In today’s urban lifestyle, consumers are often disconnected from their food’s origins, including where it comes from, or in the case of meat, how it was raised. If you have a fondness for beef burgers, chicken breast, and scrambled eggs, knowing their terrior is key.
The negative impact of unsustainable animal agriculture on our ecosystem—and our collective health—is impossible to ignore. But we can mitigate the impact by using some savvy consumer power. We can start by understanding the nuances of product labels.
Unfortunately, marketers can confuse the message with meaningless claims, making product packaging and labelling downright confusing. Here’s what some of the most common label lingo means so you can spend your dollars wisely.
“Organic” is one of the few terms on animal-based products in Canada that is clearly defined. Livestock can only be raised on organic feed that was grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms.
There are also some provisions for providing animals with more humane living conditions. As well, no meat or dairy hailing from animals treated with antibiotics can enter the food chain. Organic ruminant animals, like cattle and sheep, can still be fed grain and corn (albeit organic).
Grassfed vs grass finished
“Grassfed” commonly refers to livestock raised on pasture and not confined to a feedlot.
“Grass finished” means animals spend their final weight-gain stage on grass (and may or may not have eaten grains during their lifetimes).
“100% Grassfed” would be your best assurance the animal had only consumed grass.
In Canada, there are currently no provincial or national standards defining how “grassfed” or “grass finished” claims can be used on meat labels. “Grass finished” does not provide any guarantee about the length of time livestock consumed grass exclusively. “Grassfed” livestock may still be fed grains in a feedlot system toward their final days to fatten them up quickly.
Grassfed = better nutrition
Research suggests that grassfed beef produces meat with a better nutrition profile, including increased levels of omega-3 fats and lower levels of cholesterol-raising saturated fats.
“Free range” is commonly used to describe chicken and turkey that have been given access to regularly roam and graze outdoors. Regulations govern the use of this term only in BC, such as the length of time spent outdoors or ease of access to nature.
“Free run” simply means chickens were not confined to cages, but it doesn’t mean they have access to the outdoors.
Within Canada, certification of free-range eggs currently exists only in BC where minimum standards provide for outdoor access for a minimum of six hours a day, 120 days of the year provided temperatures are between 15 C and 30 C. Certified organic eggs must come from hens raised in a free-range system with access to the outdoors.
This term should mean that animals roam in a natural environment and eat forage and is often used in the same way as “free range.” The term “pasture raised” is not governed by any certification or regulatory bodies in Canada.
“Pasture-raised” eggs = better nutrition
Research has shown that eggs from pasture-raised (or free-range) chickens have a nutritional advantage, including greater levels of omega-3 fats, vitamin E, and vitamin A.
Vegetarian grain fed
Many poultry products sport this label which means the feed given to the flock contains no animal byproducts, often added to feed as a protein source. In these cases, the feed contains only vegetable protein such as soy.
Chickens are omnivores, not ruminants, so in a natural setting they would eat bugs and grubs and whatever they can scratch up. This means that a label that says “Vegetable Grain Fed Chicken” does not reflect a bird’s natural diet.
To be frank, this is an ambiguous term. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) states: “with respect to a meat, poultry, or fish product, “natural” and “naturally raised” claims are considered acceptable only on products that were raised with minimal human intervention, for example, wild turkey or wild fish.”
“Raised without the use of antibiotics” labels on meat, poultry, or fish product, according to the CFIA, say the animal may not have been treated with antibiotics, from birth to slaughter or harvest.
“Antibiotic free” on the label carries less weight, since it can apply to any animal that has met a specific withdrawal period before being slaughtered.
In Canada, hormones are permitted in nonorganic beef cattle, but prohibited in chickens. So, if you see “Raised without the use of added hormones” on a chicken product (whether it be poultry or eggs), that is misleading.
The use of hormonal growth promoters in beef cattle is a concern sparking much debate around the world. So a steak with the label “Raised without the use of added hormones” is worth considering as a better option.
Keep in mind that organic certified beef and dairy will come from hormone-free animals, and most grassfed third-party certifications do not permit the use of these growth-promoting agents. And, as meat, poultry, and seafood contain naturally occurring hormones, the claim “hormone free” can never be considered truly accurate.
Third-party animal welfare certifications, such as Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, and Global Animal Partnership, audit their farms to verify the farmer is raising animals to a higher standard of animal welfare than common industry practice. A label with a seal from one of these certification programs is an assurance that animals were only raised using required sustainability and animal welfare practices.
Broccoli ’Bou Stir-Fry
“One of my favourite stir-fry meals is broccoli beef, so when I found myself with several hundred pounds of Yukon Mountain Caribou this past fall, I figured a ’bou backstrap (see tip) would be an excellent game replacement,” says Teddy Cosco, avid fisher, hunter, and full-time assistant professor of mental health and aging at Simon Fraser University.
1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt
8 oz (225 g) backstrap caribou steak, cut into strips
1 1/2 Tbsp (22 mL) sesame oil
1 head broccolini, chopped
2 cups (500 mL) snap peas
4 Tbsp (60 mL) chopped spring onion, divided
1 tsp (5 mL) toasted sesame seeds
1 cup (250 mL) cooked rice
Salt and pepper, to taste
Season backstrap slices with salt. In a ripping hot cast iron wok, add sesame oil and sear backstrap for 30 seconds, turning them to sear all sides. Remove to a plate.
Add broccolini to pan and cook 4 minutes, until almost tender. Add snap peas and 2 Tbsp (30 mL) green onion. Cook 30 seconds. Return caribou to pan, give a quick stir and sprinkle with remaining green onions, toasted sesame seeds, and salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with rice.
Each serving contains: 424 calories; 32 g protein; 15 g total fat (3 g sat. fat); 37 g total carbohydrates (3 g sugars, 5 g fibre); 375 mg sodium
Backstrap comes from the caribou’s longissimus dorsi, the muscle that runs along the spine. Beef striploin would be a good substitution for the lean meat. The slices should be cut to the classic length of fajita strips, about 1/2 in (13 mm) slices.
Food labelling in Canada falls under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The CFIA has made positive progress in recent years toward improved food regulations, starting with taking over the organic certification system with the Organic Products Regulations in 2009, which was incorporated into the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations in 2018, allowing CFIA agents to have greater powers of enforcement.
Still, a myriad of terms and phrases exist to describe food that are used without CFIA oversight, leaving consumers vulnerable to nutrition misrepresentation and greenwashing.
By the numbers: How the food we eat impacts our environment
of all food production climate-warming emissions are from livestock feed and the use of cows, pigs, and other animals for food
of climate-warming emissions are from beef cultivation
of climate-warming emissions are from plant-based food cultivation
reduction in overall US carbon footprint if daily beef-eating Americans swapped out their beef for one meal a day
reduction in US carbon footprint if dairy milk consuming Americans switched to soymilk
Less is best
Understanding meat food labels and the different livestock raising practices that farmers can use is an important step toward sourcing healthier, more sustainable options. But even if you are sourcing the most ethical, sustainable, and nutritious meat for your dinner table, be it 100 percent grassfed or from regenerative agriculture operations, it’s still important that most Canadians make it a goal to eat less meat and more plants.
It’s not just the planet that can benefit from swapping beef for beans more often, it’s also human health. Recent scientific evidence suggests adhering to healthy plant-based dietary patterns can not only reduce the risk for heart disease, but also reduce people’s genetic susceptibility to cardiovascular disease.
Foods from the plant kingdom contain a nutritional make-up including high levels of fibre and phytonutrients that aren’t available from a meat-heavy diet. And when you trim some of the meat from your diet in favour of lower-cost plant-based alternatives, like legumes, it may leave you with more in your budget to spend on animal-based proteins that demand a premium, like grassfed beef, free range chicken, and wild salmon—choices that can help lower the carbon cost of your diet.
The bottom line for the well-being of our fragile planet and our bodies? It’s never been more important to source sustainably and humanely produced meat and, at the same time, wedge more plants into your daily menu. Meatless Mondays and Grassfed Tuesdays, anyone?
Regenerating greener pastures
Regenerative agriculture is a newly codified approach to agriculture that emphasizes not only reducing reliance on chemical inputs, as does organic agriculture, but goes one step further by taking the necessary steps to rebuild the soil biome (a living, biological active soil), resulting in a carbon drawdown and less polluted water systems, including rivers.
It’s a holistic approach to plant and livestock production that does a much better job at promoting and enhancing biodiversity, protecting long-term soil health, and respecting ecological balance through the use of environmental, ecological, and ethical practices.
Livestock raised using a regenerative farming approach can have a positive impact on the environment. A study in the journal Agricultural Systems showed that cattle raised using a method known as multi-paddock grazing, where the grassfed animals are moved often to allow plants to recover and avoid the pitfalls of overgrazing, resulted in greenhouse gas emissions incurred through the raising of the cattle being mostly offset by the amount of carbon sequestered in the healthier soil.
Like organic farming a couple of decades ago, regenerative agriculture is still in its infancy. But there are a growing number of Canadian farmers raising their livestock and vegetables in this fashion, so it will become increasingly possible to purchase this next-level meat for a more climate-friendly burger.