Article written by Lindsay Chichester
The connection between food and agriculture is a natural fit. However, the majority of food eaters have never been on a farm or ranch and are increasingly suspicious of how their food is grown and raised. This article will highlight some of the common myths and discuss why they are untrue, it will provide links to reputable sources for more information, and it will provide you some insight on the passion of the farmers and ranchers who grow and raise your food – like me, a 4th generation agriculturalist.
How big are the farms and who owns them? People often think animals are raised at huge “factory farms” or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or corporate farms. According to the 2014 U.S. Agricultural Census , the average farm size in the U.S. is 434 acres, an acre is approximately the size of a football field (my family’s ranch is 300 acres). When it comes to who owns these farms:
- 87% of farms are owned by the farmer and/or his/her family.
- 6% are owned by a partnership (usually siblings, parent/child, cousins, or some other family dynamic).
- 2% are owned by estates or trusts (which is generally done by families who have several children who do not farm or who may own the farm but do not actively farm).
- 5% are owned by corporations.
Approximately 95% of farms are family owned! Only 5% of the 2,109,303 farms in the U.S. are owned by corporations! The majority of food grown and raised in the U.S. is raised by family farmers and ranchers.
What is a factory farm or a CAFO? Factory farms and CAFOs are often used interchangeably and they bring up imagines of complete horror and incomprehensible living conditions of animals. Since there is really not a definition of factory farms, Anne Burkholder (feedyardfoodie.com), a cattle feedlot owner and manager in Nebraska, compiled a list that she gathered of the general specifications of a cattle factory farm:
- The cattle live in dirt pens.
- The cattle are fed by a tractor or some other type of machinery with the feed placed in feedbunks.
- The cattle are fed corn or some derivative of corn in addition to forages.
- There are more cattle per acre than in a pasture grazing situation.
- The higher concentration of cattle produces an odor or smell.
- The farm is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation).
Anne’s feedyard fits the bill for all of the above mentioned bullet points. Anne goes on to say, “The honest truth is that I really am not sure what exactly a “factory farm” is other than a product of someone’s imagination. Many of the descriptions that I have read in the media depict a place similar to Azkaban in Harry Potter World where the wizards are kept in prison and the jail keepers are creatures that suck the souls out of them. As I work each day at the feed yard, I see a very different picture” (Read more here).
Animals raised in CAFOs have people like Anne who care for their daily needs and provide them with the best possible care they can. The animals have a nutritionist that designs a special feed ration allowing them to perform to their optimal best. The animals have people who look at each and every one of them daily to ensure they are not sick or injured. If they are sick or injured these people make a quick diagnosis and provide treatment immediately so the animal does not suffer, and begins to recover. Did you know the animals have enough space to freely stand up and move around? Don’t believe me? Check out Anne’s feedyard for yourself at feedyardfoodie.com; if you ever pass through Nebraska I am sure Anne would be happy to show you around and answer any questions you may have.
Grass-fed, grain-fed, no antibiotics, no added hormones… What does it all mean? It can be overwhelming to interpret and understand the differences on meat labels. Below are some details on the specifics of some of the meat labels.
Grain-fed (also called conventional): how the majority of meat animals are raised in the U.S. Conventionally raised meat means the animal receives grain through a balanced diet for a certain time period (usually 90-120 days) before it is harvested. Grain aids in helping the animal grow more quickly. It also increases the marbling (intramuscular fat), improving meat quality by making the meat flavorful, juicy, and tender. U.S. consumers not only prefer and consume grain-fed beef, but it is also exported to other countries. Grain-fed beef can be labeled organic, as long as the grains and forages the animal consumes are certified organic.
When it comes to carcass quality, grain-fed cattle have a brighter, more cherry-red appearing meat product. More fat on the carcass and larger carcasses means that the carcass cools more slowly. When a carcass cools slowly there is less cold shortening (shrinking of muscle fibers; short muscle fibers mean the meat is less tender); which attributes to increased tenderness. Grass-fed carcasses can have a problem with cold shortening due to the fact the carcass is usually lighter in weight and there is very little fat (Brewer & Calkins, 2003; Schroder, 1980).
Research also indicates that grain-fed beef is more tender (as determined by the Warner-Bratzler Shear Force test and sensory panels), is juicier from the increased marbling (intramuscular fat), and is overall more desirable (Brewer & Calkins, 2003; Schroeder, 1980; and Melton, et al., 1982).
- Grass-fed: the animal should only consume grass and forages for its lifetime with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. Acceptable feeds include: grass (annual and perennial), grass forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state, hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources are considered suitable feed sources. Mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the routine feeding regimen. Animals CANNOT be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season (USDA Grass-fed Marketing Claim Standards, 2008). Depending on the producer, there are some variations to grass-fed. They are: finished on grass only, grown on grass then finished in dry lot, and feed high roughage ration in feedlot (Harrison et al., 1978).
While it is common practice for producers of grass-fed meat to not give their animals additional hormones or antibiotics (McCluskey et al., 2005), there is NO governing body to regulate this. If you want to purchase meat from animals that have not received growth hormones, antibiotics, or that have consumed forages where pesticides were used, make sure you purchase your meat from a producer or retailer that you trust to provide meat that meets your requirements, or look for meat with the organic label.
Grass-fed beef is perceived to be healthier than conventionally (grain-fed) beef. Some health claims that can be made for grass-fed meat (specifically beef in this case) include:
- Some steak from grass-fed beef can be labeled as “lower in fat” than steak from conventionally (grain-fed) raised beef.
- Steak from grass-fed cattle can carry the health claim that foods low in total fat may reduce risk of cancer.
- Steak and ground beef can be labeled “lean” or “extra lean”.
- Steak and ground beef from grass-fed cattle can carry the health claim that foods containing omega-3 fatty acids may reduce risk of heart disease (Clancy, 2006).
Other health claims indicate that grass-fed beef is higher in CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) and milk from pasture raised cows is higher in CLA and ALA (Alpha-Linoleic Acid (Clancy, 2006). Concerning fatty acids, grass-fed beef has 4% omega-3, 6% omega-6 minus CLA, and 3% CLA. Comparatively, grain-fed beef has 1% omega-3, 7% omega-6 minus CLA, and 1% CLA, respectively (Today’s Beef Choices, 2003). Interestingly, CLA is found naturally in meat and milk products of all animals – regardless of their feeding situation.
Grass-fed beef is generally leaner, lower in fat, and has more omega-3 fatty acids. Beef should not be considered as a significant source of omega-3 fatty acids; fish (such as salmon, tuna, halibut, algae, krill), canola or soybean oil, some plants, walnuts, or ground flaxseed would be great options (Sacks, 2014; Omega-3 fatty acids, 2013). Being leaner and lower in fat, grass-fed beef oftentimes sacrifices tenderness, juiciness, and flavor due to a decrease in marbling (the intramuscular fat) and an increase in connective tissue. It is important to prepare cuts of meat from grass-fed animals with moisture (or wet cooking methods); a dry heat cookery method may make the eating experience less desirable.
Organic: Sales of organic products continue to grow, especially organic food products. Organic products now make up just over 4% of total U.S. food sales (USDA: ERS, 2014).
Organically labeled meat means that the animal’s diet can consist of any grain or forage product as long as those feed items are certified organic. This program is the most strict with the most guidelines, and is governed by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). To be certified organic, a grain or forage resource must not have had synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation applied, and/or had genetically engineered products produced on that ground in three or more years (USDA, 2011). Additionally, the livestock CANNOT receive antibiotics or additional growth hormones (Organic Standards, 2013) (many hormones are naturally occurring in the animal, but no additional hormones are given by producers in this program).
Research has indicated that organic foods are NOT considered to be healthier or better for you than conventionally raised foods (Smith-Spangler et al., 2012). However, people who may have food allergies, chemical allergies, or intolerance to preservatives may prefer organic food products. Additionally, organically produced strawberries, corn, and marionberries may be higher in antioxidants than the conventionally raised form. Research has also indicated that because there is no preservative use, organically grown products may be more susceptible to bacteria, parasites, and pathogen contamination (Natural and Organic Foods, n.d.).
It is also important to note that just because it is organic, does not mean it is pesticide or chemical free. Organic producers use natural chemicals versus synthetic chemicals. For more information read this.
How can you tell if the meat you are purchasing is organic? Look at the label. If a product is organic it will have the USDA organic seal. This indicates the product is certified organic and has 95% or more organic content. For multi-ingredient products such as bread or soup, if the label claims that it is made with specified organic ingredients, you can be confident that those specific ingredients have been certified organic (National Organic Program, 2012). If someone is claiming that a product is organic, but they are not certified, be cautious – the NOP says that a product cannot be marketed as organic unless it is certified. The only exemption is if a producer sells $5,000 or less in goods annually, then they are not required to become certified (Labeling Organic Products, 2012).
- All-natural: It is estimated that 375,000 to 425,000 head of cattle are produced under an all-natural regime (Natural Beef Profile, 2012); this would be a large portion of meat in the meat case. Meat, poultry, and eggs that carry the “natural” label CANNOT be altered during processing; this would include the addition of artificial ingredients (spices, marinades, sauces, etc.), the addition of colorants, the additional of chemical preservatives, making the meat minimally processed (does not fundamentally alter the product) (Natural beef, 2013; National Organic Program, 2012). Meat labeled as all-natural can come from an animal that has consumed any grain or forage product, organic or not. All-natural does NOT include any standards regarding farm practices; which means an animal can receive additional growth hormones or antibiotics. Additionally, there are no regulations on what the animal can or cannot consume.
Unlike organically labeled meats, there is no governing body for all-natural meat products. Again, it is a common myth the animals cannot receive growth hormones or antibiotics. This is false, each individual producer can decide if their animals can/need to receive growth hormones and/or antibiotics (USDA Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms, 2011; National Organic Program, 2012). If you want to purchase meat from animals that have not received growth hormones or antibiotics then make sure you purchase your meat from a producer or retailer (look at the label) that you trust to provide meat that meets your requirements.
- Naturally raised: This should not be confused or used interchangeably with all-natural – they are NOT the same thing! The naturally raised marketing claim states that livestock used for the production of meat and meat products have been raised entirely WITHOUT additional growth promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control), or animal by-products (no longer a common practice) (USDA established naturally raised marketing claim standard, 2009). Additionally, naturally raised does have a certification program and all products must be certified by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) (Today’s Beef Choices, 2003).
Since naturally raised does carry the “natural” label, the meat does not contain any artificial ingredients (spices, marinades, etc.), colorants, chemical ingredients, or other synthetic ingredients – making the meat minimally processed (does not fundamentally alter the product) (Natural beef, 2013).
- No-added hormones: All cellular organisms contain hormones, they are naturally occurring – there is no such thing as hormone free! When something is labeled “hormone free” or “no hormones”, it is a misnomer (as they are naturally occurring). The correct wording should be “no-added hormones”, “raised without added hormones”, “no hormones administered”, or “no synthetic hormones” (Labels that tell you a little, n.d.).
Additional hormones are NOT allowed in pigs, poultry, sheep, rabbits, or bison! The statement “no hormones added” CANNOT be used on any packaging unless it is followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry/pork/bison” (Meat and poultry labeling terms, 2011; Labels that tell you a little, n.d.), so as not to mislead consumers into believing that these meat protein products were grown with additional hormones.
- No antibiotics: There are NO antibiotics in meat, milk, or egg products. These animal proteins undergo strict testing to ensure there are no residues. In the dairy industry, if a load of milk tests positive for antibiotics, the entire load is not used for human consumption. To see what daily life on a working dairy farm looks like, follow Carrie and her family at DairyCarrie.com. Packing plants regularly test meat for antibiotic residues. Additionally, the farmers and ranchers follow strict withdrawal dates after they give antibiotics. A withdrawal date is the amount of time that must pass after an antibiotic is given to ensure there is no residue in the meat, milk, or eggs, thus creating the safest food possible.
No antibiotics is also referred to as “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics administered”. The term “no antibiotics added” may be used on labels for meat and/or poultry products if the producer can provide sufficient documentation indicating the animal was raised without antibiotics (Meat and poultry labeling terms, 2011; Labels that tell you a little, n.d.). This indicates that no antibiotics were used on the animal in its lifetime. Antibiotics are used to prevent and treat disease in animals – just like in humans. If an animal does have to be treated with an antibiotic for illness, the meat, milk, and/or eggs cannot be sold in an organic or naturally raised system and cannot have a label with the wording “raised without antibiotics” (Meat and poultry labeling terms, 2011).
Both meat labels and agriculture can seem complex and daunting. However, the farmers and ranchers who grow and raise your food are very good at what they do and are passionate about their profession. Their families are eating the same food you are feeding to your family. Oftentimes, farms and ranches are passed down from one generation to another, cultivating generations of people who care about their animals, the natural resources, and the sustainability of their farm or ranch. If you have questions please reach out to the farmers and ranchers. Don’t know any? Other agriculturalists would love to help answer your questions (http://agricultureproud.com/ask-a-farmer/) and ease any concerns you may have.
Lindsay Chichester is an Educator with Nebraska Extension. She was born and raised on a cattle and sheep ranch in Northern California. Lindsay studied agriculture in college in Oklahoma and Texas, specifically focusing on animal science, food safety, and meat science. In her spare time, Lindsay enjoys cooking, eating, traveling, reading, being outside, and spending time with her British husband. Stay up to date on current agricultural issues by following Lindsay at agriculturalwithdrlindsay.com, or on Instagram/Twitter as @AgWithDrLindsay.