fed, in particular, is not regulated, so it could be just grass or a complete feed formula. Check for the certified Humane label at the USDA website.
{3}. What You See is what you get. Check the label for the actual farms from which the meats come.
{4}. Killer would have it coming. It’s important to know how the animal was killed. Ask your butcher to show you the killing floor, photos of people involved in the process and the carcass inspection certificate (carcass inspection is when the USDA comes in and checks specified areas for organic vs. conventional criteria).

Certifications to look out for

There are numerous certifications for animal welfare on farms.

Full organic certification requires that animals have access to fresh air, fresh water, food, and protection from the elements.

An organic label does not require that animals have access to pasture.

Certified organic farms must provide external access for animals to the outdoors.

Free-range or pastured raised animals must have access to a pasture or open range. It is defined by European Union Regulation 2092/91 as follows:

{1}. They have access to the outdoors, weather permitting, for at least four months a year.
{2}. They receive no antibiotics, hormones, or animal by-products in their feed.
{3}. They are able to forage for food and not be cooped up for long periods of time.

There are a number of UK-based certification labels that dairy and egg farmers should look for, including Soil Association and RSPCA Freedom Food labels.

As for meat, British farming experts recommend the Red Tractor label, which was established in 1990 by a consortium of retailers, distributors and farmers to ensure that the public could buy products from quality food suppliers with confidence.

Other good farm labels include the British free-range egg industry standard, which follows on from the EU standard and is currently in the process of being updated.

Certified Organic

Organic and free-range meat products are better for you, the environment and the animals.

They’re better because, when it comes to meat from properly raised animals, organic meat means humane living conditions and greater welfare.

Organic meat must be from animals that are fed organic diets from start to finish. They must also be raised on land that has received no prohibited substances (such as genetically modified crops) within three years.

Free-range refers to animals that have access to the outdoors. Free-range animals are generally happier, healthier and better fed.

Certified Humane/Certified Animal Welfare Approved

Certification can mean something different depending on the country you get your meat from. In the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and most European countries, the standards to get meat labeled as humane are set by the country. These standards usually include:

  • Low-stress conditions during transport and slaughter
  • Range access for animals

If you are not in one of these countries, do your own research on what certification means in your area. Keep in mind that some countries don’t have guidelines for humane meat raising. However, in all the countries that do, you should be able to find certified humane or animal welfare approved meat.

Where to buy ethically raised meat

I should start by saying that I eat meat. On the other hand, I believe that all meat should be produced ethically. I also believe that meat choices we make have an influence on farmers, their animals, as well as our own health.

So I always try to buy meat as ethically as possible. It may not always be perfect, but I do my best.

The good news is that nowadays more and more people are interested in ethically raised meat. Which means there is a growing number of places where you can get it.

Some grocery stores like Whole Foods offer quality organic meat at affordable prices. Butcher shops, which are often more expensive, are a good option as well. And if you prefer avoiding animal products, locally grown vegetables, eggs, cheese and vegan cheeses are good options.

The key is to start looking before you buy. Read labels and ask questions.

In the grocery store

There are clearly marked labels on meat that specifies its country of origin, meaning its country of rearing and slaughter. You want to look for labels that say “Born, Raised and Slaughtered in Australia”.

But even here, further research is recommended, as only 70 per cent of lamb is produced this way.

In your local butcher shop

One of the best and certainly one of the easiest way to buy sustainable, ethically raised meat is at its source. Talk to your local butcher.

Visit your local butcher shop—if you don’t have one, you could always order online—and talk to the folks behind the counter about how the meat was raised.

They may not be able to tell you exact details, but they can tell you if the meat is grass-fed, where it came from, and how long the animals were allowed to live.

Avoid meat from animals that have been treated with antibiotics or hormones and get to know what certifications your butcher is looking for and if he or she is willing to work towards obtaining them for the products they sell.

Get craft meat delivered

An alternative to animal-based protein is protein that is plant-based. This can take the form of legumes, nuts, and seed products that can be eaten and are delicious. If people are to do this, and I hope they do, their protein should come from plants because it’s a safer form of protein production.

In the industrial system, where animals are farmed en giant centers for the masses, there is much less concern for the humane treatment of animals.

On the other hand, the growing of plants and the raising of animals for meat is done on much smaller scales. With these smaller scaled farms, the farmers are able to focus on the welfare of the animals.

With actual families being responsible for raising animals, more stress is placed on the humane treatment of the animals. Rare are the cases where a farmer is able to hide the abuse of animals.

On these family-owned and operated farms, the morals of the farmer are usually a reflection of what their own family would expect. Many of these farmers are trying to instill in their children how to treat other living creatures.

This type of mindset is necessary if we’re to remain humane and to live in a humane way.

Wrapping it all up

The reality is that just about everyone eats meat. But the question of where the meat comes from is a more complicated one. The answer often depends on many factors including what region you are from, your social standing and especially on your personal preferences.

This article offers tips for sourcing meat from a more humane standpoint, looked into the difference between factory farming and organic farming and discussed some of the major health benefits. It also delves into the more popular types of meat and the ethical considerations to keep in mind when buying a specific type.

It is important to note that there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to sourcing your own meat. So do keep an open mind and consider all the aspects. After all, animals are part of our ecosystem and from an ethical standpoint it is important to balance the needs and the rights of the people and of the animals.

The good news is that people are becoming more aware of the impact that our food choices make when it comes to animal welfare and the environment. And so more and more meat products are now labeled to indicate the source of the animal. If you can’t find this label then it is safe to assume that the brand uses factory farming practices.

All things considered, when you are presented with the decision on whether to buy meat all the coming from factory farms or to strive for the more humane methods of raising animals, keep two important points in mind.

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