Ethical Meat vs. Meat Hype: A Look at "All Natural", "Grass-Fed" and Other Half-Truths


“This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat will be shoveled into carts and the man who did the shoveling will not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one.”

— Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

Total post read time: 6 minutes.

I have become fascinated by meat in the last several months, after both experimenting with vegetarianism and tracking health data.

The catalysts for my newfound carnivore enthusiasm were two-fold: reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and getting to know local butchers in the San Francisco area. I’ve come to realize that, if conscious eating — knowing where your food comes from and how it’s both raised and killed or harvested — is the key to ethical eating, labels are the new battleground for your mind and dollars…

Marketing departments are excellent at inventing terms that don’t hold companies accountable, as non-enforceable claims (referred to as “puffery” in the business) don’t result in lawsuits. Hair “volumizers”, “age-defying” x-9 cream factor, and “all natural” meat, oh my!

I recently picked up an unusual magazine at the Ferry Building farmer’s market in SF: Meatpaper: Your Journal of Meat Culture. In Issue Six, there was a fantastic overview of label terms — the good, the bad, and the ugly — in an article entitled “It’s a Jungle Out There: What do meat labels mean?”

Please find it below, along with sample labels, reprinted with permission. Comments within brackets are mine.

It’s a Jungle Out There – by Marissa Guggiana

Meat is the only product in the United States that comes with a government seal of approval. Sinclair’s 1905 novel about the grotesqueries of the meat industry inspired outrage and led to the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act. The inspection label (or “bug”, as it is paradoxically referred to by industry folk) was, until recent history, the only label that mattered, promising third-party supervision of the production of an inherently high-risk, high-stakes product.

Today, a new generation of meat labels makes much more ambitious promises. Far beyond simply assuring that meat is sans rat, today’s labels seek to answer consumer concern over animal husbandry practices, like animals’ living conditions and diets. With new worries about food-borne pathogens like E. coli, and new focus on food’s provenance, just about everyone involved in meat, from the federal government to farmers, processors, non-profits, and chain supermarkets, is trying to convey its priorities, and find room on the package to do it.

Some of the claims are backed by USDA authority and have concrete definitions, dutifully recorded in the federal register; some are monitored by animal-interest or environmental groups; some are created by businesses themselves, which employ private auditors to guarantee compliance with their criteria.

Here is a survey of only some of the dozens of assurances your meat makes; hopefully, it will help to clarify.


This means meat that is minimally processed with no artificial or synthetic products. It is not regulated, however, so anyone can put it on their package. This claim has no clout.

COOL (Country of Origin Labeling)

USDA regulated. It states where meat was raised, slaughtered, and processed (and if this means multiple countries, as in the case of some ground meat, they should all be listed).


USDA regulated. It means, very narrowly, that animals eat grass. According to the USDA definition, “grass-fed” animals can also be fed grain, and can be raised on grass in confinement, as long as they have access to pasture.

[As documented in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and elsewhere, “access” can be — and often is — nothing more than a facility with a door to a small outdoor area. Livestock is transferred to this facility after they have been conditioned to remain indoors in a facility with no such exit. Get to know your local butcher or rancher and get to know your meat.]


This means strictly that the animal has some access to outdoors. There is no regulation for use of this term, except in the case of chickens raised for consumption. “Pasture-raised” is a more meaningful term concerning the animal’s welfare.


USDA and third-party certified. This certification means that livestock wasn’t treated with hormones or antibiotics and was fed a pesticide-free diet.


Refers only to an animal’s diet and does not guarantee the animal was pastured or raised humanely.


This article addresses the treatment of living animals. Producers and retailers may also make claims about how the animal is handled between slaughter and purchase. Meat may be wet or dry-aged, frozen, and packaged in various ways.


Many ranches now choose to undergo an audit by third parties such as Animal Welfare Association and Humane Farmed to high-light their extra care. This type of label wards against practices like overcrowding, castrating, early weaning, and denying animals access to pasture. It measures the entire life cycle in terms of animal health and well-being.



This pre-organic standard treats the whole ranching operation as an interrelated whole. While some meats are technically organic, a biodynamic farm assures the meat also came from a healthy, self-sustaining system.


Producers who take part in this affidavit program state in writing that the animals were raised within 20 miles. This label is not certified [or confirmed] by a third party, such as the USDA or a labeling certifier.

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240 Replies to “Ethical Meat vs. Meat Hype: A Look at "All Natural", "Grass-Fed" and Other Half-Truths”

  1. The UK has good quality, real grass fed beef as standard. Can you point to offical certifications that guarantee good quality meat?

  2. My in-laws raise beef cattle. (Though, this year, last I heard they were debating between raising the beef, and renting out the pasture).

    They tend to raise a large number of cattle in fields, and then finish them for a month or so on grain to help bulk them out just before slaughter. From the time they are little to the grain stage, they feed on grass, and maybe some hay.

    Very good, and yummy beef. 🙂 Plus, they raise sheep and goats. Goat meat is very yummy… just tough. 🙁 Sous Vide is the way to cook it well. And meatloaf with ground lamb * Goat is delicious.

  3. I’m genuinely surprised that a lot of super smart people like Tim have not come to see animal agriculture as barbaric, environmentally destructive and bad for the global poor (humans), and stuck with the effort to go vegan. Just listen to Sam Harris talking about it with Paul Bloom on The Waking up podcast. Despite the fact that both were omnivores, they were very clear that there is no moral defense for that industry. Harris is putting a lot of effort in to change, and I applaud him and everyone who at least tries to minimise their involvement. Yeah, sure there are many ethical issues in life and we are not perfect us humans, but this one seems like a no-brainer to me.

  4. As a farmer of 100 % grass fed only beef and lamb in the UK I tend to agree. Labels mean nothing and just provide a facade for cheats to hide behind. If you can’t visit the farm where your food is produced then you don’t know how it is produced. I produce my beef on trust and anyone can visit any time.

    Tim – if you are interested in this you should check out Joel Salatin and his Polyface farm – He is a legend and well worth your time interviewing. He is a great speaker and might be the best farmer in the world. Ther eis also a fil about his farm coming out soon so good timing for search etc.

  5. Though I am a vegetarian who eats mostly organic I appreciate your effort to drop knowledge about the meat industry. It’s never been more important than now to be aware of what we are putting in our bodies!

  6. Thanks so much for raising this important topic Tim. If we can move to a better place with more humane production of animals, better labeling and even meat reduction and veganism (if that works for people), then that can only be a good thing. For me, after reading the United Nations report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” and learning about the massive impact livestock has on the environment, water usage, environmental degradation and contribution to global warming, I realised it was time for me to go veg. I get that its not for everyone however I have found this so much easier than I thought it would- with products such as Beyond Meat and Gardein easily available and delicious! And feel so much better since cutting the dairy!

  7. Certified humane seems like the most transparent organization out there. It’s the only meat products we choose to eat after beginning our recovery from 10+ years of vegetarianism.

  8. This is exactly why I am a Hunter. I know exactly were my meat came from, how the animal lived, and that it is truly organic and free ranged. In addition, there is an huge status faction knowing I “earned” my meat, it is the highest level of accountiitity if you are to eat meat. I process the meat myself so I am confident on how it was handled. Not to mention Elk is pretty damn good tasting!

  9. I’ve been vegan for almost 3 years ago and it’s been the best decision I have ever made.

    Watching Forks Over Knives, Cowspiracy and Earthlings definitely changed my entire perspective.

  10. So basically the best kind of meat you could possibly get would be the combination of, “certified humane, organic, and/or free-range.” …

  11. Buddha said it best:

    “All beings tremble before violence. All love life. All fear death. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?”

    “One who, while himself seeking happiness oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.”

    “He, who injures living beings, is not Noble. He is called Noble, because he is gentle and kind towards all living beings.”

    And His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama added:

    “Killing animals for sport, for pleasure, for adventures, and for hides and furs is a phenomenon which is at once disgusting and distressing. There is no justification in indulging in such acts of brutality.”

  12. Thanks for the article. How do we get real meat then? Meat that comes from animals that were properly raised and killed?

    1. Buy from markets like Whole Foods that already have these values in mind. Buy meat with the labels Certified Humane or 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating. Research organizations like these to make sure they are legit.

  13. What I don’t understand is “vegetarian fed” chickens. Chickens aren’t vegetarians and feeding them corn or whatever doesn’t seem to be a good thing.

  14. I suggest to check how free-range animals are treated at the farm before buying something from it. Find a free-range farm close to you here: and visit it. It is important to know your farmer. I think you should know where your food comes from.