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Sticker Confusion: Understanding Meat Labels

Natural! Organic! Cage-free! Certified Humane! Hormone-free! Raised without antibiotics! Vegetarian-fed! Non-GMO project certified! Global Animal Partnership Step 5+! Wait, what?

Transparency is part of Chicago Market’s Purchasing Values - we believe everyone should know what they’re eating and how it got to their plate. But just having labels isn’t transparency if nobody has the time or energy to figure out what they mean.

As a baseline for everything in the store, the Chicago Market Purchasing Values guide us towards ethically produced, environmentally sustainable foods, including meat. But for the label-curious or people looking for specific assurances, there’s help in the Chicago Market community - nobody needs to figure this out alone. Many of our Owners, future suppliers, and supporters have a wealth of firsthand knowledge about meat labels, what they mean, and why they’re valuable even with all of their flaws. 

We talked to three Chicago Market supporters to get their perspective on meat labels: 

- Harry Rhodes, Executive Director of the Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), an organization that advocates for humane and ethical treatment of food animals.

- Raya Carr of Mint Creek Farm in Stelle, IL.

- Kerri McClimen, Vice President of Communications at Niman Ranch, a network of independent farmers around the United States. 

All three of our interviewees were really concerned with the big picture - how humane living conditions for food animals reduce the environmental impact of farming and ultimately improve the nutrient density of the meat, eggs, or milk. Check out their thoughts on useful labels, the limits of food labels, and what people can ultimately do to make good food choices without turning it into a part-time job: 

ON USEFUL LABELS 
Which labels can we trust? What should shoppers look out for when they’re deciding what to buy?
 

Harry recommended the Global Animal Partnership system (familiar to most people from Whole Foods but also found elsewhere): 

“Personally, I recommend the Global Animal Partnership system that Whole Foods uses, but only steps 4, 5, and 5+ - at steps lower than that, they don’t guarantee that the animal was raised on pasture. Anecdotally, as a consumer, it’s a lot harder to find step 4-5 meat at Whole Foods since Amazon bought it. 

Harry also had a kind word for the USDA Organic certification: since it’s a government program, people can give feedback with proposals for changes through groups like the Organic Consumers Organization. Most labels aren’t responsive to public feedback that way, which sets USDA Organic apart. 

As a farmer herself, Raya has a front-row seat to the challenges and benefits of certification. She values USDA Organic as the most trustworthy label because she’s seen how rigorous the third-party inspections are. 

"[The Organic label] has third-party verification, and it’s really intensive - we get inspected every year and they want to see all the receipts to prove that we only bought organic feed. It gets a bad rap from an animal welfare perspective, but even when farms are just following the letter of the law to get USDA Organic certification, that already improves the animal’s welfare and quality of life so much, compared to a factory farm." 

On the other hand, Raya still does have some concerns with organic certification, especially for larger farms: 

“Basically, what I see happening is small farmers getting really rigorous organic inspections and big organic business risking the meaningfulness of the entire label because of individual instances of corruption in what is otherwise a trustworthy certification...That’s why we need to look out for the growth of some newer labels like Biodynamic Organic (from the Demeter Association) and Regenerative Organic (from the Rodale Institute). Organic certification is a prerequisite for those labels, so they’re building on that to go beyond it.” 

Kerri recommended that consumers look for the Certified Humane label. Like Harry, she also noted the Global Animal Partnership standard used at Whole Foods. And while it’s not technically a label, Kerri also spoke passionately about the importance of the “no antibiotics or added hormones ever” claim on Niman Ranch packaging. Kerri worked on the Pew Charitable Trust’s Antibiotic Resistance Project before her current work at Niman Ranch, so this is an issue she knows a lot about.

Farm animals often get antibiotics in their water or feed for disease “prevention,” not because they’re actually sick and need medical treatment. American farmers who give antibiotics are required to adhere to a withdrawal period before slaughter, but Niman Ranch has a stricter standard, and the group struggled to word a claim that would reflect their own practice of never using antibiotics on any animals sold for meat under their label. Even if an animal is sick and needs antibiotic treatment, it’s given medical care so it doesn’t suffer and then sold to another market; it never ends up in a grocery store as a Niman Ranch product if it’s given an antibiotic. Eventually, the group decided on “no antibiotics or added hormones ever.” 

For Kerri, raising meat without antibiotics isn’t just about treating animals well - it’s also a public health issue. According to the CDC, the use of antibiotics in farm animals is a huge factor in the increasingly widespread problem of antibiotic resistance. If we want to have effective treatments for bacterial infections like pneumonia or strep throat in 10 years, this is something all of us need to care about now. 

THE LIMITS OF LABELS
As tempting as it is to pick one “holy grail” label and call it a day, everyone we interviewed agreed that labels have their limitations. 

As Kerri knows firsthand, it’s not always easy for well-intentioned producers to pick a label claim. For example, US law prohibits the use of steroids or hormones on chickens or pigs, so all chicken and pork is hormone-free regardless of whether it has a label or not. But not all shoppers follow agriculture policy closely enough to know that, so all Niman Ranch products are labeled with the “no antibiotics or added hormones ever” claim to make sure there’s no confusion.  

Harry noted that with all the concern over animal welfare, there’s much less worry about the well-being of human farmworkers: 

I’d really like to see a “humane to humans” label. In my previous work with Growing Home, all the workers got $15/hour and benefits, but factory farms treat people terribly - the working conditions are awful and the abuse of the animals also creates health hazards for the humans. That’s another reason to look at animal welfare - it gives you a hint that at least the human workers might be treated better.” 

Raya also stressed that existing labels don’t always capture all the relevant information - for example, Mint Creek Farm practices rotational grazing and raises heritage breeds as much as possible to improve the animals’ quality of life and the nutrient density of their meat and eggs. But rotational grazing and the use of heritage breeds aren’t required for USDA Organic certification: Mint Creek Farm just gets the same Organic label as everyone else. This is where a community-based store like Chicago Market can help you shop your values - if you want to know more than the label, you can just ask!

Kerri noted that a lot of smaller local farmers can’t afford to pay for third-party verification or simply choose to invest their money elsewhere - their standards might be as high as you’d expect with a third-party label, but in that case, the onus is on the consumer to understand what kind of product they’re getting. 

USELESS LABELS
Time for the hall of shame: we asked all three interviewees about labels that they felt were either not trustworthy or simply provided no useful information. 

Raya had some critiques to share about labels and requirements, starting with “vegetarian-fed” chicken and eggs: “Chickens are supposed to eat bugs! They’re healthier when they eat bugs!” This label got started because chickens were being fed animal by-products, which is legitimately a problem. But the swing to boasting about “vegetarian-fed” chickens as if it’s somehow good to keep chickens inside for their whole lives and prevent them from eating their natural diet really highlights the problems with industrial egg production, especially the huge disconnection between consumers and producers. 

She also noted that the standard USDA grading doesn’t necessarily apply to pasture-raised animals: 

“Some of the best braising cuts on a grass-fed cow are just too fatty on a conventional cow, so they might not be “choice” for conventional animals but from a pastured animal they’re actually the best.” 

Unlike Harry, Raya doesn’t recommend the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) label scheme: “the Global Animal Partnership is actually one of most problematic certifications I know about.” In her experience, all the different levels of the label are confusing to the point of being misleading. GAP certification includes multiple “steps” from Step 1 to Step 5+. At the lower levels, there’s no third-party inspection. Most GAP-certified meat is certified at the lower levels, but it’s all too easy for consumers to mix up the levels or assume that they’re all the same. 

Kerri emphasized that a lot of marketing is confusing on purpose and called out how the industry leans on the visuals and wording of “family farmers.” In reality, these bucolic images rarely match the reality of concentrated animal feeding operations (“factory farms”) and corporate control. 

Harry and Raya both agreed that the best option, if possible, is to buy your meat from a farmer and get to know the farmer/farm yourself. At that point, labels aren’t as important. But realistically speaking, shopping at a co-op store is more feasible for most people - we’ll always do our best to share information about suppliers. 

WHAT'S NEXT?/WHAT CAN WE DO?

The “best label” depends on what you’re prioritizing and what trade-offs you can realistically make. Are you most concerned about antibiotic use, or are you willing to make some concessions on antibiotics to get non-GMO feed? Or is everything a must-have? For consumers curious about a specific label, Harry recommended finding a trustworthy organization to help you evaluate: 

“Labels can be really confusing. I would recommend finding an organization that you trust to review the labels - a place with professional staff who know what they’re doing and can make really science-based decisions. Look at the organization, the history, and the decision-making process - a good organization should be transparent about funding and decision-making. 

[Note: FACT has a label recommendation page here.] 

Kerri also stressed that consumers should be open to supporting brands that are making incremental changes on a broader scale - like Shake Shack, Panera, Chipotle and Pret a Manger. Even Subway recently committed to antibiotic-free meat. Considering the amount of meat purchased by such an enormous chain, that has a huge effect on the industry as a whole. Even though Subway obviously isn’t upholding the strictest standards of animal welfare in every respect, a very widespread change like this can have a big overall impact. 

Shopping at a farmers market or co-op is a great first step because the staff there can help you figure it out on the spot and explain how the different labels connect to your particular values. It’s less about memorizing every food label that exists and more about engaging in a community of people who care - we’ll figure it out together, and at the end we all get something tasty for dinner.


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