By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

There are lots of reasons to cut your meat consumption. Producing beef is more resource intensive and energy costly than almost any other type of food production (save maybe extracting gourmet delicacies like caviar) and has a big carbon imprint, contributing to greenhouse gases at many stages.

There also are health reasons to trim the volume of animal products from your diet. Meats contribute to high cholesterol, hardening of the arteries and so on.

But if cutting the barbecue doesn’t warm your ribs, so to speak, then you may at least want to consider eating beef that doesn’t come from a CAFO. That stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, which means the animals are aggregated in a confined area where they are fed. CAFOs developed as an agricultural efficiency – with beef being “finished” on grains — but have taken on darker meanings as exposes of  feedlots have uncovered crowding and overfeeding of animals (to get them to market quicker).

CAFOs are a subset of AFOs, which are defined by the government as facilities that keep animals penned for at least 45 days in a 12-month period without grass or vegetation in the confined area.

If you don’t want to support CAFOs, or eat the more fatty meat that they produce, you would want to graduate to grass-fed beef. That is, the bovine choice of your parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

But beware, grass-fed beef should be labeled as “grass fed.” It won’t do to pick up the “naturally processed” meat; that label simply means that no dyes or preservatives were added during processing. You need to look for the precise label that says grass fed, which means, well, just that. The cows grazed around on grass, like nature intended. And their meat will reflect that. Grass fed beef is less fatty and the carbon imprint of this type of ranching is typically  much reduced also.

Of course, these aren’t the only labels you encounter when you wade into the meat section.  There’s the organic meat designation, which assures that the animal you’re eating was fed organic grain or hay, and didn’t eat any animal byproducts, which can slip into grains fed to cattle (or chickens or pigs). This problem has led to some icky contamination issues that we won’t get into here.

At the same time, an organic label doesn’t assure that the cows were allowed outside much. They could have been packed into a pen also.

Needless to say, it’s a messy and complex practice, this animal raising. Which leads to messy and complex issues at the grocery story. And to the point of this story: If you want to know what you’re eating, you’ll have to study up.

Sustainable Table, a website aimed at helping people make wise and earth-friendly food choices has released a meat production guide that will definitely be useful to discriminating shoppers. It’s a one-page print out designed to be folded so you can take it to the store.

The guide gives the definitions for each label and covers the issues, getting to the meat.

(Photo credit: U.S. EPA.)

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