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Conscious Carnivores: The New Way to Eat Ethically


What does “certified humane,” “all natural,” and “hormone-free” really mean? Here’s the sustainable eaters’ guide to decoding food labels

By Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RDN


What does it mean to be a conscious carnivore? Well, that’s for each ethical eater to determine for his or herself. There are a number of different criteria that people who follow an ethical meat-eating diet tend to look for (keep in mind that the definition of each of these standards are subject to change, but the definitions listed in this section were accurate as this book went to press). You can stick with the ones that seem the most relevant to you; or just do your best to eat as ethically as you can, as much as possible. Below, some of the terms worth looking out for:

Organic: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees this label, which means that food producers who use it are held to a very high standard. Animals raised organically must eat 100% organic feed and be allowed to graze outdoors. The USDA also limits organic food producers from using synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, and genetically modified organisms.

Natural: This term is not as meaningful. It generally indicates that meat doesn’t contain artificial flavoring or coloring, and that chemical preservatives or artificial ingredients were used. However, the government doesn’t oversee the use of the term in the same way it supervises use of the word “organic” — so you there are no guarantees when you see it used.

Free-Range (or Free Roaming): This term is regulated by the USDA regarding chickens raised for meat, however there is no legal definition when it applies to egg-laying hens. It usually means that the animals have had some access to the outdoors for at least five minutes each day.

Cage-Free: This non-regulated term typically means that hens live in an open area with unlimited access to food and water. They have more room to spread out than if they were in cages, but they don’t necessarily have access to the outdoors.

Pasture-Raised: The government does not oversee the use of this term, however, it is usually used to mean that year-round, animals have access to the outdoors and get their nutrition the way they do in nature—from grass, plants, and even insects. The meat and eggs from pasture-raised animals are more nutritious for us. Raising animals in this manner — if companies do as they promise — is also healthier for the animals and better for the environment.

Grass-Fed: You’ll most often see this term used to refer to meat from ruminant animals (ones that have a four-compartment stomach and chew cud) like cows and lamb. Grass-fed means that the animals get their nutrition from grass and forage like hay rather than grains, which is the primary food for most cattle in this country. Meat that’s been raised on grass is more nutritious than that raised on grain; this practice is also better for the cows and the environment. Look for meat that has been verified grass-fed by the USDA or the American Grassfed Association.

No Hormones Administered: This implies that the people who raised the animals didn’t give them any extra hormones over the course of their lives (hormones do occur naturally, so it isn’t technically true to say “hormone free,” even though plenty of companies do so). Synthetic hormones are usually used to help animals grow bigger or faster. The USDA can verify if a company using this term is telling the truth, though they don’t always do so. It’s also worth mentioning that USDA already doesn’t allow added hormones to be used in the raising of hogs or poultry. So if you see pork or chicken products that say “no hormones administered,” the company is trying to pull a fast one on you (and possibly charge you more for it). The USDA however does permit additional hormones to be used on cows. So a beef product labeled “no hormones administered” may be worth the extra cash.

No Antibiotics Added: This usually means that the people who raised the animals didn’t give them any antibiotics over their lifetime. Antibiotics in food are bad for human health, because when we get overexposed to antibiotics, we can become resistant to them — and that means that one day, the prescription your doctor gives you to heal strep throat or a sinus infection may not work.

Certified Humane: This label is certified by the organization Humane Farm Animal Care and is considered very reputable. To be certified under this program, animals must be raised without growth hormones and antibiotics. They must also have access to clean and sufficient food and water, and a healthy living environment. Producers are also required to comply with specific earth-friendly criteria, and humane slaughtering standards.

Certified Naturally Grown: Not to be confused with the mostly meaningless “natural,” this label is an alternative to the USDA’s organic certification. You might see it on produce, honey, poultry, and eggs. The regulations are similar to those for organics, however this program is tailored to meet the needs of smaller scale farms. Use of the Certified Naturally Grown label is overseen by the organization that administers it, and it is considered to be pretty reputable.

Animal Welfare Approved: This label is designed to ensure that animals live as naturally as possible — in order for products to be certified, the animals raised must have had access to the outdoors, be raised on smaller scale family farms, and meet other standards designed by scientists, veterinarians and farmers. Supervised by the non-profit Animal Welfare Institute, this label is considered to be reputable. 


Published July 7, 2014


"Smart Girls Guide to Going Vegetarian" Book ImageExcerpted from The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian. Copyright 2014 by Rachel Meltzer Warren. Reprinted with permission from Sourcebooks.

The Smart Girl's Guide to Going Vegetarian is the ultimate handbook for any teenager (or teen at heart) who is interested in shifting to a meat-free diet. It is a judgment-free, supportive manual that empowers the reader to find the place on the vegetarian spectrum — from conscious carnivore to flexitarian to vegan — that is right for her.


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