In one hand, I have a 500-gram pack- age of chicken breasts for $7.00. In my other hand, I have another 500-gram package of chicken breasts priced at $12.00. The only difference is a little sticker that says “certified organic.” This sticker cuts through my soul, challenges my values, and preys on my sense of logic. If it’s more expensive, does that mean it’s healthier? If I choose the non- organic chicken, am I being cheap and compromising my health? What does it all mean?
Organics is big business. The Canadian organic food market has more than tripled in size since 2006 and now holds a value of nearly $4 billion annually. The funny thing with that, however, is many people aren’t really sure what they’re paying for. Most simply equate organic with healthy and take pride in buying more expensive products. Although noble, this is an ignorant and wasteful approach. The important thing to understand is that labels are all about marketing and often have very little impact on quality. Labels are created not to encourage healthy eating, but mostly to get consumers to spend as much as possible.
As a nutrition coach and competitive athlete, I take great pride in my health and am equally as passionate about recommending healthy food choices to my clients. Meat products are a rich source of nutrients and an important part of our diet. The big question is whether or not organic meat offers real value over conventionally raised meat, and if so, what labels indicate this advantage? Not all organic claims are created equal, so let’s look at the facts.
WHAT MAKES MEAT ORGANIC?
Organic livestock is raised on organic feed, without the use of antibiotics or added hormones, and with access to open pastures. To determine whether organic meat is healthier, we must address these criteria.
RAISED ON ORGANIC FEED
This is a very minor point, and the difference between feed A and feed B is essentially moot. Organic farming prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides, but can use natural pesticides as a last resort if alter- native methods, like crop rotation, don’t work. However, while it was once assumed that only synthetic pesticides were of danger to human health, studies have since shown that natural pesticides pose an equal threat to human health, the environment, and helpful crop pests, especially given that organic farming often has to use more natural pesticide to compensate for its lack of potency. If pesticides on feed caused harm to animals or humans, at least more so than the daily toxins we take in through water and air, it’s likely they would have been outlawed years ago.
Pesticides aside, there is also no guarantee that any animal ate a 100-percent organic diet. Case in point: Even if you shoot a deer in the wild, what if that deer was grazing on genetically modified corn in a farmer’s field? There are no guarantees, and you need not stress about feed when it comes to meat quality.
RAISED WITHOUT THE USE OF ANTIBIOTICS
Mirroring human medical practices, antibiotics are a very important part of animal welfare. No farmer wants to see an animal get sick, so livestock are given drugs when necessary. Although antimicrobial resistance is a real concern, farmers, as with humans, must be prudent and only use antibiotics when absolutely required to treat or prevent disease. This is taken very seriously across all levels of farming, and antimicrobial resistance is monitored on farms during processing and in retail by the Canadian Integrated Program for Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance (CIPARS).
In all farming, only healthy animals are butchered, and there is always a period of withdrawal of antibiotic use prior to any livestock entering the food chain. Distinct from this, in order to display the claim “raised without the use of antibiotics,” the animal must never have received antibiotics from birth to harvest. However, there are glaring exceptions for the organic market — veterinary biological products, such as vaccines, colostrum, and any other microbial products registered with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), are permitted in animals “raised without the use of antibiotics,” according to the CFIA.
Even with these small differences in regulations, studies have demonstrated that both organic and conventional meats have a similar risk of bacterial contamination, but it is extremely low for both kinds of meat where adequate cooking eliminates the risk altogether.
Given that organic livestock does get treated with things like vaccines and other government-approved microbial products combined with the universal period of antibiotic withdrawal, the label “raised without the use of antibiotics” is more of a fear-mongering tactic than it is a health advisory.
“GRASS-FED SEEMS TO BE THE ONLY LABEL THAT MAKES A DIFFERENCE ON HUMAN HEALTH.”
RAISED WITHOUT THE USE OF HORMONES
First off, hormones can only be used in the beef industry. In addition, the levels administered to animals are of absolutely no health risk to humans. In conventional farming, cattle are often given hormones to accelerate their growth, akin to how women take hormones like birth control. However, if you want to ensure that your beef is free of synthetic hormones, you should opt for organic.
Furthermore, only a minuscule amount of hormones pass through meat to humans, far less than beer, bread, and many vegetables. Relative to birth control or the natural amount of hormones produced by the human body every day, worrying about hormone transfer from meat is borderline laughable. The claim “raised without added hormones” is really quite meaningless.
ACCESS TO OPEN PASTURE
There is no evidence that organic livestock is treated any better than conventionally farmed animals. Although there are always ways in which we can improve animal treatment in Canada, all livestock are currently protected under The Criminal Code of Canada and the Health of Animals Act. Canada’s Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle was also developed to ensure the proper treatment of livestock.
Labels like “cage- free” only guarantee chickens will be crammed into small cage-free spaces, whereas “free-range” merely suggests a small space in a crammed barn and some access to the outdoors. However, because of Canada’s winters, it is difficult to raise chickens in the outdoors. Even if these terms were a little more optimistic, neither label is actually regulated by the government, and “free-range” is not legally defined. These “cage-free” birds are often raised in shelters that are also used as a litter box, ex- posing the birds to bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Living conditions aren’t necessarily better, and all the animals are still slaughtered in a similar fashion.
Taking it one step further, labels like “certified humane” are given by a third-party organization, and outline basic humane practices that most farms follow by default. Crammed feedlots for cattle and beak-cutting for poultry are not addressed in any of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies’ certification guidelines for farm-animal welfare. Just because a food isn’t labelled “certified humane” does not mean the animal was treated any worse.
Conventional farming techniques allow more food to be produced on less land, leaving more land for wildlife and other productive purposes. Organic farming may or may not have a lower overall energy cost, but this practice takes up more land and has a much higher potential for eutrophication. As previously stated, natural pesticides are used in organic farming and have proved to be no better for the environment than synthetic pesticides.
Correlating “natural” with “healthy” is a dangerous approach; there are many natural compounds, such as arsenic and mercury, that are incredibly toxic for humans and the environment. What we must remember is that pesticides are pesticides, and whether they’re of natural origins or synthetic, they are designed to kill, even if they are a necessity for agricultural purposes. All that said, with the help of consumer demands, Canadian farming continues to improve in order to avoid overusing products, to save costs, and to be more eco-conscious.
GRASS-FED: THE ONLY LABEL THAT SHOULD MATTER
Grass-fed seems to be the only label that makes a difference on human health. Conventionally raised cattle start on a grass diet but are finished on grain to increase overall size prior to slaughter. As cattle are more adept to digesting grass, beef starts to lose nutritional value as soon as the animal is moved from the pasture to the grain-filled feedlot. Therefore, less grain in the diet offers higher nutritional levels in the meat. Grass-fed benefits include:
- Less overall fat
- Fewer overall calories
- Two to three times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), an antioxidant protective against heart disease
- Two to five times more omega-3 fatty acids, which are critical to our overall health
- Higher ratio of stearic acid, which fights high cholesterol
- Higher levels of antioxidant carotenoids, vitamin E, glutathione, and countless other micronutrients
All beef is extremely rich in nutrients, but grass-fed beef offers a better nutritional profile. The nutritional difference here is still quite small, but given that most people have a very inflammatory omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, an important maker of overall health, little decisions like making the switch to grass-fed beef can add up to a meaningful improvement in health.
THE BOTTOM LINE
- For all meat other than beef, the best you can do is buy local, Canadian meat, conventional or organic. All Canadian meat comes from farms with guaranteed best practices. Get to know a local farmer to gain comfort regarding quality and animal welfare.
- For beef, buy local grass-fed as often as possible. Other organic labels don’t matter as much and are safe to ignore.
- Buy in bulk from a farmer to get better value for your money.
In conclusion, drop the obsession with fancy labels and focus on what actually makes a difference to your health. Remember that most labels are simply a form of marketing and flashy health-buzz phrases that usually do not equate to any health advantages. By being an informed consumer, you can put your health first without wasting your hard-earned money.