Who's Got Beef?
If you eat beef, we hope you’ll make a decision to reduce the amount you do eat and only purchase meat that comes from cattle who were treated according to publicly accessible and independently approved animal welfare standards. To find beef of this sort, the first rule to remember is that if you don’t deliberately seek out meat from ranchers who follow a higher standard of animal welfare, you can be certain that your meal came from an animal who was mistreated (though not quite as severely as chickens, pigs, and sea animals). Ranchers get a premium price for their animals when they follow good husbandry practices, so you can be sure that they will let you know when they do.
Unfortunately, the premium price that comes with high animal welfare standards has also encouraged a lot of deceptive labels. So how do you know what beef is best?
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First, ignore any word on a label unless you are already familiar with it from a trusted source. Words like “free-range/roaming” and “natural” are poorly defined from a legal perspective and do not indicate that meat came from animals raised in a high-welfare setting. For basic welfare during the animal’s life, you want a “grass-fed” and “pasture-raised” animal—but these terms are poorly defined and without the addition of an independent certification it's hard to know if the animals really did spend their lives eating grass on pasture. It is even harder to tell if the animal was mutilated (castrated, dehorned, or branded) and how the animal was killed. Perhaps the best way to ensure that your food came from animals who had both a good life and a good death is to buy your beef in bulk from a 100 percent grass-fed and pasture-raised beef ranch that you have personally visited, and to personally arrange for the animal to be individually slaughtered. Farmers’ markets and food co-ops can be a good place to learn how to do this, among their many other advantages. Abundant—though scattered—regional information is also available online (SustainableTable.org is a good place to start).
If a traditional supermarket or restaurant is your only option, the industry leaders—who don’t guarantee humane animal products but do make finding them more likely—are Whole Foods, among supermarkets, and Chipotle, among national restaurant chains. Beef with the American Grassfed Certified label indicates that the animals genuinely were pasture-raised and grass-fed (which those words alone do not guarantee). This certification, however, has important limitations such as the lack of regulations covering slaughter. Animal Welfare Approved or Global Animal Partnership Step 4 through 5+ certifications also genuinely indicate significantly higher than average levels of welfare. Meats that carry the Certified Humane or Global Animal Partnership Steps 1 through 3 certifications come from animals who are raised by better-than-average methods, but the animal welfare standards are comparatively weak.
Farm Forward hopes to bring you more complete information in the future through a forthcoming site, CattleWatch.org, which will function as a hub for the most current information on beef and dairy. We invite you to support the creation of CattleWatch.org with a donation or by contacting us to volunteer your services. And be sure to join the Farm Forward mailing list to receive updates about our work and important information about how you can get involved.