Barbecue season is upon us. Nothing says summer like the smell of a grill on a hot afternoon, and few among us can resist the temptation of a gooey caramelized peach, skewered bell peppers, or a juicy burger loaded up with the fixings. But for the conscientious consumer, the quest for a perfect brisket or chicken breast can be confusing.
Well, fear not: We're here to help. Bookmark this page and keep it handy when you head out in search of grilling goodies. Among the heady aromas of farmers market fruit and fresh herbs, it's easy to lose your wits. But with a sharp eye and a little knowledge about labels, you'll be able to choose wisely.
When it comes to meat, the label "certified organic" isn't quite as cut and dried as it is with produce. To claim the label, farmers must allow animals outdoor access and give ruminants (sheep, cows, and goats) access to pasture—but the amount of time, the size of the pasture, and the quality of outdoor time isn't formally defined. Animals are also required to have bedding materials.
If you're worried about the well-being of animals besides yourself, you should know that although hormones and antibiotics are forbidden, certified organic animals can be subjected to painful surgical procedures (like dehorning) without any anesthesia.
Eager to please ethical eaters, stores and farmers often tout a vegetarian diet for their animals, lumping the term in with other feel-good descriptors. While animals with a vegetarian diet likely eat a more natural feed than the average grain-eating factory-farm animal, the term doesn't mean that vegetarian-fed animals are kicking their feet up, munching on greens in rolling pastures. In fact, the label doesn't guarantee anything about the living conditions of animals, just their diets.
Though this term doesn't speak to animals' living conditions (just as "vegetarian-fed" doesn't), the term grain-fed typically implies a lower standard of living for animals because diets high in grain are problematic for ruminants. From a grain-based diet, animals can suffer liver abscesses and lameness.
A program of the Animal Welfare Institute, Animal-Welfare Approved is a labeling program that requires producers to meet certain criteria. Farm animals must have access to the outdoors and be permitted to engage in natural behaviors (such as moving about, pecking, and rolling in the dirt). Cages and crates are forbidden, as are growth hormones and subtherapeutic antibiotics.
As with the "certified organic" label, however, animals may still undergo painful processes (including castration) without anesthesia.
Pay close attention, because cage-free means different things for birds raised for eggs and those raised for meat. Animals raised for meat aren't typically caged before they're transported to slaughter, so the term, while rosy-sounding, doesn't mean much. (Egg-laying hens are a different story, because they are typically stacked in restrictive cages.)
Feeling overwhelmed? First, take comfort in the fact that knowledge is power. Armed with this information, you can make decisions that are right for you. And if you decide to steer clear of meat entirely, well, we've got plenty of veg recipes for you as well.
But far and away, the best thing you can do to ensure you're eating according to your values is to do your research. For help with that, check out our Fourth of July grilling guide. You'll find tips on locating sustainable meat near you, asking the right questions of your butcher, and cooking nose-to-tail.
And if you crave a beverage while you're relaxing, check out these sustainable brews.