We get it. Shopping for quality meat can be a bit of a head scratcher, thanks to all the confusing labels and weird language. And to make it even more of a minefield, producers aren’t always transparent when it comes to the provenance of their produce. While grass-fed, outdoor-reared, and free range labels are all well and good, it's worth keeping in mind what these labels actually mean.
But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered on this one.
Here are a few great questions you can ask your butcher (and yourself) when you’re next perusing the meat aisle - to be sure you're getting really good quality meat that’s good for you and the planet.
Provenance is really important when you’re on the hunt for good quality meat - especially where and how the animal was raised. So don’t hesitate to strike up a convo with the person behind the counter. Chances are, they’ll want to chat about it.
Good butchers can teach you a lot about where their meat comes from, and what farming systems went into their production. It’s always best to opt for meat that comes from local farms that have regenerative farming practices. These are the animals that were pasture-fed and raised outdoors - just as they were meant to be.
Locally sourced meat is superior for two reasons. Firstly, it’s most likely fresher than meat from elsewhere, which means better tasting and nutrient-rich meat. Secondly, lower food miles means lower carbon emissions. So you’re getting tastier, fresher meat at no extra cost to the environment. Win-win.
This is where a little curiosity really counts. Ideally, cows should be 100% grass-fed and free-roaming throughout their lives (because their digestive systems are naturally designed to process grass). But many farmers have resorted to feeding cows with grain to speed up the process and keep up with high demands. And cows just can’t digest grain properly, which can lead to a load of health problems.
The long and short of it is that healthy, happy, 100% grass-fed cows yield the highest quality meat. And that means health benefits for us too, like lower saturated fats (25% to 50% lower, to be exact), higher levels of nutrients like omega 3 and beta-carotene and, of course, delicious meat - all while helping preserve the animals’ natural habitat.
Let’s get one thing straight, what does free range actually mean? There are slight differences, but basically; free range animals are bred and raised with access to the outdoors, with plenty of space to roam and forage on natural pastures. This means they can behave totally naturally, which reduces stress and health problems.
Free range chicken is naturally healthier, with up to 50% less saturated fat. Plus it’s higher in vitamin E, antioxidants, and beta-carotene. Oh, and it’s much, much tastier. That’s because free range chickens aren’t cooped up, so they get to roam around all day long, graze on natural pastures and end up with a much juicer, fuller texture.
As for pork, there’s actually no legal definition of ‘free range’. But there’s a massive difference between outdoor reared and outdoorbred, which doesn’t always mean it’s free range. Some breeding herds are kept free range, but after the piglets are weaned they are moved indoors to be intensively reared. Which is not a good thing.
So the safest way to make sure the pork you’re buying is actually free range is to keep an eye out for organic labels that give you that outdoor reared guarantee. This means the animals have never been cooped up in cages, have grazed on natural pastures and roamed free between outdoor and indoor shelters.
And (no surprises here) just like chicken, free range pork is far more flavourful, healthy, and higher quality thanks to the animals’ stress-free life, natural environment and wholesome diet.
This is one to watch out for. In fact, it covers the questions above too, because free range, outdoor reared and grass fed meat can only actually happen when farming systems have high animal welfare practices in place.
What defines a high welfare environment, exactly? It just means that the animals were raised with the best quality care and conditions. High welfare environments allow animals to thrive, display natural behaviours and live free from stress, fear and discomfort. Animals living their best lives, basically.
Higher welfare animal products are proven to have higher numbers of nutritional benefits and lower saturated fat, as they’re fed a natural diet suited to their bodies and develop healthy muscles without artificial growth hormones. So you get more bang for your buck.
Want to know more? Have a read of this interview we did with Philip Lymbery, Global Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming (which took place on a farm, obviously).
Admittedly, this is a tough one to get an answer to, unless you’re buying from butchers who source their meat locally. But it's well worth asking the question.
For pork and beef, you should be looking for answers like ‘grass-fed’ or ‘pasture-fed’. And depending on weather conditions, silage and hay are great too.
Organic, free range chicken can be fed a variety of organic whole grains like oats, barley, rye, hard red wheat or durum wheat. That’s all good stuff. But more than that, free range chickens should be able to naturally forage and peck on insects - that’s part of their natural diet.
We know putting principles into practice isn’t always super easy. But we’re all on this journey together, and jumpstarting the conversation is what really matters. Asking these questions is a great way to help businesses make better decisions, take steps towards change and bring the care back to the farming system.