Free-range meat that is truly free ranging, can make an incredible difference in the quality of the meat you are eating.
Food labels can be confusing, which we will discuss later, for right now when we say “free range meat” we are talking about animals that are free to roam around in pastures or fish that are free swimming in the ocean or wild in lakes.
Putting the cruelty factor aside, there is a way that animals were meant to live, and there are things that they were meant to eat. Like humans, when animals live the way they were supposed to and eat the things they were meant to, their bodies work better. They process food in a different way and use that food to build different kinds of cells.
Cows, sheep and goats were meant to roam free on hillsides grazing on grass and wild forage. Chickens were meant to walk around, stretch their wings, and peck at seeds, small berries or nuts and little bugs hiding in the grass. Fish were meant to swim free in the ocean or in lakes, finding their own food in nature.
Exercise in combination with a healthy diet, makes strong lean muscles, with a low fat content. In a general sense this is true for all animals, including humans. When you are eating meat, it’s the muscles that you’re looking to eat, and the saturated fat you are looking to avoid. Happier animals produce more ideal ratios of fat and muscles than conventionally farmed animals do.
Conventionally farmed animals could not be farther from their natural state. These farms are all about mass-production, meat quantity is far more important to them than meat quality.
These animals are packed in as many as can possibly fit in a space, they stand and sleep in their own feces, no room to move around anywhere, and they are fed the cheapest possible feed.
Cows are confined to feed lots, and chickens are crammed in hen-houses, never given the opportunity to walk freely from birth to death.
They are often fed a feed compound that has animal byproducts, urea, and arsenic compounds, causing them to be thin, unnaturally boney creatures. Remember, you eat everything your food eats. Food is fuel, and when an animal is fed exclusively food with little nutritional value, they don’t have the ability build good healthy muscles, which severely lowers the quality of the meat.
As if these circumstances are not difficult enough, these animals are often transported from farm to farm, which is a very stressful process for the animal. Chickens are crammed into small cages, sometimes standing directly on top of one another, cows are shoved into metal semi-truck trailers, too many to a stall. Once loaded up, they driven sometimes hundreds of miles, regardless of the weather.
In the freezing-cold, rain or sleet, they are forced to feel chilling-to-the-bone highway winds, listen to the frightening sounds of cars zipping by, and defecate all over themselves and each other. In the summer, the metal they stand on will heat up and burn their feet, they often get dehydrated and many animals (specifically chickens) die before they reach their destination.
Living in the kind of environments that these animals are forced into from birth to death, causes their bodies to release of steady flood of cortisol (stress hormone) into their blood stream. When a body is full of cortisol, it processes food differently as well. It makes and stores a lot more fat cells. These animals are already lacking the proper exercise or ability to move around at all, so when they are storing up even more fat cells from stress of top of that, it makes for a meat with a much higher saturated fat content and less muscle, which is the part of the meat you are hoping to eat.
As you might imagine, standing and sleeping in waste and muck, causes a great deal of health problems. Many of these conventionally farmed animals end up with rotting feet and hooves, skin sores, eye infections, and they are more prone to illness and disease.
To avoid production decrease, these farmers will keep the animals on a regimen of antibiotics to treat all of these ailments. Remember, you eat everything your food eats. When these animals consume all of these antibiotics, it goes into their blood stream and becomes part of the meat.
Being sickly and prone to disease tends to make animals that are small and weak. To make up for this, these farms pump them full of growth hormone to make sure their bottom line isn’t reduced.
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will say eating meat treated with these antibiotics and hormones is safe, other independent studies are questioning that statement. Most reliable sources are saying that not enough research has been done to definitively say whether or not it is safe. Studies on hormones are difficult because they are naturally present in humans and meat, and the changes are slow over a long period of time.
However, more and more research is being done, and while they have not found a significant link to growth hormones in food causing early puberty in humans like it does in cows, there have been several studies that found significant links between growth hormones in meat and accelerated production of insulin and other cancer-causing hormones in humans. This can also contribute to increasing your chances of diabetes, not to mention a number of cancers.
Overall, studies are saying the testing has not being going on long enough to give concrete answers one way or another, but the more independent scientists and labs study these things, the more they are finding new links to various cancers due to growth hormones in food.
Furthermore, most of the studies stating that these hormones and antibiotics are safe, are either done by the major food companies or by labs that are supporting them.
The FDA also has a history of making premature judgements on what is safe and what is not. In the 1950s and early 60s, dairy cows were given a growth hormone called DES. This was also an FDA approved hormone given to women. After being studied, it was discovered that there was an increased risk of vaginal cancer among daughters of the pregnant women that were given these drugs.
After further studies, it turned out there was also a significant link between dairy cows being given this hormone and early childhood cancer in children drinking the milk. In the late 70s, the hormone was banned by the FDA for not being safe.
This was just a speed bump for the conventional farmers, however. Shortly after, they began administering the hormone rBGH. This hormone is currently banned in the European Union, Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Yet, the FDA deems it to be safe in the United States.
More and more studies are being done on this hormone, and they are suggesting that it might cause testicular cancer, ovarian cancer, and breast cancer. Although the FDA is deeming it safe, claiming it does not cause early puberty, their studies are not talking about cancer.
Truly free range meat is the happiest meat you can eat. Free range animals make for better meat, not only because they are able to walk around grazing all day (unlike these conventionally farmed animals), but also because there are laws on what kind of food they are allowed to be fed. They also aren’t allowed to be given antibiotics or hormones. (Some of these responsibly raised animals are allowed to be given antibiotics for illness.)
There are also rules about moving these animals from farm to farm. Most responsibly raised animals are born and raised on one farm, and only moved for slaughter. Some of these raising farms, actually have a slaughter yard as well, so they are not even moved then.
If you get your meat from a local farmer or farmer's market, none of those animals would have been subjected to any of this kind of torture.
The guidelines differ for different food labels, which we will discuss shortly, but animals that are free to walk around and grow at a normal pace, aren’t stressed out all the time and their bodies are working correctly. Without the extreme amounts of cortisol in their blood stream, they don’t produce as high an amount of saturated fat.
Red meat is higher in saturated fat than any other meat, even if it is free range red meat. However, the leanest red meats are from animals that were allowed to range free, relax, and eat primarily plants. Their bodies know how to process the kind of food they are taking in, and without the constant stress factor, they are able to build healthy-strong muscles, and an appropriate amount of fat for their body types.
Food labels can be confusing, and sometimes it is difficult to know which ones are better than others. A simple way out is to try to get your meat from a local farmer’s market. People who are raising their own animals do not give them growth hormones or antibiotics, and they give their animals plenty of access to pasture. Chickens raised on local farms are generally completely free. Small farmers will give them a coop and go out and collect the eggs from wherever the chickens decide to nest. This is the best way for animals to be raised.
It’s better to be kind to your food, and allow it to mature naturally. You’ll never have to wonder if in 20 years research will show what you’ve been feeding your children will give them cancer. You’ll never have to wonder if the food you are putting in your body will change it’s natural growth patterns, or cell regeneration. You can eat with confidence, knowing that your food is naturally occurring and your body can process everything in it. When you eat happy, free range meat you can be sure that it isn’t full of excess fat cells due to an abundance of cortisol in the blood stream of the animal.
It’s good to feel good about what you eat, and it’s good to be confident that you aren’t harming your body. Eating truly free range meat, without antibiotics, hormones, or nasty living conditions, will not only make you feel good about the life this animal led, but also make you feel confident about the bites you are taking. You aren’t consuming something unnatural that will lay dormant in your body, causing lasting harm. Free range meat gives you the confidence to eat without wondering.
Food labels can be tricksters sometimes. Take “cage free” for example, you’ll see this label on chicken and eggs. Implying that they were not raised in cages. While that might be true in the very literal since, it does not necessarily mean they were raised in a happy environment. Cage free chickens aren’t allowed be raised inside of cages, but they are allowed to be crammed in a henhouse, with hardly any room to move around, and still walking on their own and each others feces. These chickens often do not have access to outside, and they are still very stressed out animals.
The free-range food label is also not entirely accurate. It puts a picture in your head of animals that were allowed to walk around outside and be free, like we’ve been discussing in this page, but that is not the case.
The FDA only requires that they have access to outside. It does not specify the amount of time, or require that they actually go outside. For example, there may be a number of chickens crammed in the hen house that never go outside, but as long as there is a small door allowing the opportunity to go out, these qualify as free-range birds.
Even if there may be so many hens in there, that many of them don’t ever know there is even a door, this still qualifies as free range meat, according to the food label. It also does not specify what kind of outdoor access they need to have. If there is a small door that opens to a tiny outdoor area, with no grass or real room to roam, this still qualifies as being free-range.
The 100% natural food label, is one of the most deceptive of them all. There are no requirements about how they have to raise their meat or crops for this food label. It simply means that there are no synthetic additives or artificial colors in the meat or vegetables. Meat raised under this label can be eating any kinds of food products, living in any kind of circumstances, and be given antibiotics and hormones.
There are, however, some food labels that you can trust. Even among these, some are better than others, but these are some that are generally trustworthy.
One of the best food labels for free range meat on the market is American Grassfed Association. Their meat is raised eating exclusively grass and forage, they are completely pasture-raised, never confined to food lots, and never given any antibiotics or hormones.
USDA Organic is a good food label, but there standards for chickens are inconsistent as far as outside access. Their chickens are cage free, but can live in hen houses. Their cows must be allowed access to the outside for a minimum of 120 days per year, but that is less than half of the year. However, 30% of organic cows diet’s must be grass or forage, and they are only allowed to be fed organic feed with no animal byproducts or ingredients that were exposed to sewage sludge or pesticides.
However, if you just are looking for a source for responsibly raised animals, where you don’t have to carefully sort through all the labels, farmer’s markets are a wonderful place to find healthy-strong free range meat.