Americans are expected to eat a record-breaking amount of meat and poultry this year: more than 220 pounds per person, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That’s about three pounds more per person than last year, and about 50 pounds more per person than was consumed by Americans in 1960. Another number that is on the rise, according to Maine farmers, merchants and a Consumer Reports 2015 survey, is the number of consumers who want to know that the animals they are eating were raised in an ethical manner. But, short of visiting the farms and seeing how the cows, pigs and poultry actually live, it is not always easy to know for sure. Labels can help with that, but are not a panacea. And supermarket packaging that touts words such as “local,” “family farms” and “naturally raised” do not always mean what consumers think they do.
“It’s a crapshoot out there,” Heide Purinton-Brown of Toddy Pond Farm in Monroe said.
The diversified family farm she and her husband, Greg Purinton-Brown, run is a bucolic 500-acre spot on the shores of its namesake pond. With rolling fields, green forests and more, the farm is home to cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, honey bees, barn cats, farm dogs and wildlife. The Purinton-Browns are serious about taking care of their land, their animals and the people who work on the farm. You don’t have to take their word for it, either — they participate in periodic open farm days and are building a farm store that will be open and staffed every Saturday so people can come, meet the animals and shop.
But while she and her husband believe that visiting a farm is the gold standard to show that the farmers walk the talk, they recognize from personal experience that visiting farms can be impractical for both customers and farmers.
“We want to give people access to the farm because it is super important. That’s our whole mission statement, for people to know what they’re eating. And yet it’s really challenging for farmers to do that,” Purinton-Brown said. “At the beginning, when we were sort of new to farming, anybody who came, we were like, ‘Fantastic, we’d love to talk to you. We’ll show you around.’ By year three, we didn’t have time for that.”
Lots of consumers also may not have the time or ability to meet their farmers and visit their farms. Yet relying on the label or packaging around the hamburger or chicken they purchase at a grocery store is hard, too. For instance, consumers could read a lot of meaning into the word “natural,” when it comes to meat. But according to the United States Department of Agriculture, that particular label means only that the product contains no artificial ingredients or added color and has been minimally processed. And according to a 2015 Consumer Reports and ASPCA ranking of animal welfare standards for poultry and beef, those claims are loosely regulated.
“Labels can be really confusing,” Purinton-Brown said. “A free range label on one farm might mean that the chickens were running about on pasture, while on another farm it might mean that they were running about a barn with a very limited amount of outdoor access. Folks really have to research exactly what those labels dictate.”
Walking the talk
Gabe Clark of Cold Spring Ranch is no stranger to labels. He has raised grass-fed beef and pastured pork in the Somerset County town of New Portland since 2005. The business is growing, and now he and his wife, Molly, process around 150 Angus cattle every year, selling the meat to restaurants, directly to customers and to a range of businesses and corporate entities like Bates College, Bow Street Market in Freeport, the Portland Food Coop and to Whole Foods Market. When Whole Foods began requiring that its fresh meat be certified through the non-profit organization Global Animal Partnership, the Clarks got certification for their farm. It wasn’t inexpensive. But he believes it’s money well spent.
Whereas some labels and marketing claims prove little about how the animals are raised, the GAP five-step animal welfare rating is different. To be certified through GAP, farms and ranches must be audited every 15 months by an independent third party who checks to make sure that comprehensive standards are being met. Different steps have different standards, with GAP Step 5 + farms the highest possible rating available. Cold Spring Ranch has a step 4 rating for its cattle, meaning that the animals live a pasture-centered life.
“I really like GAP,” Clark said. “Our direct customers, we can meet them, talk to them, answer their questions and explain why we do what. But other customers are getting secondhand information. Having a third party accredit us to a standard is to give them assurance.”
The other third-party organizations that assure customers that the meat they are eating was ethically raised are Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane and American Humane Certified, according to the consumer watchdog agency Consumer Reports.
For Clark, who also has certifications for his farm through the Non-GMO Project and Where Food Comes From, Inc., labels help prove that farmers do what they say they are doing. And that is important to him.
“The biggest challenge I have is other companies misrepresenting their products, whether it’s misrepresenting them as local, as ethical, as grass fed or as free range,” he said. “I think they find it cheaper to cheat.”
Reading the fine print
But not that many small farms choose to go through the third-party certification process. What else can consumers look for to guide them as they shop? Here’s what some commonly-seen words on meat packaging mean for customers:
—“Natural.” As defined by the United States Dept. of Agriculture, this is meat that contains no artificial ingredients or added color and has been only minimally processed. However, natural beef can be raised with synthetic hormones and natural meat can be raised with antibiotics.
—“Fresh.” The USDA defines this as fresh poultry and cuts as having never been below 26 degrees Fahrenheit.
—“No hormones.” Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry, so this claim cannot be used unless it is followed by a statement saying “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
—“Organic.” The USDA regulates organic labeling standards, so this term means something. The USDA organic seal on meat packages means that the animals can’t be given growth hormones, antibiotics and only ate organic feed.
—“Humanely raised.” Buyer beware: the term has no official definition and is not verified by the USDA or any independent organization.
Doug Johnson, the general manager of the Belfast Co-op, has found that building positive, open relationships with farms and farmers has served his business, and his customers, better than words on labels. Labels may be a good starting point, but they shouldn’t be the end of the story for consumers who seek to know about the food they eat.
“I feel like all of the labels are sticky,” he said. “People put ‘humanely raised’ on packaging and I don’t really know how much credence I give that, as a consumer. If that’s one of your consumer sticking points, making sure that your meat is ethically raised, certainly buying local and having a strong relationship with farmers helps.”
Or having a relationship with a place like his co-op, which has a mission to support a strong local food economy.
“The food system is getting weirder,” Johnson said. “With larger interests involved and bigger farms getting involved in organics, it just makes it that much harder to be confident as a consumer. The co-op is dealing with that, too. When we look at our purchasing, we try to make the best decisions that we can with the information we’re given.”
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