How To Buy Meat

There are many reasons to avoid eating meat unless you know how it was produced. Learn what the issues are, how to navigate the confusing world of meat labels and use our checklist to find the best beef, lamb, goat and pork.

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If you are buying meat from a source you have not vetted, it almost certainly came from a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO. Although you may find this meat for an affordable price at the market, the cost of supporting CAFOs is anything but cheap.

Your health

Even though ruminants, such as cows, goats and sheep, are designed to eat only grass and forage, they are often given feed designed to fatten them quickly. This includes genetically modified soy and corn, but often includes all kinds of other things you’d never expect.

Byproduct feedstuffs: Cheap waste products leftover from the production of human food. Amazingly, this can include candies and chocolates, cookie meal, fruit juice, fish meal, pet food fines (remanufactured waste from pet food production), and poultry waste from factory chicken farms.

Animal by-products: Animal by-products that are processed by meat rendering plants are allowed in livestock feed, in spite of the fact that they are herbivores.

Drugs: Antibiotics, sulfa drugs, ionophores, beta-antagonists, Ractopamine, growth promoting hormones. Some of these drugs are given in the weeks before slaughter to artificially increase muscle mass, during a time called “finishing.” Residues can remain in the muscle tissue.

There are many drugs that are permitted in the US that are explicitly banned for livestock in countries like China, Malaysia and Russia.

The next time you are about to buy miscellaneous meat, think about the drug cocktail that may have been consumed by the animal.

Animal welfare

Farming animals means killing them for food. This is obvious, but most people are very far removed from this basic reality. We can raise animals well and give them clean deaths, but farming animals for food is always going to require violence.

There is a huge difference, however, between doing what needs to be done with respect and treating animals as if they have no capacity for suffering. Factory farms regard animals as inanimate objects.

Eating meat makes you responsible for the life and death of the animals that feed you. Here are some important animal welfare issues to consider.

Physical alterations: These include tail amputations, castration, dehorning, hot iron branding, placing rings in pigs’ noses to make rooting (a fundamental porcine behavior) painful. Anesthetics or pain relief of any kind are rarely part of the process.

Crates: The most common form of housing in the industrial pork industry is the gestation crate, which is used to confine sows (female pigs) during pregnancy. These crates are typically so small a sow cannot even turn around.

In conventional pig farms, sows are moved from a gestation crate to a slightly larger farrowing crate so that her piglets have room to nurse. Soon after weaning one litter, a sow will be re-impregnated and returned to a gestation crate to repeat the cycle all over again.

Pigs are intelligent animals. They basically go insane in these barren, confined environments.

Veal calves are also kept in crates so small they can barely move in order to produce a pale, more succulent meat.

Transport: Live animals are often transported long distances, packed into trucks without room to sit and without food or water.

Handling: Animals are frequently handled with outright cruelty and abused. This happens on the farm, during transport and slaughter. This includes breaking of tails, terrorizing injured animals barely able to walk with electric cattle prods…things most people can’t imagine.

Environmental concerns

Along with the density in which animals are confined in CAFOs come the massive amounts of manure that build up which releases methane, a major greenhouse gas.

CAFOs affect local air and water quality. Manure from CAFOs is listed by the EPA as the fifth largest producer of methane—making it a major contributor to climate change.

The manure and urine created in CAFOs pose a threat to local water supplies. Densely packed animal feed operations create conditions in which disease is easily spread. To counteract this, conventional farmers often use sub-theraputic antibiotics—by including a constant low dose of in the animals’ daily feed. Other drugs are commonplace, such as growth enhancing hormones and beta antagonists.

The journey of antibiotics and drug additives does not end at the factory farm. The effluence ends up in vast sewage lagoons which can contain the various pharmaceuticals that have been administered to the animals. These lagoons can contaminate ground water and local streams, where fish and wildlife can be exposed to whatever chemicals and drugs the animals consumed.

Another environmental tragedy is the folly of growing grain to feed to ruminants. Cows, sheep and goats are ruminant animals, designed by nature to eat grass and forage. To contain them in small spaces rather than giving them adequate pasture to graze, and to fatten them and bring them to market weight sooner, they are fed corn and soy. It takes a great deal of land and water to grow grain to feed animals that are not even meant to eat grain. Feeding grain to ruminants is unsustainable.


Certified organic

In the US, organic standards for livestock primarily focus on regulations for ruminants and do not have adequate species-specific protocols for non-ruminants, such as pigs.

The National Organic Program (NOP) requires ruminants to have access to pasture for a minimum of 120 days per year. But up to 70% of their feed can be from other sources, such as grain, as long as that grain is certified organic, and does not contain any mammalian or poultry byproducts.

Antibiotics and hormones are not allowed, and synthetic herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides can’t be used on the farm. Physical alterations such as tail docking are permitted.

Many shoppers mistakenly believe that buying certified organic meat ensures the highest levels of land management and animal welfare.

Read about how the organic label for meat is falling short in this article.

Non-GMO Project

If the certified organic label prohibits the use of GMO feed, then what is the value of this GMO-specific certification?

In some cases, ranchers who do not wish to participate in organic certification (and there are legitimate reasons for this) still want to assure their customers they are GMO free.

But one of the weaknesses of the non-GMO claim of the certified organic label is the lack of verification and testing. While farmers who grow grain for livestock feed may not be using GMO seed, cross contamination from GMO plants growing nearby is not uncommon, and is a cause of concern for people who are adamant about keeping GMOs out of their diet. For these people, organic certification is not adequate.


There are several organizations that give out Humane certifications. Each organization has their own standards and regulations, and they can differ greatly. If you do not know what those regulations are, then you do not really know what you are buying. Some Humane certifications are more humane than others.

The most rigorous Humane certifications we’ve found so far are Humane Raised And Handled.

Free Range

There is no legal definition of free range for livestock, unless they are birds. If you buy free range meat, you will need to verify what that means with the producer.

Pasture raised

There is no legal definition for claims of raising animals on pasture. Pasture raised meats are the gold standard, but you have to investigate further to find out how the rancher is using this term.


Grass-fed claims only apply to ruminant animals: cows, goats and sheep. Pigs are not ruminants and don’t eat grass.

Most ruminant animals are grass fed at some point in their lives, so claims of being grass fed must be clarified. Currently, the USDA has a grass fed label, which states that animals must be fed only mother’s milk and forage (grass and greens), and that the animals must have access to pasture during the growing season.

There are two main problems with this definition. The first is that during the non-growing season (which can be many months), animals can be confined to a pen and fed hay. The second is that the regulations do not speak to the use of antibiotics, hormones and growth enhancing drugs.

The American Grassfed Association (AGA) offers a more rigorous certification, and you can see their standards here.

There are many wonderful ranchers producing 100% grass fed, grass finished beef, goat and lamb who are not third party certified. It is worth the trouble to do some research and get to know the ranchers in your area.


This label is used so many different ways, but means almost nothing legally. The legal definition has nothing to do with how the animal was raised, but pertains mostly to what happens to the meat after slaughter and during processing.

However, some farmers with very high standards are using the Natural label. For instance, some animals that are raised in certified organic herds but become ill and need to be treated with antibiotics are sold under the Natural label. In every other respect they are raised to organic standards. Read this article on the difference between organic and natural meat, and how some specific ranchers are using this label.

Global Animal Partnership

This is a rating and certification program with species-specific protocols. Whole Foods Market developed and uses this system in their stores.

Unless you actually read the regulations, there is no way to adequately decode what the various step ratings mean. The Steps have vague and eco-sounding names like “Enhanced Outdoor Access” and “Pasture Centered.” Sounds nice, doesn’t it? And yet it says nothing about what the animals are eating, pesticide use on fields, etc.

That said, the regulations are comprehensive when it comes to most animal welfare issues, and all steps prohibit the use of antibiotics and hormones. It’s still important to know what is not included in the rating system. Step 4 is the lowest rating that is adequate, but there are some big gaps. You still need to find out whether animals are 100% grassfed and finished, for ruminants. For pigs, you need to find out what they are eating, exactly. Step 4 still allows pigs to be ringed, for instance, which is not a high standard of animal welfare.

The confusion with this label also lies in not knowing how a particular producer rates in certain categories. For instance, two hog farmers may be rated Step 4, while one rings his pigs and the other doesn’t. One cattle ranch rated Step 4 could raise cows exclusively on pasture, while another with the same rating only keeps cows on pasture 3/4 of the year. You can’t know this by looking at the rating alone.

As an example, Stemple Creek Ranch is rated Step 4, which is a good rating for cattle. However, you would need to go to their website and confirm that they never use a feedlot, never feed their animals grains, cattle are 100% grass fed and finished and they only supplement with hay or alfalfa when necessary.

What about pesticides and sewage sludge? These are not covered by this label. But on the Stemple Creek website, you learn that most of their cattle and fields are certified organic, but that the processing plant they use is not. Therefore, some of their final product will not be eligible to carry the organic label. But it’s as good as.

Doing this extra research lets you know this is a high welfare producer who uses ecologically sound practices and provides an end product that was not raised with chemicals and additives, or fed grains. You can’t know these things by a label alone.

By knowing what the label/rating system covers and what it does not, you will know which of your questions still need to be asked. Labels can do a lot of legwork for you. Using the Step 4 rating as a baseline saves a lot of time and effort, but as demonstrated, there are still questions that need to be asked.


Ruminants (cows, sheep and goats)

Animal welfare

  • Physical alterations:What physical alterations do you subject animals to (tail docking, branding, disbudding, dehorning, castration, etc), and how do you manage pain?
  • Transport: How often and for how long are your animals transported? What welfare protocols do you have for animal transport?
  • Handling: What is your protocol for humane handling of animals?
  • Confinement: Are your animals ever confined in pens or crates?

Environmental concerns

  • How much time do your animals spend on pasture?
  • Do you use pesticides, herbicides, sewage sludge or petrochemical fertilizers on your pastures?
  • How do you handle manure buildup?
  • Do you practice rotational grazing? What is your land management protocol?

Health issues

  • Are your animals 100% grass fed and finished? If your animals eat something other than grass, how much do they eat and what is it?
  • What is your antibiotic policy?
  • Do you administer any other drugs or feed additives?


Animal welfare

  • Physical alterations:What physical alterations do you subject animals to (tail docking, castration, nose ringing), and how do you manage pain?
  • Transport: How often and for how long are your animals transported? What welfare protocols do you have for animal transport?
  • Handling: What is your protocol for humane handling of animals?
  • Confinement: Are your animals ever confined in pens or crates?

Environmental concerns

  • How much time do your animals spend outdoors? Describe their outdoor environment (is it pasture, a fenced pen?). How much of their outdoor area is vegetated ground cover?
  • Do you use pesticides, herbicides, sewage sludge or petrochemical fertilizers on your pastures?
  • How do you handle manure and waste buildup?
  • What is your land management protocol?
  • Describe your indoor housing environment. How much space do pigs have, are they together or confined separately, what kind of bedding do you provide?
  • What breeds of pig do you raise?

Health issues

  • What do your animals eat? Is their feed GMO, pesticide and herbicide free?
  • What is your antibiotic policy?
  • Do you administer any other drugs or feed additives?

What is good meat?

In the end, what are you looking for? What is good meat? There are so many issues to consider, but here is the essence of it. Ranchers should meet these basic requirements.

  • Animals are treated humanely
  • Ruminants are 100% grassfed and grass finished, and never fed grain
  • No subtheraputic antibiotics
  • No other drugs or hormones
  • Pig feed is grown without pesticides, herbicides or GMOs, and contains no cheap additives or animal byproducts
  • Animals live in social groups and are never confined in crates or pens
  • All animals are raised on pasture and have free access to pasture
  • Ranchers practice sound land and waste management, rotational grazing (for cattle)
  • No synthetic pesticides, herbicides or sewage sludge are used to fertilize fields

More articles on buying meat from the archives

Natural vs Organic meat: understanding labels

When it comes to meat labeling, nothing is as confusing as understanding the difference between natural and organic meat.  Here’s what you need to know about the natural label. read more…

How to buy pork: a guide to humane, healthy pork

Many avoid pork because of the lurid abuses endemic in conventional pig rearing. With a little research, conscientious omnivores can still delight in bacon and porchetta. Ethically raised pork is becoming easier to find as small scale local producers embrace pasture-based farming. read more…

What is organic meat?

What does the certified organic label on meat actually mean? Some consumers mistakenly assume it assures the highest standard of nutrition, humane treatment of animals and sound ecological practices. read more…

The deal with veal

The issues surrounding veal production include: taking a calf away from its mother at just a few days old, subjecting an infant animal to the rough conditions of transport, the bare confinement that many conventional veal farmers use and the youth of the animal when it is slaughtered. read more…

Mark McAffee talks about veal production, and humane alternatives

Mark, owner of Organic Pastures, answers questions about how he handles the veal dilemma, why he’s chosen to pasture-raise and grass-feed his dairy cows, and what consumers should look for when they choose their eggs. read more…

Humane pasture raised pigs on Circle B Ranch

A pig farm without a barn? Read about how farmers are raising pigs on pasture, letting them raise their piglets naturally, forage their food and refusing hormones and growth enhancing drugs. read more…

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