Navigating a Path to Quality Meat

By Eileen Weber

cows on pasture
Cattle on pasture at Laurel Ridge Farm in Litchfield, CT. Photo c/o Laurel Ridge Farm

Consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from, how it’s grown, and what’s in it. Some prefer organic. For others, it’s about sustainability and responsible farming. And, some only care if it’s local. Unfortunately, obtaining product information isn’t always straightforward. Let’s begin by navigating a path to quality meat.

According to the North American Meat Institute, the self-proclaimed the leading voice for the meat and poultry industry, approximately 25 billion pounds of beef, 23 billion pounds of pork, 38 billion pounds of chicken, 5 billion pounds of turkey, and 286 million pounds of veal, lamb, and mutton were produced in 2013. That same year, the meat and poultry sales totaled $198 billion. That sounds like a lot—and it is. It’s becoming more difficult for consumers to make informed decisions about these purchases due to lack of transparency.

Sure, a plethora of labels exist. But, what do they really mean? And if food isn’t labeled properly, how do we know what we’re getting? And more to the point, are we really getting what we pay for?

Aradia Farm
Aradia Farm’s booth at the Winter Westport Farmers’ Market.

“A label from the butcher doesn’t really mean anything,” said Morgan Templeton of Aradia Farm in Southbury, a farm that upholds the CT NOFA Farmer’s Pledge while raising animals without antibiotics, hormones, or GMOs. “Local, grass fed, pasture raised, etc., are really just marketing terms with no substantiation necessary. Many farms use these terms appropriately, but there are exceptions. I highly recommend getting to know your farmer and even touring the farm if possible.”

Tim Frosina, a butcher planning on opening his own shop in Fairfield, agrees with Templeton. “All those labels mean nothing,” he said. “Buying local is best because then you know where it comes from.”

Backed by an investor, Frosina hopes his shop next to Isabelle et Vincent will be up and running by mid-April. Along with business partner Matt Oricchio of Speckled Rooster Farm, and a host of other small-scale meat and vegetable farms in the region supplying the shop, he wants customers to get to know the food that’s grown in their area. Channeling Michael Pollan, Frosina said we are what we eat and what we eat eats. Knowing your farmer—or in this case, your butcher—is one of your first steps to a healthy diet.

But if a farm tour, as Templeton suggested, is not on your agenda, it may be difficult to get a clear picture of where your food came from. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) was once helpful in determining whether a product was from the US or imported. But in 2015, after pressure from the meat-packing and beef industry, Congress repealed the labeling of meats that come from other countries, more specifically Canada and Mexico. The World Trade Organization ruled those countries could impose more than $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs. (Canada and Mexico claimed economic hardship from the U.S. labeling requirements.) Beef and pork as well as ground beef and pork are no longer subject to country of origin labeling. Chicken and lamb must still be labeled accordingly.

U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro and Senator Richard Blumenthal, both Connecticut Democrats, have been outspoken regarding clearer nutrition labels on all our foods at the point of purchase. DeLauro in particular was very verbal about her disapproval of the COOL repeal, quoted at the time as saying, “People deserve to know where their food comes from. American farmers and ranchers deserve the opportunity to distinguish their products. It is an economic truism that complete and accurate information is one of the cornerstones of a free market.”

speckled piglets
Piglets at Laurel Ridge Farm in Litchfield, CT. Photo c/o Laurel Ridge Farm

John Morosani from Laurel Ridge Farm in Litchfield where cows graze and pigs forage on 200 acres of pasture, also said labels are a waste of time as far as he’s concerned. He relayed a handful of anecdotes about how our food suffers from false advertising.

At an animal welfare workshop he attended in New York, instructors wanted him to sign a declaration on checking his cows every day. When he pointed out that most farmers don’t do that and it’s a ridiculous expectation, he was told he could just ignore that part.

“Then what’s the point of the label?” he asked. “What are you really standing for?”

One of Morosani’s farm interns worked for a butcher in upstate Connecticut. When he asked about the meat and where it came from, he was told, “Don’t worry about it. Just tell [the customers] it’s grass-fed.”

Morosani mentioned that the restaurant business also has its pitfalls. Restaurants often have the desire to use locally grown food. Unfortunately, many of them don’t follow through or the professional relationship with the farmer dwindles for whatever reason. The farm will still be listed on the menu, however. Morosani remarked that, unless you are bold enough to ask the chef to show you an invoice as proof, you have no idea if what’s on your plate isn’t a substitute for the real thing.

Take this Tampa Bay Times article from last year that hit up a number of farm-to-table restaurants in the area that were actually passing off imported goods as local. To that, Morosani’s reaction was, “There’s a lot of hyperbole in this farm-to-table stuff.”

But when it comes to pasture raised meat, he was quick to point out that you need to be sure of your farmer. There are plenty of people out there just looking to make a quick buck. He mentioned how one farmer had 40 acres of land but was selling 60 “grass-fed” cows every year.

“Every pasture-raised cow needs one to one and a half acres to roam—at least! The math just doesn’t work,” he said. “The farmer was buying grain-fed cows at auction. He put them on the farm for a month or two and called them grass-fed. He was eventually shut down.”

Many livestock do not have the luxury of being raised with respect and dignity. According to a Chicago Tribune article, one farmer in Illinois blew the whistle on an operation that was openly beating their hogs. She hoped that government officials would be as appalled as she was and do something about it. But, nothing happened. Slowly but surely, however, consumer demand is making a difference in how livestock are being treated.

The article stated, “Questions about how the pigs, cows, and poultry we eat are treated—what the animals are fed, how they are medicated and how they live and die—are putting new pressures on a U.S. livestock industry that until recently has focused almost exclusively on productivity and profit.”

Jean King, Food Policy Consultant for UConn’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), said consumer demand is the key to getting the kind of food you want on your table. If the demand is great enough, then the supply will meet it.

“The big productions are starting to do things differently,” she said, noting a change in some raising practices by big names like Perdue, “because consumers are demanding it through their purchasing power.”

Unless you raise the animals yourself, there is no absolute certainty in your purchased products. At the end of the day, if you really want to know what you’re eating, you should do your homework to find out who is producing the good stuff.

For those who don’t have access to a local farmer that they trust, Morgan Templeton suggested seeking out independent groups, such as Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved, that have a set of standards similar to the USDA organic. She said these are the labels that have higher standards than others.

“Seeing those labels on products helps customers know what they are getting,” she explained. “But as with USDA organic, these independent groups still require a lot of extra paperwork, record keeping, and money for certification. So many smaller producers don’t get certified, even though they may meet or exceed the requirements.”

Ultimately, the message is this: Know your farmer. Know your butcher. Visit farmers markets. Sign up for a CSA. Whatever you choose, you need to meet and greet the people that make your food.

“There’s a great reward in flavor for doing things correctly,” said Matt Oricchio, whose farm in Westport follows organic practices. “We want to eat good food and that turns into a healthier lifestyle and that turns into a healthier planet.”

Now that you’re armed with all this information, here are some key questions to ask when purchasing meat from your livestock farmer:

  • How was the animal raised?
  • Do the animals graze or forage? If so, on how much land?
  • What kind of grasses do you grow for them?
  • What do they eat when grass isn’t growing?
  • What supplemental feed do you provide them and is it organic or Non-GMO?
  • Do you use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides?
  • Where are your animals processed and how far is that from your farm?
  • Do you buy your animals or are they born on the farm?
  • What do you do when an animal gets sick?
  • If you use antibiotics, is it only when an animal gets sick or as a preemptive strike for possible disease?

Some of these questions can also be asked of your butcher. It’s important to know if they can tell you where the meat comes from and how it’s raised. Do they know the practices of that particular farm, or do they source it all in bulk?

In our upcoming articles in this series, we’ll be tackling these points when we cover the butcher shops, including those opening in Fairfield and Westport. We’ll also discuss in-depth the issue of food fraud—when a vendor intentionally and deliberately misrepresents food, ingredients, or packaging through substitution, addition, or even tampering for a profit.

Until then, eat well.

Labeling Guidance:

Want to know what those package labels really mean to effectively use your purchasing power? Here are some of the most common:

All-Natural has little to no basis on how the animal was raised and is widely considered misleading. It simply means no artificial ingredients or colors were added with minimal processing.

No Hormones or Antibiotics means there should be nothing injected into the animal to promote growth. By law, these can’t be used in chicken or pork. But they can be in beef and lamb. As of January 1, 2017, antibiotics cannot be given without a prescription from a veterinarian and prescription labels can no longer carry the term “promotes growth.” Hormone-free is a misnomer as all animals have some level of existing hormones in their systems. Antibiotics can be administered when an animal is sick, rather than a pre-emptive measure to ward off sickness. The issue with antibiotics is not when an animal falls ill but when the medication is used routinely and regularly in a disease-free animal.

Certified Organic/USDA Organic is required to follow strict guidelines. According to the USDA, certified organic foods are grown and processed according to restrictions on things like soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. The item must have an ingredients list, be at least 95% organic, and be free of synthetic chemicals like pesticides, fertilizers, and dyes. Animals must be allowed outdoor access and have no hormones or antibiotics. Note: Antibiotics can be administered for health reasons and outdoor access doesn’t have restrictions on duration or quality.

Grass-fed means the animal has been pasture-raised and given no grain, with the notable exception of milk before being weaned. The animal should be allowed to graze and forage as it would do so naturally. But even grass-fed beef is still allowed a low-dose of antibiotics. However by law, they must be off the medication for a specific period of time before slaughter.

Certified Humane is a little bit of a combination of Cage Free and No Hormones or Antibiotics. The restrictions must meet those set by the Humane Farm Animal Care Program. A pig should be allowed to do pig things, a cow should do cow things, and chickens should do chicken things. Essentially, its intention is to raise the animal as happy as possible. No cages, ample space and access to the outdoors, gentle handling, and fresh water. However, if the animal gets sick, antibiotics may be administered.

Cage Free and Free Range are not necessarily interchangeable labels. Free Range means the animals have access to suitable outdoor conditions to roam. Cage Free means the animals may be able to walk around and spread their wings, but not necessarily outdoors. It makes it sound like the animals have miles of pasture to frolic in. While that may be ideal, it is often not the case.

Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) is, according to their web site, the only USDA-approved third-party certification label that supports and promotes family farmers who raise their animals with the highest welfare standards, outdoors, on pasture or range. AWA audits, certifies and supports farmers raising their animals according to the highest welfare standards, outdoors on pasture or range. Called a “badge of honor for farmers” and the “gold standard,” AWA is the most highly regarded food label in North America when it comes to animal welfare, pasture-based farming, and sustainability.

Global Animal Partnership, initiated by Whole Foods Market, is a welfare rating program based on a six-tier scale, from Step 1 to Step 5+. The higher steps require access to pasture while the lower ones allow feedlots for beef cattle. Steps 1–3 also allow beak trimming of turkeys raised and tail docking of individual pigs. Standards include the treatment of animals during transport, but not the treatment of breeding animals or the handling of animals at slaughter.

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