Frequently people are confused about the differences between organic and natural meat, as well as free range and grass-fed animals. This question comes up often in my classes so I thought it would be helpful to explain the distinctions between these labels.
According to the USDA, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products, come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.
The terms natural and organic are not interchangeable. Only food labeled “organic” has been certified as meeting USDA organic standards. So what this really means is that the meat contains no ingredients or additives that are not natural. For example: Aidell’s “All Natural” chicken sausages contain no artificial ingredients.
This term implies that animals are raised in an open air or free-roaming environment. The USDA defines “free range” for poultry products only – not for eggs. For poultry, the government requires outdoor access for “an undetermined period each day.” This does not mean that they actually use the outdoor space. No meat (other than poultry), carrying the “free range” label, has been regulated by the USDA or any other governing agency.
The American Grassfed Association defines “grass-fed” cattle, bison, goats and sheep as those that have eaten nothing but their mother’s milk and fresh grass or grass-type hay from birth. Pigs and poultry are “grass-fed,” if they have had grass as a large part of their diets.
Marine Stewardship Council
This label found on seafood products aims to promote sustainable fishing practices. The council is an independent global nonprofit created to “ensure that the catch of marine resources is at the level compatible with long-term sustainable yield, while maintaining the marine environment’s bio-diversity, productivity and ecological processes.” They work with various fisheries to maintain these standards and label fish accordingly.
My general recommendation is that people limit their meat consumption to just a few times a week. Eggs, beans and whole grains are excellent alternative sources of protein in your diet. If you are a regular meat eater, I recommend that you choose organic grass-fed meats whenever possible. These are free of growth hormones and antibiotics and contain significantly higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids. If you enjoy meat cooked on the grill, it’s wise to marinate your meat prior to cooking as this reduces the formation of cancer-causing chemicals called heterocyclic amines that form within the meat tissue. It’s also good to keep in mind that the longer and hotter the meat is cooked, the more these compounds form.
I hope this has helped clear up any confusion you might have had regarding these labels.
Resources: Integrative Nutrition – Joshua Rosenthal The Cancer Survivor’s Guide – Neal Barnard