Grass-fed, organic, cage free, pasturing – the jargon of meat and what it really means.

By Elsie Lodde

The 1930s was a hard time in America. The country was crippled from the depression and farmers worked hard to figure out ways to make Agriculture more cost effective so that both people could afford their products and so the average American could more easily afford them.  What this meant for us was a completely different way of raising animals for human consumption.  There is a lot of jargon that is used out there, and most people do not understand what it all means. For those concerned about whether some ways animals are raised are more humane, to simply what forms make the food taste better- there are differences.  Sitting at a table this weekend with a couple discussing “grass fed beef” and their shock over how much better it tasted, gave me the ability to teach 8 more people about how meat is processed in our country, to explain that it is not a shock that the meat tasted so much better. Growing up on a small farm (it was a nothing more than a self-sustaining farm with 1 cow and pig at a time and chickens and turkeys to give us eggs and feed us year round), I always knew how animals should be raised. My mother, also an avid animal lover, kept the animals as pets until they were slaughtered (well except the turkeys, they are huge jerks). But we had random animals, ponies, turkens (yes it is a real animal, ugly, but real nonetheless), a goat, and all sorts of barnyard friends. Most meat and dairy products are now produced in large farms where only one animal is housed and most are raised in a “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation,” or CAFO,  by ways where the animals are given little space by high calories to try to fatten them up quickly so they can be sold for slaughter in less time.  I will try to save you most of the horrors of these types of operations (after all, if you wanted to know you would look it up yourself) and stick with the important points. I apologize if, on occasion, my personal beliefs poke in there. I might be a beef loving Domestic Goddess; however, I am also an animal rescuer.

My Great-Grandma, Elsie, with her farm calf.
My Great-Grandma, Elsie, with her farm calf.

Beef – Traditionally in CAFOs cows are not fed the meals they would naturally eat (grass) and instead are fed corn.  Corn is a cheap product in this country making it an affordable way to both fatten up cows; however, since they are not meant to eat grain it causes other issues.  70% of all antibiotics used in America are used in cows. Since cows do not nauturally eat corn, it is not something their systems are designed to digest and so antibiotics keep the cows from becoming sick from this unnatural feed.  Also since CAFOs are not hygienic and so this is done to prevent intestinal parasites once again allowing cows to get larger that they would otherwise.  Besides the antibiotics used, hormones are often given to cows because it improves feed efficiency, rate of muscle development and just makes the dead cow look more appealing. It helps lower the farmers cost and raise output so it is widely used. Many of these hormones are synthetic; however, there have not been studies on how that affects people who consume them (it is postulated that these hormones are what is causing early menstruation and development in children, but again, long term studies are lacking) but the waste water from runoffs have shown fish develop unusual sex characteristics (such as having both male and female sexual organs).

Grass Fed- what’s the big deal?

Most grass-fed cattle are much leaner so the fat content and caloric level of the meat is much lower than the traditionally corn-fed meat. So for those who think the fat is the best tasting part of the beef, this might not be for you. Nutritionally speaking (besides lacking antibiotics and hormones) meat from grass-fed cattle also have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and over 400% the vitamins A and C as corn-fed beef, making it all together for your body as well.  Since Mad Cow disease also came about by the feeding of tainted animals to other animals, if you are concerned with diseases such as these, grass fed beef is much safer as well. However, grass-fed beef is not standardized as much as traditionally raised cattle and you may find your taste buds prefer corn-fed beef, but I would suggest all die hard steak eaters (like me) give it a try at least once.

I bet my Great-Grandma got so big and strong eating these free range beauties.
I bet my Great-Grandma got so big and strong eating these free range beauties.

Like all producers and sellers, there are some tricks that are associated to try to fool consumers. There is a difference between grass fed (whereas the cows are fed grass their entire lives) and Grass Finished Beef. Finishing is just another word for the time that cattle are normally fattened for the last 3-5 months on grass. While this does increase the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in the meat, it does not make it as healthy as grass fed beef. If I ever get a deep freezer, I intend on getting a cow from:

Poultry- is buying organic, cage free or free range any better? The answer might surprise you.

Elsie and her chickens - no wonder I grew up on a farm.
Elsie and her chickens – no wonder I grew up on a farm.

Organic chicken is chicken that has only been fed organic grains, which means that no pesticides or chemicals were used on the farm to grow the grain in the last three years. The chicken must also never have been given antibiotics, drugs, or hormones to accelerate growth, though they will be given medicine should they fall ill. Also, the chicken must be given free range with access to outdoors and be treated properly. I am a proponent for animals with less drugs and hormones (for reasons described about the cows).  Organic might not make a huge difference in taste, but would probably be the best of the options as for balancing healthier chicken and humane keeping (although unless you know where the chicken comes from, there is still a good chance they are inhumanely treated while living).

Ok, I never ate any of these geese, but we should have. Not just because they were wild, but because they were mean!
Ok, I never ate any of these geese, but we should have. Not just because they were wild, but because they were mean! Yes, that is a pudgy baby Elsie (me and not my namesake).

Cage free– Ideally cage free chickens never have to ordeal the hell of farmed chickens being crammed in cages with other hens and no space; however, this term has been bastardized to not mean much.  Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs in New Hampshire have “cage free” chickens, so they charge more for the product, but the truth is instead of in cages they have 20,000 chickens crammed in a 400 ft long shed. So this is not any healthy or more humane than normal farmed chickens.

Free Range– The term free range means that they chickens have to have access to go outside.  We would like to imagine chickens living in a field, picking green grass and eating bugs and playing chicken games like pin the tail on the weasel, but again, this term has been used for a marketing ploy with no true benefit to the chicken or consumer. This often means that they might be able to go out to a tiny section where there is fresh air but may only have gravel and no pecking going on at all.

I will save you from the horror of what really happens in these places; however, unless you know the farm where your chicken is coming from, it is very likely that you are wasting your money buying “free range” and “cage free” animals.  In this case, you might as well stick with the normal cheap chicken and save your money to get yourself a few hens to lay eggs. If you would rather buy eggs from pasturing chickens. Much like grass fed beef producing meat which is healthier for you, pasture raised chicken eggs have many more health benefits.  They have 10% less calories, because they have 14% less total carbohydrates, 11% less calories from fat, and 13% less saturated fat. Like grass fed beef being higher in good fats, eggs from pasture chickens have 285% more Omega3 than their store bough counterparts and 34% less cholesterol. Overall, you can see the benefits to buying eggs from real farms (and not the fake “cage free” ones like mentioned above.   In the Sacramento area, you can find eggs from pasturing chickens at:

My brother with our goat and chickens.
My brother with our goat and a rooster.

From both a nutritional and environmental impact perspective, farmed fish are far inferior to their wild counterparts. Despite being much fattier, farmed fish provide less usable beneficial omega 3 fats than wild fish (and isn’t that the reason most people want to eat fish in the first place?). Much like with CAFO beef, farm-raised fish are doused with antibiotics as well are exposed to much more pesticides than wild fish are. On top of the pesticides and antibiotics, farmed salmon are also given food coloring to change their meat to a pink color rather than the bland natural gray color. The huge setback to wild salmon is the price, true wild salmon can cost up to $10/lb more than their farmed cousins making it cost prohibitive.
What is the most and least humane?

Pork, unless you buy a pig from a local small farm, is the worst to buy.  Pigs are kept and treated horrendously.  If you are concerned about humane food, I would definitely ignore all pork from the grocery store, as well as chickens. This gives you the opportunity to support your local farmers, and maybe even get a hen or two of your own.

Check your local farmers markets or

In California, you can check this website for local farmers (although, again, research says you should see how they are raised). Go to: for a list of local farmers.

About Elsie:
I was raised on a farm, and as I mentioned previously, our food was our pets.  We had 3 cows (named “Breakfast,” Lunch” and “Dinner”) who we would ride and treat like they were pets.  This caused a great deal of entertainment and horror as a child. Although, I loved petting our social cows, I will always remember when my parents were trying to vaccinate a cow and it kicked my father, he spent about a month in the hospital and was in traction for about 5 years (ok, I was a kid so it was likely a week and 2 months but it felt that long).  Other parts about having a farm that were memorable was going to the big farm where we purchased the cow. The last one was pregnant and blind in one eye. I am pretty sure my parents thought that they were going to teach us the birds and the bees with this one and it ended up traumatizing us.  Imagine, the local vet comes out to deliver the cow, we stand back and watch as a stillborn baby was born (why did they think this would be great for us to watch again?).  There was the being told to stay in the house, when the man in the truck drove up.  Of course, we did stay in the house, but watched in horror as the cows were slaughtered.  The slaughtering process definitely was the worst, knowing the piles of weird straw and grass was the stomach contents of dinner.  We had turkeys, which we would take to school at Thanksgiving time, opening me up to being THAT poor white trash girl whose parents brings a turkey (on a leash) to the school and then the class writes a book begging for Ralph’s pardon (Ralph was lucky and laid an egg so her magical sex change saved her but we could all feel good about what we did).

14 and enjoying the last of the country girl in me.

Having birds was perhaps one of the worst parts about the farm.  The turkeys were just plain mean.  The chickens were great, although, finding a fertilized egg when you are making chocolate chip cookies is something you never forget. There was the brick with the wire wrapped around it, which I know was used for killing the chickens, but I never knew how (and I have not let my love of google ruin the surprise for me).  And I cannot forget the turkens! Those were the UGLIEST animals that ever existed, and then to make it worse they had some illness and they all died.  Dead ugly birds, all over the yard.

The best part about having a farm was simply being poor, but not having to eat like we were.  We always had a freezer full of meat (and occasionally a dead raccoon that my mom picked up with hopes of making something) and lots of friends around the yard.  Although, when I put all these ideas together, it seems quite traumatic, but it really wasn’t at the time.  Everyone has pets that die, ours just happened to be eaten afterwards.  We had rabbits (I am not sure if my parents intended on eating them or if they were a pet like the goat) until the neighbors dog got into the enclosure and ate them all, and then we built a hen house and started containing more chickens. It was my job to go out and get eggs, and it was my brother’s to feed the horse, cow, or pony or whatever we had at the time.  I am not sure what happened to the pony, although, I do remember it bucking me about 10 feet in the air when my brother thought it would be hilarious to smack her butt while I was riding her.  Wilbur made great sausage and stirred quite the conflict in my brother.  He was our pet, which we ate, and so this made him question the meaning of life.  After asking my mother which animals we ate he implored, “Do you raise children to eat them?” He was relieved with her answer of “No, if we ate children we wouldn’t be grandparents.” I remember riding a cow to the mailbox (which was less comfortable than driving the lawn mower) – all of these experiences shaped who I am as a person, omnivore, and animal rescuer.  Loving our pets and eating them taught me to be realistic and understand (without emotion) the way things often need to end.  It helps me to understand that there is no difference in eating animals like pigs in America, than horses in Mexico, or dogs in China- because I have had them all as pets.  Ultimately, I think the most important thing is love.  I would like for all animals to be treated with love and respect regardless of whether they will fill our stomachs or our hearts.  Growing up on this farm taught me so much, and I wish more children were able to experience this life and were able to be self-sustaining. In the long run, it is better for both the animals and ourselves as the unprocessed meat not filled with drugs and hormones are so much better for our bodies (especially those of children).

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