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Decoding Meat and Dairy Product Labels

08.11.11 Decoding Meat and Dairy Product Labels


Several months ago, we wrote about the alarming rate at which girls are starting puberty early. As we noted in the post, one of the reasons for this change is due to the hormones used in meat and dairy. Since there are so many label terms on the various products we buy, it can be really confusing to decipher what is the best choice for our health. We'd like to think that "Natural" is a safe and healthy bet, but actually the USDA defines a natural product as one that contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” It does NOT mean that animals are raised in sufficient open spaces or have been raised without added hormones or antibiotics. That doesn't sound very natural to me.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), has recently published a very clear and comprehensive article explaining the life-cycle of meat. As I read the study, I was reminded of the many conversations I've had with friends who are confused when buying milk and meat. Which one to buy? Grass-fed? Hormone-free? Pasture-raised? Organic? Certified Humane? rBGH-free? Processed?...well, that one we knew.

According to EWG, here is the criteria for each category:

  • rBGH-free

These products are from animals not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). rGBH is a genetically engineered hormone approved by the FDA in 1993 that when injected into cows artificially increases milk production by 10 to 15 percent. There are health concerns for both cows and humans exposed to the drug. Buying organic dairy products is another way to avoid rGBH since its use does not meet the organic criteria."

  • Certified Humane

"Products carrying this label are certified to come from animals that were never confined in cages or crates, were not subjected to de-beaking (in the case of poultry) and were slaughtered according to specific requirements designed to minimize suffering. It does not permit the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics or hormones. “Certified Humane Raised and Handled” and “Animal Welfare Approved” are the two leading humane certification systems, although the Food Alliance follows similar standards. “Certified Humane” does not mean animals had access to pasture, but “Animal Welfare Approved” does."

  • Grass-fed

"This term technically refers only to animals fed a diet of natural grass and other forage, not grain, but it often includes other healthier farm practices not associated with industrially produced meat, such as local butchering, more range time for livestock and less crowded conditions. The three leading “grass-fed” labels, certified by the Food Alliance, the American Grassfed Association or the USDA, require that animals eat a diet exclusively of forage. Some companies that market their meat as “naturally raised” or grass-fed actually feed their animals grain for significant periods. USDA’s grass-fed marketing standard requires only that animals “must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” It does not necessarily mean that the animals spent their entire lives in pastures or on rangeland. Some cattle marketed as USDA grass-fed actually spend part of their lives in confined pens or feedlots."

  • Hormone-free/No added hormones

"This means that the animals were never given hormone treatments. To boost profits, some farmers give hormones to beef cattle and sheep to speed their growth and to dairy cows to increase milk production. The extensive use of hormones in meat and dairy may increase the risk of cancer in humans and result in higher rates of infection in animals. Products labeled “organic” cannot come from rGBH-treated cows. There is no specific hormone-free certification, though organic and grass-fed labels do not allow hormone use. The European Union does not allow hormones in any meat. The USDA does not allow hormones to be used on chicken or hogs."

  • Organic

"Food labeled organic must be third-party certified to meet USDA’s criteria. Organic foods cannot be irradiated, genetically modified or grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals or sewage sludge. Organic meat and poultry cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics and must be fed only organically grown feed (with no animal byproducts). Organic meat animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants must have access to pasture. Organic meats also start with the number "9" in the PLU code."

  • Pasture-raised

"Animals raised in a pasture can roam freely in their natural environment, where they are able to eat nutritious grasses and other plants that their bodies are adapted to digest. There is no specific pasture-raised certification, though certified organic meat must come from animals that have continuous access to pasture."

Which labels do you typically look for when buying meat and dairy?

More to come on the topic of MEAT regarding the use of pesticides/fertilizer and the growing trend of "Meatless Mondays!"

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