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6 Meat Packaging Claims That Don’t Mean What You Think

© Lara Harwood

Contrary to what some vegans believe, we meat lovers are not—at least not necessarily—indifferent to the evils of commercial meat production. We don’t sit around thinking of ways we can make pigs miserable. We want them to be happy, at least until we eat them. But the meat business, ever resourceful and pressed by hard times to sell more and more, has come up with a handful of claims with which to assure us. Some, like “organic beef,” have specific and rigorous qualifications. Others are largely bogus. For example: All Natural. This one is so vague that I wonder how I could ever have been convinced by it. I suppose it’s because I wanted to eat the meat it described. Natural, with a capital letter, is a USDA designation that only means the meat has been minimally processed and that there are no additives. All natural doesn’t even mean that. I don’t know what it means. And neither do you.

Antibiotic Free. This one is more specific, and does represent a valid claim, as far as it goes. But it’s unregulated and not approved by the USDA. Just because a piece of meat doesn’t have antibiotics present at the time of sale, doesn’t mean that the animal has never been given them. For one thing, there are a lot of healthy farm animals who, for one reason or another, have gotten antibiotics; if an animal is sick with an infection, you don’t just let it die. (In feedlot or commodity production, the kind of nightmare factories you sometimes see in PETA videos, they have to give the animals antibiotics because otherwise the festering sinkholes in which they live would kill them. Also, it helps them gain weight for some reason.)

Antibiotics are bad in meat because bacteria become resistant to them, and then these beefed-up bacteria get into us. But antibiotics can get into an animal in other ways too: if the feed they get contains antibiotics, which it often does. Better terms to look for are “no antibiotics administered” or “no antibiotics added” when accompanied by “USDA Process Verified.”

Free range. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that in your supermarket right now, there are eggs and chickens and many other kinds of animal products that have a farm on the front. Maybe there is a little barn. The sun is shining. Grass abounds. It’s not unnatural to assume that free-range animals have the run of the place. But not really. That just means they can go outdoors. And in many cases, outdoors means a small fenced-in area not much bigger than your yard.

Cage Free. Of all these terms, this is one that really does have some ethical validity. Most chickens in factory farms have been kept in something called battery cages—basically a wire box barely big enough to hold the chicken, and in which the animal literally spends its entire life. Cage-free certification precludes this diabolical treatment (which is infinitely worse that foie gras gavage, by the way). But it doesn’t mean that the chickens ever get to go outside. It doesn’t mean their beaks aren’t cut off. It doesn’t mean all of the male chicks aren’t killed. It doesn’t mean they aren’t send to the headsman without any food or water. Life is no picnic for a cage-free chicken.

Grass-fed beef. Everyone is sky-high on grass-fed beef, mostly because of the same pastoral imagery the other terms here summon up. But all “grass fed” means is that the animal ate grass at some point in its life. This term is especially meaningless, therefore, because all beef animals eat grass at sometime in their life. It’s like calling a writer literate. Though “100 percent grass fed” is more meaningful, it still doesn’t guarantee good beef. What is the grass? Some kind of arid scrub in a semidesert somewhere? Or the rich, diverse garden of plants and flowers and succulents that blanket the meadows of the Great Plains? And anyway, not all grains are bad. The real dirty word is “feedlot.”

It’s not as if these terms mean nothing; even an animal with indirect antibiotics is healthier to eat than one that has the stuff mainlined into it. And a cage-free chicken, while not exactly living it up, isn’t living a life of unimaginable torment. (Or at least, not as tormented as in a battery cage.) It’s not like these terms don’t mean anything. They just don’t necessarily mean what you think they do.

Related: America's Best Cured Meats
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6 Unusual Cuts of Meat

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