Guide to Healthy Protein Sources

Vegetarian fed. Cage free. Natural. Free range. We all see these labels on packaging but understanding what they actually mean is a different story. Despite consumers’ interest in reading food labels and willingness to spend more money for a superior product, many do not actually know what labeling terms actually entail or what regulations accompany them. This guide will help you navigate the various terms and certifications to ensure you choose the foods best for you and your family.

Most Reliable Labeling

American Grassfed Association Certified

  • Applies to: beef, bison, lamb, goat, sheep, milk
  • PROS
    1. Indicates animal was raised primarily on pasture and fed only grass and forage
    2. Grain feeding and GMOs prohibited
    3. No antibiotics allowed (sick animals treated no longer qualify for this certification)
    4. Pasture management to maximize soil fertility
  • CONS
    1. No audits to ensure humane slaughter

Food Alliance Certified-Grassfed

  • Applies to: beef, bison, lamb, goat, milk
  • PROS
    1. Raised outside on pasture or range for their entire life
    2. Fed only grass or forage (no grain)
    3. No antibiotics allowed (sick animals treated no longer qualify for this certification)
  • CONS
    1. No audits to ensure humane slaughter

*Note: Be sure the term “grass-fed” is used on all Food Alliance Certified products, as this this is a more rigorous certification.

*Additional note: Meat will commonly indicate “grass-fed”. However, if it does not specifically say “grass-fed, grass-finished”, “100% grass-fed” or is not accompanied by one of the above certifications, then it is possible the animal only spent a small amount of time in pastures.

USDA Organic

  • Applies to: beef, lamb, goat, milk, pork, turkey, chicken, eggs
  • PROS:
    1. Animals fed only certified organic feed
    2. GMO feed prohibited
    3. No antibiotic allowed (sick animals treated no longer qualify for this certification)
    4. Animals must have year-round access to outdoors. Cows, sheep and goats must have access to pasture.
  • CONS:
    1. No audits to ensure humane slaughter
    2. Some use of feedlots allowed (where they are fed corn, grain, etc. in confined areas)

Marine Stewardship Council

  • Applies to: seafood
  • PROS:
    1. Only certifies wild-caught fish (this will ensure the fish were not treated with antibiotics/growth hormones or fed inappropriate diet)
    2. Only certifies fisheries that minimize environmental impact on ecosystem and keep fishing at a sustainable level
    3. Requires ocean to table traceability, which results in a best-in-class fraud rate of <1% (this industry averages an overall 30% fraud rate).

Fair and Potentially Misleading Labeling

AMERICAN HUMANE CERTIFIED

  • Applies to: beef, bison, milk, pork, turkey, chicken, eggs, duck
  • PROS:
    1. Specifies a minimum about of space required for each animal
    2. No growth hormones allowed
    3. Annual on-farm inspections
  • CONS:
    1. Animals can be confined in cages or crates
    2. No requirement for outdoor access
    3. Permits use of antibiotics to prevent disease associated with unsanitary conditions or confined space
    4. No audits to ensure humane slaughter

grassfed, pasture raised, no beta agonists, no antibiotics

  • PROS:
    1. USDA requires documentation from farms to be able to use these terms
    2. Implies animals were raised by specified healthier practice
  • CONS:
    1. These are very “loosely” defined terms with no federal standards
    2. No annual inspections to verify correct use of these terms

*Note: Beta agonists are growth hormones given to animals to promote the growth of lean muscle over fat.

Buyer Beware

Natural

According to the USDA, this refers to “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed” and the product could not have been “fundamentally altered”. It does NOT:

  • ban use of GMO feed or hormones
  • mean the animal was raised in sufficient open space or grass-fed
  • indicate the animal was not treated with antibiotics

This term is commonly misinterpreted to mean the animal was raised more humanely and by healthier means than it actually was.

cage free

As many industrial egg producers use cages, this term implies that the egg-laying chicken was not caged. However, cage free environments can often be worse compared to caged as chickens are at higher risk for injury and pecking each other.

  • Pertains to: eggs (chickens and turkeys are never caged, so this term is especially meaningless when listed on poultry products)
  • PROS:
    1. The birds are free to roam and potentially engage in normal behavior
  • CONS:
    1. There are no regulations specifying the minimal amount of space per chicken
    2. There is no legal definition, so practices vary
    3. No regular on-farm inspection to verify this claim
Example of a cage free farm

free range

Implies that the animal had some type of access to the outdoors.

  • Pertain to: turkeys, chickens
  • PROS:
    1. USDA requires documentation from farms to be able to use this claim
  • CONS:
    1. No regular on-farm inspection to verify this claim
    2. No specification on the size or conditions of outdoor range
    3. No specific time frame on how long the animal must have been outside

humanely raised

  • Pertains to: beef, bison, lamb, pork, goat, milk, turkey, chicken, eggs, duck, geese, mutton, seafood
  • PROS:
    1. None.
  • CONS:
    1. No legal definition
    2. No regular on-farm inspection to verify this claim

For a more extensive list, visit the EWG’s Decoding Meat and Dairy Product Labels user guide.

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