Q: Is Canada watering down its "naturally raised" meat standard as much as the United States?
A: Pour a glass of H2O on that steak, sister, because the watering down of eco labels is definitely a cross-border problem.
For those of you who haven't been following U.S. food labelling laws (what, you don't spend your Sundays reading bureaucratic reports from another country?), let me give you a quick update.
About, oh, two weeks back, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a new voluntary standard for the term "naturally raised meat." And let's just say not everyone was happy.
What's the problem? Well, according to a survey conducted by the Consumers Union, most shoppers assume that "naturally raised" means the animals eat a natural diet and are raised humanely in a natural environment with outdoor access.
But all the voluntary standard spells out is that animals with that label weren't fed most antibiotics (except maybe anti-parasitic ones), hormones or mad-cow-inducing bits of other animals. So, as activists put it, a steak with this sticker could still come from a confined cow of genetically altered or cloned stock. (Yup, meat and milk from cloned cows has been rubber-stamped in the U.S.)
And while Americans argue over how to define "naturally raised," Canada sits in a murky grey puddle.
At the very least, purveyors of "natural'' cuts seem to agree you're buying a hunk o' meat free of antibiotics and added growth hormones (pretty much mimicking the U.S. standard). Plenty of "natural'' meat farmers go much further, allowing their animals grazing time in warmer weather, open-air barns and more.
Whole Foods' "all natural" chicken, for instance, is said to be free-run, and the chain's cattle are purportedly grass-fed half the year. Problem is, no one's regulating the term.
Still, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says it does have the power to crack down on labels it sees as misleading or inaccurate. And guess what? Unless you're chowing down on a wild turkey or wild salmon, the CFIA says there's no way meat can be raised as mother nature intended it.
Take the feed, for instance. Most naturally raised animals are fed 100 per cent grain or a mix of grain, hay and grass, but cows, of course, don't naturally eat the most common food handed to them - corn pellets (especially the kind with additives.)
Does that mean all the "100 per cent natural" and "naturally raised" meat lining refrigerated aisles across the country could get the smack-down? Seems so. But is anyone enforcing this?
While it might surprise the both of us, the answer, according to the CFIA, is yes. Seems the agency has pushed some companies to use more precise terms like "raised without antibiotics" or "free-run."
Steven Alexander, owner of Cumbrae's, one of Toronto's most popular eco-meat shops, says he never heard a peep from the CFIA but did decide to drop the term "naturally raised" from meat labels a few years ago. Why? Because it was just plain confusing to consumers. Instead, Cumbrae's now prefers "traditionally farmed" to give people a clearer picture of the small family farms it sources from and the open-air barns its drug-free chickens run in.
T-dot's biggest east-end health store, the Big Carrot, isn't dumping its "naturally raised" label, but it is toughening it up. It's looking into moving away from informal assessments of farm practices to getting third-party animal welfare audits for all its suppliers that are already drug-free. It's also weighing GMO-free feed standards.
Like it or not, serving up non-organic feed to a barnful of animals is what helps keep the cost of "naturally raised" meat lower than certified organic for conscious omnivores. But finding non-organic Canadian feed that isn't GMO-tainted is a challenge.
In the U.S., some small direct-market farmers are so peeved about the cost of following organic certification to a T that they started their own private label, "Certified Naturally Grown" (which tightened up animal welfare provisions while allowing non-certified organic feed when that feed is local).
Call it what you will, but naturally raised meat is here to stay. It's high time we built strong standards for it - without following the grade-A cop-out of our neighbours to the south.
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