How to Buy Sustainable Meat: The Ultimate Guide

How to Buy Sustainable Meat: The Ultimate Guide

By
Dennis Kamprad

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Buying sustainable meat is not always an easy task. It’s not always easy to find, and it certainly isn’t easy on your wallet. And with all that time and money you are spending on sustainable meat, can you confidently say you know how to buy sustainable meat properly or that you know what sustainable meat actually means?

To buy sustainable meat means to understand the meat life-cycle from production methods to packaging, labeling, and transportation, as well as grasping government regulations and standard practices. Plus, buy more sustainably if you switch to organ meat over muscle meat and buy locally.

This guide will cover everything you need to know about buying sustainable meat, including environmental concerns, popular sustainable meat choices, and what all those wordy-labels really mean. You’ll also learn extra steps to take in personal responsibility in the trend toward more sustainable meat products.

Understanding How “Sustainable Meat” Is Defined

Several factors and considerations have been presented under the umbrella term of sustainability. We have to consider the impact on land, water, and biodiversity, not to mention the animals themselves. And we shouldn’t forget that this sustainable footprint extends to the transport and delivery stages of meat production as well. And all of these things are impactful on the environment. 

Unfortunately, there is no cut-and-dry definition that is universally agreed upon when it comes to the meaning of “sustainable meat.” Is sustainability controlled in the farming of meat? Or packaging? Transportation? Or is sustainability a problem of food waste from consumers? So let’s have a look at all of these!

One of the biggest concerns and conversation talking-points surrounding sustainable meats is its environmental friendliness in terms of emissions–whether it be greenhouse gases or carbon emissions–and how that impacts our environment. Another big part is animal welfare.

Ultimately, there are many variables in the equation of sustainability. Therefore, depending on which ones you consider, to whom you speak, or what article you read, you will find many different sustainability figures for the same meat type.

Production methods (e.g., factory-farmed versus free-range, grass-fed versus grain-fed, etc.) have their own sets of issues that will affect how sustainable we deem the meat.

Additionally, the feed-conversion efficiency is important. This measures the water consumption of animals, land use, air and water pollution created from either raising or slaughtering animals, and more.

What Buying Sustainable Meat Should Mean to You

Meat is significant when discussing sustainability because meat products require some of the most energy-intensive and ecologically burdensome processes. And given the tremendous environmental impact of meat consumption, along with apparent consumer sympathy for meat reduction, it isn’t very reassuring to see politicians and policymakers show little, if any, interest in creating and encouraging more sustainable practices.

With all that in mind, it comes down to this: sustainability means what you want it to mean and what you make it to mean. Contribute to sustainable meat practices in whatever way you feel it best to do so. Truthfully, all factors have enough impact that you can pick and choose any particulars to focus on and be able to make a significant difference, even just as one person.

First, consider all the factors you most care about, then concentrate on what you can control and how you can contribute. Maybe you are concerned about how much individual packaging is filling the landfills? Or maybe you care about the welfare and treatment of the animal as it was being raised? Perhaps you are worried about over-fishing? All are legit concerns, and all can be addressed and combated. 

No matter what your worry is, you can rest assured that you are not alone. Many measures have been taken to improve meat’s sustainability for years now, with most being actively addressed. So long as you equip yourself with the right knowledge, you’ll be able to find what you’re looking for.

Shopping Sustainable Labels and What They Mean

For the better part of the last century, frozen, canned, processed, and other unnatural food products were constantly winning over ever-busy American hearts and minds. Unfortunately, the side effects of eating this way have caught up with us, and many have turned back to clean, organic food instead. Unfortunately for us, this trend had many reasons for surfacing, and “the system” was ready and waiting for us when we got there.

There is an ocean of regulations surrounding sustainable labels. (Perhaps encouraging the broad, vague, non-universal definition of sustainable.) So if you are going to use these labels as a guide to purchasing more sustainable meat products, it is important to understand what it means when meat is labeled with particular terms related to sustainability. 

To start, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a dedicated agency known as the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which is responsible for ensuring that meat and poultry labels are truthful and not misleading. The following are examples of the more common animal raising claims required for approval by FSIS prior to consumer availability: 

  • Organic  
  • Grass-Fed 
  • Raised Without the Use of Hormones
  • Raised Without Antibiotics
  • Free-Range
  • Cage-Free
  • Certified Humane 

There are extensive guidelines and exhausting documentation required for farmers to obtain such labels. 

In general, however, these guidelines are not strictly enforced by the FSIS. Furthermore, many of these farmers and meat producers’ claims are verified by USDA auditors sitting in their offices rather than conducting an in-person and on-site inspection. 

Regardless, there is some benefit to using these labels to help guide your purchases. Let’s take a closer look at the three most sustainable terms to look for when buying sustainable meat.

USDA Organic Certified Labels

The USDA supervises the federal regulatory framework known as the National Organic Program (NOP). This group has regulated the use of the term “organic” on food labels. They use requirements separate from those the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforces; however, products under FDA jurisdiction must comply with both USDA NOP organic claim regulations and FDA food labeling and safety regulations. 

The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service has four categories for organic labeling:

  • “100% organic” may be used for products with 100% organic ingredients; the label may include USDA organic seal and/or 100% organic claim.
  • “Organic” may be used for products with a minimum of 95% organic ingredients; the label may include USDA organic seal and/or organic claim.
  • “Made with organic _____” label may state such and list up to three specific ingredients or ingredient categories; may not include USDA organic seal, represent the finished product as organic, or state “made with organic ingredients” (generic).
  • Specific Ingredient Listings may name organic ingredients among ingredient statements in products with less than 70% organic contents; may not include USDA organic seal or print “organic” prominently on the packaging for marketing purposes.

What Regulators Claim This Means

Meat that has been labeled organic implies that the animal has been born and raised on pastures that are certified organic. This means there are no chemicals in the area or in the grass where the animal was raised. Furthermore, no feed was sprayed with synthetic pesticides.

USDA organic farms will use natural fertilizers and often (but not always) use sustainable practices.

Animals are not considered to have been treated with antibiotics, which reduces the number of antibiotics currently entering the water supply through run-off from the manure of treated animals. This, in turn, reduces the growth-potential for antibiotic-resistant bacteria–a huge threat to the sustainability of our planet, not just meat sources.

What This Really Means 

Federal regulations state that to be sold or labeled as “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic (specified ingredients),” the product must be made without the use of “synthetic substances and ingredients…nonagricultural substances…ionizing radiation…and sewage sludge,” with detail and definition provided to those terms in The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

A closer examination of the regulation standards will unveil that while many substances listed are materials, minerals, and other things normally provided in nature, there are also many non-natural ingredients, including mild chemicals, that are still permitted. Additionally, a synthetic ingredient that is made from non-synthetics may be labeled non-synthetic. 

Furthermore, the animals may still receive vaccines and otherwise foreign injections if needed. And while there are regulations defining that after a vaccine administration, 42 days must pass before the livestock may be slaughtered (or eight days of mild discard for dairy animals), the fact is that antibiotics were used, and the damage has been done.

The catch-22 here is that even meat labeled “100 percent organic” is not necessarily so. There are far too many loopholes, exceptions, and exclusions to the federally regulated NOP that the USDA organic label cannot stand as the “end all, be all” to claims. With that said, these labels do hold some weight in terms of credible sustainability, just not much.

Grass-Fed Labeling

On meat products under USDA organic certifications, grass-fed implies not only that the farm is organically certified, but that the animal ate only grass or forages like hay (as opposed to feed) once weaned off its mother’s milk. This leads to meat with more nutrients. 

Animals that are allowed to wander and feed on farmland freely also contribute to a healthy ecosystem, assisting in plant growth, providing natural pest and weed control, and bettering the overall habitat for wild animals as well as themselves.

Keep in mind that these certifications are subjected to the same standards as “organic” and therefore have those catch-22 loop-holes allowed that you must take into consideration. For example, this USDA-issued / FSIS “enforced” labeling for grass-fed only refers to the animal’s diet, and therefore the animals may have been given hormones or antibiotics.

When looking for sustainable labels that you can readily trust, seek out non-governmental regulatory agencies. Non-political organizations work without the legal jargon and ridiculous rule exceptions in the name of profit like the USDA, FDA, and others do.

The American Grassfed Association (AGA) supports, advocates, and promotes American grass-fed and pasture-based ranches and farms. They maintain a national standard for humanely raised animals that is not only credible; it is also transparent and easy to understand. Meats with the AGA label come from animals raised on a pasture, fed a diet of 100% foliage, and never treated with antibiotics or hormones.

The Certified Humane Raised and Handled Label

Humane Farm Animal Care DBA Certified Humane is a registered 501(c) 3 nonprofit certification organization who, in their own words, is “dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals in food production from birth through slaughter…by expanding consumer awareness, driving the demand for kinder and more responsible farm animal practices.”

The Certified Humane Raised and Handled label means:

  • The meat producer met and applied the HFAC Animal Care Standards throughout their entire lives.
  • Animals were not tied-up in stalls or made to stay in cages or crates and were free to perform natural activities. 
  • Animals were fed a diet of quality feed that was free of animal by-products, antibiotics, or growth hormones.
  • Producers have complied with all food safety regulations.
  • Producers have complied with all environmental regulations. 
  • Processors have complied with the official American Meat Institute Standards. 

HFAC’s Fact Sheets are available for consumers providing information about each individual humane issue presented regarding farm animals protected by the Certified Humane program.

Take the Extra Steps in Personal Responsibility for Sustainability

Maintaining sustainability (of all the earth’s resources, not just meat) is the responsibility of every individual on the planet. Every single person can make a difference and contribute to more sustainable meat, but it goes beyond merely changing the kind of meat you buy and eat. Here are a few ways to make your sustainable purchases more efficient contributions to the cause.

Eat Less Meat Overall

Indeed, you should consider eating less meat on average, particularly beef, and to a lesser extent, lamb and goat. 

And given that it costs more to pay for sustainable meats and their labels, why not consider removing a few meat items from the weekly menu? Most health experts feel that we are eating far too much meat anyway.

Besides, even if every meat producer during every step of the meat life-cycle was utilizing sustainable practices, the environmental resources it takes to produce meat are still the biggest sustainability challenge we face. Ergo stands to reason that producing smaller supplies of meat products will spare the land, water, and food otherwise used to raise mass quantities of animals for slaughter.

Shop Local & Buy In Bulk

It has been measured that upwards of 17% of fossil energy used in the U.S. is for the food production system. If this is a concern to you, help reduce this figure by shopping as locally as you can. If you have a local farmer’s market or butcher, all the better. 

You may also want to consider buying in bulk and freezing what you do not eat right away. This will cut down on costs in packaging for the producer, and these savings are passed on to you immediately. Not for nothing, transportation emissions are cut simply by you taking fewer trips to the butcher. It will take many of us to make these little decisions consistently to make a difference in sustainability, but these acts will add up to make a big difference over time.

Create Less Food Waste

Sadly, there is a lot of food waste that occurs globally. And much of that waste comes at the very end of the sustainability cycle. People waste a lot of food; whether it’s letting things go bad in the refrigerator or over-serving plates at dinnertime, food waste correlates with wasted resources and environmental degradation.

One easy thing you can do in the kitchen to reduce or even eliminate food waste in your home is to cook meat more in stews and soups. It’s a great way to use bones and other parts of the animal–cut down on food waste–and prevent potentially harmful compounds created with high-heat cooking methods. Go a step further when doing this and substitute half the meat for beans, further reducing your meat consumption. 

Another great way to cut your food wastes is by consuming organ meat, not just muscle meat. And not only is eating organ meat a great step in reducing food waste, but it has a ton of other benefits as well.

Organ Meat: The Original Super-Food

You can find many people these days who have never eaten organ meat or even thought of doing so. Or, if they have thought about it, they may have been turned off by the idea. And odds are, you are one of these people. Not too long ago, eating organ meat was much more commonplace than it is today. Studies show that over fifty years ago, the average person was consuming ten times the amount of organ meat as they do presently. 

In a kind of double blow, the demand for muscle meat went up while the demand for organ meat went down; and, as it turns out, this has caused the amount of food that is wasted from livestock to rise. So it’s pretty simple to see how we can help make more meat sustainable by consuming all the parts of the animal we can.

And since most of the organ meat of animals doesn’t find enough demant (thanks to us focusing nearly exclusively on the muscle meat), we won’t even drive up the need for more animals to supply our organ meats. Now, if that’s not a double win from an ethical and sustainable perspective!

But ethics and sustainability aren’t the only benefit of eating organ meat; rather, many positives come with it. So many, as it were, that it’s hard to believe these meats even fell out of favor with the general public in the first place.

The Benefits of Eating Organ Meat

Most organ meats (commonly called offal) are incredibly nutritious. It will vary slightly depending on the organ type and the animal it was sourced from, but overall, most organ meats have more vitamins and minerals than muscle meats. In fact, organ meats are a rich source of many nutrients that are hard to get from other foods, comparatively. 

For starters, organ meats are an amazing source of protein. A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) piece of beef liver, for example, has 27 grams of protein, whereas, depending on the cut, the same amount of beef muscle meat has anywhere from 16 to 23 grams of protein. Plus, animal protein has the nine essential amino acids everyone needs to stay healthy, so organ meat is a great way to increase your intake of these.

Organ meat is also packed with iron. That 3.5-ounce (100-gram) piece of beef liver from above has upwards of 36% of the daily recommended intake of iron, compared to the same amount of ground beef, which has 15% of the daily value. What’s more, meat has heme iron, which is more readily absorbed by the body than the non-heme iron that we receive from plant foods.

But it doesn’t stop there! Organ meats are rich in B-vitamins, particularly vitamin B12 and B9 (commonly known as folate), with honorable mention to B6. In case you were wondering, our example of a 3.5-ounce (100 gram) piece of beef liver has 51% of the daily recommended intake of B6 and 1,386% of the recommended value for B12.

These meats are also an excellent source for vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as other important nutrients like copper, niacin, selenium, zinc, magnesium, and more. And on top of it all, organ meats are an amazing source of choline–an essential nutrient needed for muscle, liver, and brain health that most people simply don’t get enough of.

Put an Offal Taste in Your Mouth

The organ meat people consume most commonly comes from chickens, ducks, lambs, goats, pigs, and cows. And from these animals, we see seven common types of organ meat: tongue, liver, sweetbreads, tripe, heart, kidney, and brains. 

Many of these meats are increasing in popularity at some fine-dining restaurants as many are coming around to the strong, unique flavors of these foods. But if various offal isn’t a common part of your diet, it can take a little time to develop a taste for such foods. If this is the case, you may wish to try the tongue or heart first, as these organs have a milder flavor than others.

You can also try adding these meats into recipes you already enjoy. For example, liver and kidneys can be ground up and combined with beef or pork mince for dishes such as meatloaf or Bolognese. Alternatively, you can try slow-cooking organ meat alongside lamb shank or other meat in a stew to help you gradually get used to these stronger flavors.

Bite Your Tongue

If you are one of those who may be a little intimidated by the idea of eating organ meat, the tongue may be the place to start. It is actually considered to be more of a muscle despite its classification as offal. The tongue has a high-fat content, which makes it a very tender and incredibly tasty cut of meat.

Tongue meat contains many calories and fatty acids, as well as choline, zinc, iron, and vitamin B12. Eating tongue can help you recover quicker from illness and offers fertility benefits in women who are pregnant. 

Don’t Quiver Over Liver

While most people these days are more familiar with steak and potatoes on their dinner plate, liver and onions were once a leading menu item with the same popularity–but with more nutritional value. The liver is considered to be the nutritional powerhouse of all the organ meats, as it is the most nutrient-dense. In fact, it has even been referred to by some as “nature’s multivitamin.”

Liver is a great source of vitamin A, which is necessary for good eye health. Vitamin A also helps fight against inflammatory diseases across the board, from arthritis to Alzheimer’s disease. Liver also provides copper, chromium, iron, folic acid, and zinc, all of which are known to be good for the heart as well as for increasing the level of hemoglobin in the blood.

Sugar-Free Sweetbreads 

Some people have been deceived or confused by sweetbreads. When shopping for them in the market, you can clearly see you are not buying bread; when eating them, you find they are not surgery in taste. 

Rather, sweetbreads come from the thymus glands and the pancreas of calves and lambs. It is a very delicate cut with a soft, luxurious texture, and its taste is sweet compared to muscle cuts from the loin and shoulders, for example. Try searing them until the outside is dark and crisp, and serve with lemon and mint for a delicious treat. 

Hardy Tripe Is Hardly Trife

Tripe is another confusing offal choice because, like sweetbreads, tripe is not advertised with a familiar vernacular. This is actually the stomach-lining of an animal, typically from cows, and most often has a really chewy texture. Tripe is incredibly versatile and is used worldwide in various dishes, including soups, stir-fry, and even pasta.

Find It in Your Heart to Try 

The heart may not look like it’s edible, but it is, indeed, a lean and tasty piece of meat. It is rich in iron, zinc, folate, and selenium, and a great source of the B-complex vitamins (B2, B6, and B12), which help reduce cholesterol and are beneficial to the brain, reducing the risk of depression, anxiety, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Additionally, heart meat provides the antioxidant CoQ10 (coenzyme Q10), increasing energy, slowing the aging process, and helping treat or prevent heart disease.

No Kidney Failure Here

It may seem like the kidneys of any mammal ought to be discarded, considering the role of these organs is to filter out waste and toxins from the blood. But kidney meat is actually rich in protein and contains omega 3 fatty acids. It is considered to be good for the heart and has anti-inflammatory properties as well.

Brains Over Beauty

Brain meat may not look very appetizing, but it is considered a delicacy in most cultures. It contains nutrients such as phosphatidylserine and phosphatidylcholine, which are beneficial to the nervous system. Brain meat is also rich in omega 3 fatty acids, and the antioxidants provided can help protect the human brain as well as the spinal cord from damage. 

Final Thoughts

The marketplace and governmental regulations present challenges that consumers must overcome to buy sustainable meat. But you can overcome these difficulties once you understand how the production and labeling processes work. Also, by taking personal responsibility for your meat choices and frequency of consumption, you can further help make meat products more sustainable overall.

Stay impactful,



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