By Mario Fiorucci, Co-Founder of The Healthy Butcher
In today’s urban lifestyle, consumers, generally, are disconnected from the original source of their food. As such, food labels play an integral role towards understanding how a product came to be. Unfortunately, marketers have run rampant for decades, fabricating terms, seals, emblems, and photos that form mental associations of idyllic farm settings, even if the product came out of the worst of factory farms. Confusion is at an all time high. Organic, Grass fed, Grass finished, Corn fed, Grain Fed, Free Range, Pasture Raised, Farm Raised, Natural, Naturally Raised, Antibiotic Free, Raised without Growth Hormones, Sustainable, Humane, Ethical, Certified Angus, Kobe, Berkshire… the list of adjectives to describe meat go on and on. What do they mean?
In this issue we will take you through the most common terms found in Canada to describe meat, and what they actually mean. It is important to note that when googling any of these terms, you will more than likely land on a on U.S. web page, which causes Canadians even more confusion because the terms have different meanings in the U.S. or other countries.
Without further ado, The Healthy Butcher’s Ultimate Guide to Canadian Meat Labels…
An Overview to Food Labelling in Canada
Food labelling in Canada falls under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (“CFIA”). Without a doubt, we will be the first to say that the CFIA has made positive progress in recent years towards amalgamating and enforcing food regulations, starting with taking over the Organic certification system in 2008, and in 2015 the “Safe Food for Canadians Act” will come into force giving more power to CFIA agents. Very recently, the CFIA reformatted their website in regards to Food Labelling and Advertising which definitely made their interpretation of terms commonly used on food labels easier to locate.
The reality of it is the legislation does not deal with the myriad of terms and phrases used to describe food. And even if the legislation did define every term, there simply cannot be enough CFIA agents travelling around, reading food labels on store shelves and enforcing legal definitions. There are millions of SKUs of food products on the market, tens of thousands for meat, and it is simply not feasible to have a government agency with enough agents and authority to monitor all food products in Canada. So, most labelling terms and phrases follow self-defined guidelines. In other words, the meaning of most terms comes down to the level of honestly and transparency of the farmer or producer using them.
The following are the most common terms we see and hear in Ontario used to describe meat, our interpretation of what they mean, and our rating (out of 10) of the value of that term in the grand scheme of how we believe animals were meant to be raised. We will focus only on terms that are used to describe how the animals were raised, not other processing methods (so, for example, the term “Dry Aged” is outside the scope of this article).
The term “organic” is the only term in Canada that is clearly defined and has significant meaning. We’ve heard people say they’ve read articles about how “organic” laws have been watered down; we’ve heard farmers say “oh, we’re organic all right, we just haven’t been certified because it costs too much money”; and we’ve seen studies that show people’s perception of other terms like “natural” have greater meaning than “organic.” The fact of the matter is, the use of the term organic accompanied with the symbol you see adjacent to this paragraph, means something – actually, a great deal.
The use of the term “organic” is governed by federal legislation – Organic Products Regulations 2009 (SOR/2009-176). In order for a farmer or producer to use the Canada Organic logo, it must develop a fully auditable record keeping system allowing an inspector to trace products from seed to plate, and it must be approved by a CFIA-appointed certification body.
Organic agriculture is a holistic approach to production which promotes and enhances biodiversity, protects long-term soil health and respects ecological balance through the use of environmentally and ecologically sustainable practices. It has been proven that Organic food is healthier.
Organic production is designed to:
respect the environment through the responsible usage of soil, water and air, minimizing agricultural pollution;
protect the long-term health of the soil, encouraging soil biological activity and minimizing soil degradation and erosion;
provide livestock with humane living conditions for their health and well-being; and
recycle materials and resources whenever possible and reduce the use of non-renewable resources
Organic production does not permit the use of:
synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or sewage sludge;
genetically modified organisms;
ionizing radiation; or
growth hormones for animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products
The Canada Organic Standard is recognized by both the EU and the US as equivalent – the only certification system to achieve this broad recognition.
Is the Canada Organic set of standards the be all and end all of ensuring food is produced the way nature intended? Absolutely not. Are their large-scale organic farms and producers today, both in Canada and around the world, that push the regulations to the breaking point, and push the small real organic farmers to bankruptcy? Absolutely. Is the Canada Organic standard the best we have at present day. Absolutely.
SCORE FOR “ORGANIC”: 9/10 – If all Organic meat products are lined up from “least Organic” to “most Organic”, the fact is if a meat product is certified to be Organic, displaying the Canada Organic logo, then even in the most lax interpretation of the guidelines, the farmer or producer had to jump a lot of hurdles to gain that Organic designation.
Grass fed & Grass finished.
There are few reasons why the term “Organic” described above scored a 9/10 instead of 10/10; one reason is because Organic ruminant animals, like cattle and sheep, can still be finished with grain and corn (albeit Organic grain and corn). Ruminant animals are endowed with the ability to convert grasses, which those of us who possess only one stomach cannot digest, into food that we can digest. They achieve this digestion by the use of a big fermentation tank inside their bodies called a rumen where resident bacteria convert cellulose into proteins and fats.
Feeding corn and grain to cattle must rank amongst the dumbest ideas in the history of western civilization. Dave Meli (Head Butcher and Co-Owner) and I just returned from a trip to New Zealand to visit Firstlight, our grassfed beef farmers in New Zealand. One of the most incredible aspects about New Zealand farming is that the farmers couldn’t fathom feeding grains to their cattle. “Why would you do that?” was the common question. Why do we? It certainly is the cause of many of today’s health implications (we’ve discussed the benefits of Grassfed in prior newsletters).
Now, getting to the crux of the terms “Grass fed” and “Grass finished” – unfortunately these terms are not regulated, meaning there is no clear definition. The common definition is that “Grass fed” refers to livestock that have been raised on pasture and not confined to a feedlot/grain-fed system vs. “Grass finished” means animals spend their final weight-gain stage on grass (and either did or did not eat grains during their lifetimes).
If those definitions are indeed the generally accepted definitions, than the term “Grass fed” is utterly worthless when used to describe meat like beef. Reality check, 100% of cattle consume grass during their lives; and therefore, 100% of beef on the market can be marketed as “Grass fed”. Within a day of consuming grains, the health of that animal and nutritional composition of its resulting meat plummet. It is unfortunate that there is a plethora of meat sold in Canada marketed as “Grass fed” that has been finished on grains and corn, lending to the perception that that beef is healthier when it is absolutely not. In Toronto, the term “Grass fed” is like a plague – we’ve seen it used at the most luxurious of retail outlets to the quaintest of butcher shops – and it is fact that most of that beef has been finished on grains and corn.
Similarly, “Grass finished” does not speak to the length of time the cattle ate grass exclusively. Did it eat grains until a week before slaughter, and then only grass?
At The Healthy Butcher, we have always stayed clear of labelling our grassfed beef as either “Grass fed “ or “Grass finished”, but instead have always used the term “100% Grassfed”. If we sell a cut of beef in our store using the term 100% Grassfed, you can be assured that the animal has only consumed grass. Period.
SCORE FOR “GRASS FED” OR “GRASS FINISHED”: 6/10 – You need to ask your retailer questions when these terms are used. If grains or corn have ever been introduced in the diet, than it is no longer real grass fed meat. Alternatively, shop at The Healthy Butcher, the leader in real grass fed meat, where you will always find the best 100% grass fed – both local and imported depending on the season.
SCORE FOR “100% GRASSFED”: 9/10 – The score is not 10/10 because in the absence of more information, there is possibility of herbicides or other chemicals having been sprayed on the pastures which end up in the meat.
Corn fed & Grain fed.
“Corn fed” and “Grain fed” is not a positive attribute when used to describe meat from ruminant animals. The fact that there is an Ontario Corn Fed Beef association who’s sole purpose is to market and sell more beef because of the fact that the beef have been fed corn is proof we have distanced ourselves from the food chain.
In the poultry world, it is next to impossible to buy anything but grain and corn fed chicken. Chickens are omnivores, not ruminants, so eating grain is not a bad thing. In their natural environment, Chickens would eat bugs and grubs and pretty much whatever they can scratch up; so neither “Grain Fed Chicken” nor “Vegetable Grain Fed Chicken” reflect a chicken’s natural diet. Stick to certified Organic chicken so at least you know that the grains consumed are non-GMO and free from pesticides, fertilizers and all the other devil chemicals.
SCORE FOR “CORN FED” & “GRAIN FED”: 5/10 – At least these terms provide some transparency into what the animals ate, so we as consumers can make a decision to buy it or not.
“Free-Range” is commonly used to describe chicken that have been given access to regularly roam and graze outdoors. There are no specific requirements, such as the length of time spent outdoors or the type of environment in order to use these claims, nor are there any inspections or audits for the use of this term. Sometimes, a farmer may refer to her chickens as “Free Range” simply because they are not raised in battery cages.
We would hope that humans have not delved into a complete era of deception and that at the least, if chickens are labelled “free range” they have not been caged their entire lives. And that’s a good thing. We guess the term “cage-free” means the exact same thing, and your guess is as good as ours for the meaning of “free-run”.
In all cases, the amount of space allocated per chicken in a barn is not clear. Frankly, if I was a chicken in a densely populated commercial barn, I’d rather spend my time 6 weeks of life in a cage… at least I’ll have my own space and don’t have to fight for my life 24/7.
SCORE FOR “FREE RANGE”: 4/10
Farm Raised & product labels with the term “Farm” in the label.
“There is no regulation – neither in Canada, the U.S., nor as far as we know anywhere else in the world that governs the use of the word “farm”. “Country View Family Farms” – does that name roll of your tongue? Sounds like a pleasant doesn’t it? Well, it is the name of an absolutely horrid factory farm in the U.S. and I will avoid linking to video footage found all over the web in an effort to avoid reversing the direction of digestion of your last meal.
The use of the word “farm” in any form, whether it accompanies someone’s name, the name of a place, the name of a cloud, the name of a saint, or the name of a business says nothing about where the meat is from, how animals were raised, what they ate, or any other useful piece of information and certainly does not represent meat raised to any specific standards, or lack thereof.
SCORE FOR “FARM RAISED” & THE USE OF FARM NAMES: 0/10
Natural & Naturally Raised.
“What is a “natural” animal? Doesn’t the fact that the animal was breathing at some point make it “natural”? The CFIA has developed “interpretive guidance” on the definition of “natural” or “naturally raised”.
According to the CFIA:
With respect to a meat, poultry, or fish product, “natural” and “naturally raised” claims are considered acceptable only on products that were raised with minimal human intervention, for example, wild turkey or wild fish. To raise animals so that their products can be labelled as “natural” would be very difficult as most animals receive vaccination or medication and the feed given usually contains vitamins, minerals, additives, medication and direct fed microbials; none of which are considered to be minimal human interventions. To claim on a product label “naturally raised” would be even more difficult, as raising a farm animal or fish is an expression of human intervention.
By this definition, there is no meat product on the market that can or should be called “natural” or “naturally raised” (after all, wild hunted animals cannot be sold in retail stores).
SCORE FOR “NATURAL” OR “NATURALLY RAISED”: 0/10. The terms “natural” and “naturally raised” should not be used in Canada. Period.
This term should mean that the animals roam in a natural environment and eat forage. It is an unregulated term and has no clear meaning. Further, if beef cattle were raised on pasture, then moved to a feedlot operation they still can be “Pasture Raised”.
SCORE FOR “PASTURE RAISED”: 8/10 – on the premise you ask your supplier exactly what they mean and you are happy with their answer.
Antibiotic Free, Raised without the use of antibiotics, and other phrases that contains the word “Antibiotic”.
It is estimated that 88% of antibiotics produced or imported into Canada are given to animals. That’s not good.
Technically, all animals that have met a specific withdrawal period prior to being slaughtered can be called “antibiotic free”, and therefore let’s throw that term out the window as being meaningless.
The phrase “raised without the use of antibiotics” should mean the animal did not receive antibiotics from birth to death. And that’s fantastic.
“Fed no antibiotics” may imply that the animal was raised without the use of antibiotics, when, in fact, the animal may have received antibiotics through injection or spraying.
Certainly, when we speak of the use of antibiotics negatively we are referring to the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics, that is, giving low level antibiotics constantly through the feed and/or water supply to stimulate growth. Even at the best of our farms, animals can and do get sick, and it would not be humane to let the animal suffer; we encourage the farmer to administer antibiotics so long as the animal is properly tagged and then sold as conventional meat.
SCORE FOR “ANTIBIOTIC FREE”: 0/10
SCORE FOR “RAISED WITHOUT THE USE OF ANTIBIOTICS”: 9/10
SCORE FOR “FED NO ANTIBIOTICS”: 0/10
Raised without Growth Hormones and every other phrase that contains the word “Hormone”.
In Canada, hormones are permitted in non-organic beef cattle, but prohibited in chickens.
So, if you see “raised without the use of added hormones” or something to that extent on a chicken product (whether it be poultry or eggs), not only is that phrase misleading because no chicken in Canada should be given hormones, it is also illegal. The label should say “like other chickens, these chickens were raised without the use of hormones”.
The use of hormonal growth promoters in beef cattle is an issue that has sparked much debate around the world. They are approved for use in Canada and the United States, however, the use of hormonal growth promoters is banned in the European Union.
Growth implants that add growth promoting hormones is, unfortunately, very wide spread throughout Canada and the U.S.
SCORE FOR “RAISED WITHOUT THE USE OF ADDED HORMONES”: 9/10
Sustainably Raised, Humanely Raised, Ethically Raised.
There is no definition of any of these terms in Canada. They might mean a lot or they might mean nothing. You need to ask questions to determine your comfort level.
SCORE FOR “SUSTAINABLE RAISED”, “HUMANELY RAISED”, & “ETHICALLY RAISED”: 1/10 in the absence of more information from the supplier using any of these terms. They are strong phrases, hopefully your supplier can back up the claim with details.
Fed no animal by-products, animal fat, or bone meal.
If these terms are the best the farmer/producer has to describe their product, then they are grasping at straws. Stay away from that meat.
Feeding animal by-products to animals, especially poultry, is commonplace. Now, we are not at all against the efficient use of 100% of all food products; chickens are omnivores after all. But, many practices are questionable.
SCORE FOR “FED NO ANIMAL BY-PRODUCTS, ANIMAL FAT OR BONE MEAL”: 1/10
Angus, Kobe, Berkshire, and all other breed-specific names.
There are countless breeds of beef, chickens, and every other animal in the world. Breed selection is a key part of the meat industry when certain traits wish to be achieved. Our 100% Grassfed farmers in New Zealand, for example, use the Wagyu breed (famous in Kobe, Japan) as a method of raising grassfed beef that end up with wonderful marbling.
Breed selection, in and of itself, says nothing about how the animal was raised, what it ate, how it was killed, or any other relevant information.
SCORE FOR “ANGUS” AND ALL BREED NAMES: 1/10
A, AA, AAA, Prime.
In the 1920s, the beef industry created a voluntary grading system. The grading of beef in Canada to be either Canada A, Canada AA, Canada AAA, or Canada Prime is perhaps one of the biggest scams in food labelling. Ever. This grading system essentially measures the amount of intramuscular fat, or “marbling.” The grade names above can be interpreted to mean “lean”, “moderately fat”, “fat”, and “really fat”, none of which say anything about how the animal was raised, what it ate, how it was slaughtered, or any important information.
SCORE FOR A, AA, AAA, PRIME: 6/10 – We are big fans of marbling as it greatly increases the flavour and tenderness, but the food that was fed to the animal to create the marbling is what counts. Nothing is better than a 100% Grassfed well marbled steak – try one of our New Zealand MBS 4-6 Rib Eyes, I’m sure you’ll agree.
The bottom line; stick with certified Organic or 100% Grassfed from sources you trust. Other phrases are confusing and misleading. Never hesitate to ask questions!
Do you have questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
 In 2013 there was a US 3rd party label for grassfed that was introduced in Canada – click here. We have not had personal experience with any farm using this certification system and therefore have no comment. In the U.S., the term “Grass fed” is legislatively defined, but does not mean that meat is 100% grassfed – click here.
 See Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development – Nutrition and Management: Growth Implants for Beef Cattle. Also see the CFIA’s Guidelines on Natural, Naturally Raised, Feed, Antibiotic and Hormone Claims.
Another Useful Link
Consumer reports recently released a very useful of food labels – keep in mind these are terms used in the United States. Still an interesting read: