In its current state, it's not a stretch to call factory farming a broken system — the methods that factory farms use to produce meat for our consumption also contaminate our air, water and soil.
But meat can be part of a healthy diet, and you can help mitigate the effects of meat production by choosing to buy sustainably raised meat — just make sure you know what to look for.
Even with positive-sounding terms like “local,” “ethical” and “organic,” it can get confusing, so it’s up to you as a responsible consumer to figure out where your food is coming from and how it was raised.
What IS Sustainably Raised Meat?
Sustainably raised meat comes from small organic farms, where the animals graze outdoors on pesticide-free grass. They're tended by responsible farmers who practice more humane methods of production. Because these farms are smaller, the meat is produced in lower quantities, resulting in higher-quality meat.
Here are four key words to look for when looking to buy sustainably raised meat:
When it comes to organic versus natural, organic is the best choice. Organic standards are defined by law, and farmers must be certified by an approved organization in order to use the organic label on their meat.
Recently, the USDA updated the standards and requirements for organic meat and poultry, which will protect the animals welfare before going to slaughter. These new guidelines may lead to higher prices, but the benefits of the organic standards far outweigh the price you and the animals have to pay conventionally.
Organic farms don’t use growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides or chemical fertilizer. The animals are also not allowed to consume genetically modified food.
Look for “USDA Certified Organic” on the label.
This is word to watch out for on meat labels: The USDA and FDA don't have rules or regulations for meat that has been labeled “natural.” Consequently, the word "natural" on a food label means absolutely nothing. It's simply a marketing term to convince you that it's a good product to buy.
“Free range” means the animals have to be allowed access to the outdoors. However, this can be a tricky term because “outdoors” can mean many things. The animals may just have access to windows that open to the outdoors, or access to an enclosed area outside that only has room for a small number of animals.
But true "free-range" farms will share their story and be transparent about their practices, which is the best way to find out how much sun and fresh air the animals are actually getting. Regardless of if they get sunshine or not, just being able to move around is more beneficial for them than factory-raised animals that are kept in tightly confined pens.
3. Pasture-Raised or Grass-Fed
Pasture-raised animals actually do graze outside during the day and go inside at night. This also typically means the animals are eating a more varied diet because they’re not cooped up and forced to eat corn or grains.
Smaller farms have the ability to raise pastured animals, and manure is used to fertilize the soil, recycling the nutrients to keep the soil healthy.
Beware of meats that are grass-fed and "grain-finished." This means that the animals were grazing on grass until 90-160 days before slaughter, at which point they were "finished" by feeding them some type of grain in order to fatten them up.
It's important to ask your butcher or supplier if the grass-fed meat they're selling was grain finished. If there’s any hesitation, move on.
Look for these labels when purchasing meat in stores. You can also look for third-party certifications such as Whole Foods' 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program which works with farmers who are committed to providing the best possible life for their animals, and bringing higher quality meat to their consumers.
You can also find sustainable meat sources online, such as Eatwild.com, which provides a directory of pasture-based farms in the U.S. and Canada.
The best option of course, is to source directly from local farms or farmers markets to ensure the ethical and sustainable standards listed above. Most small farms will be open with their sustainability practices, and will be proud to tell you exactly what the animals are eating, and what their lives are like on the farm.
You can do a lot for your health and the environment simply by cutting back your overall meat intake. In a 2008 interview with PBS, noted food writer Michael Pollan suggested that if Americans went meatless for just one night a week, it would be equivalent to taking “30 to 40 million cars off the road for a year.”
However, when you do decide to eat meat, you can make a difference for your health and the planet by making responsible choices.