What You're Buying When You Buy Meat With Labels

Eating almost always involves some sort of ethical choice. The more you think about where your food comes from and who makes it, the more overwhelming that can feel. More and more, consumers want ethical supply chains. For that, we need accurate labeling, but given the state of regulations (a mess), good luck with that.

If you choose to eat meat or animal protein in general, you've likely tried to make shopping decisions based on how that product gets marketed. Labels like "all-natural," "free-range," and "grass-fed" all seem pretty straightforward (and better?), but the truth is, they're often buzzwords rather than meaningful descriptors. Luckily for us, The New Food Economy has tackled those labels in a new feature called "The Conscious Carnivore's Guide to Meat."

The standard to look out for is whether a label comes from the Food and Drug Administration — and how the FDA interprets it. "Organic" actually means more about what the animal was fed than how it was treated, so if you're concerned about animal welfare, you may need to look for other labels or get to know the producer better. "Local" can mean anything from grown on a restaurant's rooftop to trucked in from 450 miles away. Even "cage-free" doesn't mean that chickens have significantly better lives.

Being skeptical about where your food comes from is good practice all around, especially for seafood, which is notoriously casual with labeling. Even vegetarians and vegans will want to understand how labels work, especially for processed and GMO foods. Check out The New Food Economy's whole guide to deciphering the meat you buy. If you want to speak with your dollars, it helps to know the language.