Meat is different. Before it lands on our plates, meat walks around and breathes and vocalizes. Its pre-food form can inspire affection as no other comestible; who has ever cooed over an adorable bunch of broccoli? Some meat, prior to becoming meat, may even be named and kept as pets.
Meat also is different in the way it’s treated under food safety and labeling regulations. The Food and Drug Administration, which is in the Department of Health and Human Services, sets requirements for the labeling of nonmeat food, but meat regulations fall under the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture. And food laws don’t always apply across the board. For example, the nutritional box?—?with its rundown of calories, fats, carbohydrates, sugar, and vitamins per serving?—?has long been a mainstay on all manner of foods, but those panels began appearing on meat packages only in January 2012.
But the nutritional boxes are going to satisfy only part of the craving for information about meat. More and more people want to know how the animals lived before they became meat. Did the cows munch grass on an open pasture their whole lives? Did the chickens peck around to their hearts’ content, or were they crammed into small spaces for a short, miserable existence? Were the animals, or the food they ate, pumped with hormones and antibiotics? As just one indication of this increasing awareness, sales of organic beef grew from about $100 million in 2003 to $600 million in 2008, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. It’s a fraction of the $50 billion spent each year on beef, but it’s a fast-growing fraction. Labels such as “organic,” “free-range,” and “pasture-raised” are cropping up with more frequency, trying to claim the increasing number of omnivores who want to believe that even if they are eating an animal, it at least had a good life.
Because that’s the most profound way that meat is different: It strikes at our moral faculties. The mundane act of eating meat touches off philosophical argument, religious restrictions, ethical debate. A life ends. For some, any label is pointless; there can be no such thing as humane meat. But for those who arrive at a different conviction, knowing that they can trust labels attesting to ethical treatment is imperative. The question is: Do the labels mean anything?
Slap it On; Maybe it Will Stick
The history of food labeling is rife with examples of companies trying to pass off a product as something it isn’t, with new laws often emerging in the aftermath. In 1906, the Meat Inspection Act was passed after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed the horrific sanitary conditions of the meatpacking industry. Mid-century swindlers attempted to sell cheap margarine as butter, resulting in a requirement for prominent labeling on margarine to distinguish it as such. In 2008, infant formula that had been tainted with melamine led to the deaths of six babies in China and the hospitalization of nearly 900 more. It’s a safe bet the word “melamine” never appeared on any label.
So, do labels mean what they say? Or at least, what consumers think they mean?
Yes and no. “When it comes to nutrition, I think you can trust them,” says Ellen Haas (’60), who’s been a consumer advocate for more than 25 years. She was a five-term president of the Consumer Federation of America, and served four years as undersecretary for the Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services area in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, during which time she oversaw a revamping of school lunch programs. She’s testified before Congress many times regarding labeling and other food safety issues.
But with other claims, she says, it varies. A good example: “grass-fed.” The label can be misleading, because all cows are grass-fed for at least part of their lives. Cows, as ruminants, are built to eat grass; their four-compartment stomachs convert cellulose into protein and fat. Under contemporary agricultural methods, after three to six months of grazing, cows are moved to feedlots and given grain in order to fatten them up quickly and bring them to slaughter sooner, typically by 14 months. Grass-fed cattle, however, eat grass (or, during winter, alfalfa or hay) their entire lives, which last a little longer than their grain-fed counterparts?—?slightly more than two years?—?because they don’t gain weight as fast. Advocates of grass-fed beef say that it is lower in saturated fats and calories and higher in omega-3 fats, antioxidants, vitamins A and E, and beta carotene. It also avoids the need for antibiotics so commonly given to grain-fed cows, which often get sick because their stomachs can’t tolerate grain. Grass-fed beef, however, costs more and sometimes lacks the coveted marbling of fat that Americans have become accustomed to. Some skeptics maintain that since grass-fed beef requires lots of acres for pasture, it can hardly be called environmentally friendly, and that its health benefits are overstated.
For years, the label “grass-fed” was not heavily regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); growers who wanted to make that claim needed only to submit documents. However, in 2007, with interest in grass-fed beef increasing, the USDA introduced its “USDA Process Verified” shield. This requires an actual farm visit by an inspector to confirm that the cows are eating nothing but forage, such as grass and hay, and mother’s milk. They must be allowed access to pasture during the growing season. Antibiotics and hormones, however, are allowed.
While the Consumer’s Union, for one, finds the shield “highly meaningful,” for others the government standards don’t go far enough. Conceivably, cows that are kept indoors for months at a time and fed hay and hormones can earn the shield. A tougher standard is the American Grassfed Association (AGA) stamp of approval, a green circle with four overlapping blades of grass and the words “American Grassfed.” The AGA prohibits hormones and antibiotics and requires continuous access to pasture.
If “grass-fed” is a complicated label, “humane” is dizzying. It goes well beyond what an animal is fed, encompassing an entire approach to raising livestock, from birth to death. How densely are animals packed together? Are their horns removed? When and how? Are they castrated? When and how? Does the animal have shade? Protection from wind? What’s the transportation time to slaughter? Can one label take all such things into account?
The answers to these questions depend on the label. The USDA has some standards on these issues, mostly as part of its National Organic Program, which, according to its website, champions “practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” And all meat producers in the United States are subject to the Humane Slaughter Act, which applies to cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, and swine (and famously excludes poultry). The act requires that animals move through chutes in ways that don’t upset them, and that they be stunned senseless before slaughter. The American Meat Institute, recognizing that calmer cows produce better meat and fewer line stoppages, has adopted many killfloor features, such as chutes with solid walls to block out sudden movements or flashing lights that may startle them.
These measures, however, address only what happens once animals arrive at the slaughterhouse. Several organizations have developed programs?—?such as Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, Global Animal Partnership (used by Whole Foods), and American Humane Association?—?that take a comprehensive view of animal welfare, from birth to death, and offer labels to producers that meet their standards. But on a single measure, there can be a lot of variation. Take the issue of transportation time to slaughter. The Certified Humane program requires transport times to be kept to a minimum, but leaves “minimum” undefined. Animal Welfare Approved limits transport time to eight hours; the Global Animal Partnership program, 25. The USDA and American Humane Certified program don’t address the issue at all, though the USDA requires that animals kept longer than 24 hours have access to food.
Another example is litter management for chickens. Prolonged contact with ammonia-packed feces can cause burns on chickens’ feet and hocks, opening the door to bacterial infection. Cleaning the chicken houses regularly prevents this. Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, and American Humane Certified require litter management programs that keep ammonia levels below ten parts per million for Certified Humane; five parts per million for Animal Welfare Approved; and 25 parts per million for American Humane Certified. Global Animal Partnership and the USDA have no ammonia-level requirements (though the USDA requires clean, dry bedding).
Consumers, then, are left to educate themselves on these particular issues in the animal welfare ecosystem, and decide how much they matter?—?no easy task, considering that organizations dedicated to the humane treatment of animals can’t agree themselves.
A single, cohesive, comprehensive body of standards certainly would untangle things, but don’t look for that coming from Washington, D.C., any time soon. In her decades of consumer activism, Ellen Haas has learned one thing: The machinery of government moves slowly, especially when agribusiness lobbies spend more than $18 million annually to persuade Congress to back food policies that aren’t necessarily in the public’s interest (think of the “pizza as a vegetable” controversy).
The first law to introduce organic standards, the Organic Foods Production Act, was passed in 1990. But enforcement of those standards didn’t begin until 2002. Now, however, Haas feels confident that when a product says “USDA organic,” it is, per the federal rule, at least 95 percent organic; processed foods made with a variety of ingredients have to be at least 75 percent organic.
Still, Haas, who is now the senior advisor on food and agriculture policy for the lobbying firm Podesta Group, says that the country’s food safety system “is not as rigorous as it could be.” For example, she would like to see more regulation, if not an outright ban, of antibiotics in animal feed, since some researchers assert the antibiotics are a threat to human health (see sidebar, p. 21). But while the meat industry, she says, has come around to support more regulation on some of these types of measures, what will really lead to change in food standards is consumer demand and environmental and public-health activism—“a wide swath of people,” she says, “supporting both labeling and food safety.”
Is “Humane Meat” an Oxymoron?
As a vegan, LSA Assistant Professor of Philosophy Matthew Evans doesn’t doubt that some tiny fraction of animals are raised in ways that he would find “far, far less ethically troubling” than that of the majority of animals. But the humane-meat movement, and its attendant labels, trouble him. Its adherents, well-intentioned though they may be, are in fact perpetuating the suffering they seek to diminish, he says. “They’re making the solution harder to see,” says Evans, an associate professor of ancient philosophy. “We need to stop participating in the process.” There is no such thing as humane meat, in his view. Even under the care of conscientious farmers, animals are denied full, robust lives. Labels, by appealing to our better natures, simply obscure that fact. “It’s as though we can continue this without causing an unacceptable amount of misery,” he says, “and that’s an illusion.”
Until recently, Evans found nothing philosophically interesting about veganism; to him it was obviously the right thing to do. But after guest-lecturing in a recent sophomore course, 22 Ways to Think About Food, he began to examine some puzzles that he now sees “lingering at the border areas.” For example, the question of what would happen to cattle, pigs, chickens, and other animals if everyone went vegan. Perhaps, Evans speculates, turkeys and pigs would revert to their original wild forms and no longer be “the genetic monstrosities created by the meat industry.” What about cattle? “I’m willing to bite the bullet and say I don’t think it would be terrible if a species defined as being a beast of burden were eliminated from the planet because we no longer need that burden borne.”
Advocating veganism, then, has the inconvenient side effect of advocating for something that, fully carried out, results in the extermination of a certain being. “That feels uncomfortable to me,” Evans admits, “but I feel that my position likely commits me to that.” These tangential philosophical concerns, however, don’t threaten his core commitment to veganism. For him, the basic question is whether the suffering inflicted on animals is necessary. “Even when animals are treated relatively humanely,” says Evans, “they’re still suffering, and it’s unnecessary.”
Craig Haney (’94), like Matthew Evans, doesn’t demonize people whose views differ from his own. Talking to both men, you get the feeling that if they met they would have a very respectful conversation, even though some of Haney’s work is in stark contrast to Evans’ veganism. Haney is the livestock manager for Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a nonprofit farm and education center in Pocantico Hills, New York, about 25 miles north of Manhattan. Stone Barns operates an 80-acre farm that includes sheep, pigs, chickens, and turkeys raised for food and fiber. Haney would say there certainly is such a thing as humane meat, and you can find it at Stone Barns. Sheep are strictly grass-fed. Pigs are allowed to root around in the woods. Chickens are not confined to coops.
“We want them to have a nice life while they’re with us,” says Haney, “and to be as mindful of their death as their life.” For example, if one of the restaurants Stone Barns supplies requests a single lamb for slaughter, Haney refuses. “I say you’ve got to take two or none, because they’re a flock animal and we wouldn’t want it to be by itself for that part of its life. I’m not saying they’re not a little afraid to get on a trailer, but we try to minimize the stress.”
The current mishmash of standards and labeling systems is no surprise to Haney. “People have very different comfort levels on what they’ll accept with meat,” he says. “There’s no magic bullet as far as figuring it all out and coming up with a standard that everyone’s comfortable with.” For his part, Haney trusts anything with the Animal Welfare Approved label; ditto for Organic Valley dairy products. With any label, he says, it boils down to follow-up: calling the producer or organization and getting more information. Even then, if a company says its chickens get 73 square inches of space, will that mean anything to a layperson? At Stone Barns, which is open to the public, visitors sometimes are disappointed to see that the chicken pasture is bounded by any type of fence, to prevent chickens from escaping or being picked off by foxes. “They’ll be like, wait a minute, that doesn’t seem like free-range,” Haney says.
Still, perhaps it’s a sign of progress, however dubious. When Haney began raising animals more than a dozen years ago, the terms “free-range” and “grass-fed” were hardly known at all. He’s amazed at the degree to which interest in humane meat and sustainable agriculture, which he’s been engaged in all along, has entered the national consciousness. It’s encouraging, he says, and he expects future progress to be similarly incremental.
“At this point in time, our food system is like a huge, ocean-going vessel heading in one direction,” says Haney. “It’s not going to spin on a dime, but it can and is changing directions.”
Mary Jean Babic is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.
Shake Your Label Maker
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the federal agency responsible for the safety and factual labeling of meat, offers definitions for the terms “natural” and “no hormones.” But they may not mean what you think they mean.
Definition: The product contains no artificial ingredients or added colors and is “minimally processed,” meaning that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter it.
Buyer Beware: Animals that have received antibiotics and hormones to promote rapid growth may be included under this label. Researchers have linked antibiotics in meat with an increase in antibiotic-resistant cases of food poisoning in humans. The Cancer Prevention Coalition says hormones in beef are associated with increased cancer risk. “Natural” animals may also be raised on factory farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs
NO HORMONES (beef)
Definition: Growers must provide sufficient documentation to the FSIS that animals have been raised without hormones.
Buyer Beware: The USDA asserts that hormone-treated beef is safe, though some scientists argue that the health effects of hormones haven’t been studied thoroughly enough. What’s more, meat is not monitored for hormone residues, meaning that CAFOs may illegally inject hormones directly into the meat without any way to regulate or test for such violations.
NO HORMONES (pork or poultry)
Definition: Federal regulation prohibits the use of hormones in raising pork or poultry.
Buyer Beware: Labels can’t boast “no hormones added” unless it’s followed by the statement “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” Some companies will try to score consumer points for not doing something federal law prohibits anyway.