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A Guide to Navigating Meat Food Labels for Brands

If you’re like us, approaching the meat section of the grocery store as a conscious consumer, who still loves delicious food, can be a challenge. Navigating the endless labels and certifications can be downright debilitating. Not to mention, there are an array of ideals and expectations that food labeling certifications have yet to represent.

So, how do we begin to maneuver the boundless options of meat and select the best and most responsible option for our families? We will aim to dissect the most important certifications for meat and poultry and put their requirements into terms we can all understand. Beyond labeling, brands must have an active role in food standards consumer education in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors. 

Natural: The USDA’s definition defines natural as “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as "no artificial ingredients; minimally processed").” A study found that “about 60 percent of surveyed consumers thought packaged foods labeled “natural” were made with no toxic pesticides, no artificial colors or ingredients, and no GMOs.” So, if natural is the most diluted food label there is, we should be safe with the revered “organic,” right? Read on.

Organic: Organic can take on different meanings depending on the category to which it’s applied. In 1995, the USDA organic standards board defined organic as  “An emphasis on biodiversity of the agricultural system and the surrounding environment.” If you find that definition incredibly nebulous, you're not alone. Here’s what it actually means in terms of meat and poultry

  • Must be raised organically on certified organic land
  • Must be fed certified organic feed
  • No antibiotics or added growth hormones are allowed
  • Must have outdoor access

Recently, the USDA repealed a previously approved law that required basic welfare for organic livestock. Additionally, the organic standard does not take into account the size of the farm which is important because farmers with small farms or ranches are more likely to tend to it personally and invest more time and effort ensuring the health of the soil. It’s important to point out that organic standards allow the use of organic pesticides that are still being studied and may have similar detriments to their synthetic counterparts. There is much to be desired with the organic definition which has prompted organizations and brands to further define and elevate food production expectations with a new set of standards.

The short story is that organic does not consider the long term health of the soil, like the original definition implies. Luckily, there are institutions set to change this and continue to elevate the standard for food. Enter, Rodale Institute

Regenerative Organic Certified: Rodale Institute was established in 1947 in order to cultivate a “better, natural, and more responsible way of farming by conducting research into the cultivation of healthy, living soils.” Their constant desire to improve food standards and refusal to settle for organic alone is what led them to the Regenerative Organic Certified seal. The seal is aimed at regenerative and regeneratively farmed finished products.

In June of 2019, Rodale came out with a new certification. Typically, with food labeling, we see a lengthy list of requirements to be eligible to apply. Rodale is doing things differently, asking for companies to apply who feel they have gone “above and beyond sourcing practices.” After a company applies, a team of Rodale leaders will assess the application and make a decision. According to Rodale’s Director of Development, Annie Brown, the certification will help brands “differentiate in the marketplace because they can leverage what we call the ‘Rodale Halo.’” In addition, the new seal will allow and encourage brands to help educate consumers on the behind the scenes work that goes into producing organic products. 

Certified Humane: Let’s get to the meat of the matter: the treatment of animals. As consumers, we want to be able to ensure that the animals that end up on our plates live a humane life from beginning to end. The Certified Humane label aims to “improve the lives of farm animals by driving consumer demand for kinder and more responsible farm animal practices.” 

American Grass-fed: For many years, the term grass-fed was missing both a legal definition as well as a labeling program to communicate the difference to consumers. Now, the American Grass-Fed Association has created a set of standards to guide ranchers to becoming certified producers. In a relatively straightforward process, ranchers must ensure the following: 

  • Your animals were fed a lifetime diet of 100% forage
  • Your animals were raised on pasture, not in confinement
  • Your animals were never treated with added hormones or antibiotics

According to the AGA website, grass-fed meat contains a higher percentage of omega-3 fatty acids and beneficial antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Not to mention, the practice of grass-fed ranching restores natural grass-lands and reduces greenhouse gasses. 

What This Means for Brands

We spoke with the Director of Procurement, Ian Chamberlain, from Teton Waters Ranch, to understand the company’s prioritization of human, animal, and environmental well-being. Teton Waters makes 100% grass-fed, certified humane beef products that are delicious for humans and thoughtful for livestock. 

What difficulties do you face in educating consumers on the meaning of Grass-Fed and Certified Humane? 

There is a lot of misinformation put out there in the market about beef and what exactly “Grassfed” and “Humane” means. To us “Grassfed” means 100% Grassfed for life and “Humane” means, among many other things, that the animals is on open pastures for its entire life, never held in confinement like most animals which end up finished in a feedlot. It has been challenging to educate the consumer on how to navigate this largely unregulated space when trying to interpret labels they encounter in the marketplace. Offering consumers a connection to our supply view our website and on social media has been a good way to communicate our standards to our consumer. 

Have these certifications and labels helped educate consumers or has it made education more convoluted and why?

We feel certification, like Certified Humane that we carry on all our products, can be very meaningful to the consumer and give them the assurance that 100% of our suppliers operate to a set standard. When used properly third-party certification can add another level of trust between you and the consumer. On the other hand, some are easier to achieve than others and many times position themselves as equivalents in the market adding to the confusion some consumers feel about label claims. 

What is your point of view on the food labeling system in general?  Would you like to see these certifications changed in any way (and why)?

We would Iike to see stricter A: policy and enforcement around labeling of special claims to ensure those that go to the trouble to operate at a higher standard receive the recognition deserved. Making the information about specific programs available for the consumers that care to educate themselves is probably the most important step we can take. We are confident that if given the option, consumers will choose a product that is healthier for them, healthier for the animals and heather for the planet. 

How to Stand Out in the Food Aisle

Beyond labeling, there is room for brands to serve as a conduit to educate consumers on the meaning behind the labels. The nuances between labels may seem commonplace for those of us that discuss food labeling on a daily basis, but for consumers, making the right choice in the grocery store can seem overwhelming. It’s up to your brand to communicate how you’re different, not just better than your competitors. 

Packaging can have a hand in educating consumers in-store, but your digital channels should serve as supplemental hubs for education so consumers can guide their own learning experiences with the foods they choose. Through our interviews with consumers, we’ve found that above all, these individuals appreciate transparency. When brands are willing to tell the truth about their products through their packaging, and their online imagery. It’s not enough to include a photo of an idealistic ranch on your packaging, you must be able to prove that ranch actually exists and introduce your consumers to the ranchers who made tonight’s steak dinner possible.

Vanessa Kahn



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