What's in a Label?
In recent years, consumers have become increasingly concerned about where the food they buy is produced, and how that food is produced. This has driven what could be described as something of an arms race in food labeling, with companies trying to make their product appear most appealing. Whether targeting consumers concerned with animal welfare, environmental issues or their own health, different food companies have taken different approaches. Although most of these labels have started with good intentions, I believe that some of them have been diluted to simply green-washing or clever marketing. As a farm that could (and does in some cases) fit under a number of these labels, we’d like to share what these labels mean to us.
An easy one to start with is Organic – is organic food any better or worse for you than non-organic? Is it any better or worse for the land or the welfare of the animals? If you were really interested, I am sure you could find literature to support either end of those arguments. At Green Beach Farm & Food, we produce certified organic grains. None of our livestock or pasture are certified – although all of our livestock and pasture land would be eligible for certification if we chose to do so. In our case, the decision to not certify the livestock end of our farm was strictly economical – we were not prepared to pay for the certification when we have a customer base willing to pay us fairly for the way we currently raise our livestock. On the contrary, we saw an opportunity for improved economics on the grain end of our farm – so we chose to certify our cropland. As a regenerative organic farmer, I think it is important for consumers to recognize that an organic certification is a framework – in other words, a farmer could be following the regulations to the letter, and still be doing great harm to their soil and waterways or producing food that is not all that nutritious. In my experience, this is rarely the case, but the only way to know, is to know your farmer.
Another label gaining popularity recently (due largely to A&W perhaps) is grass-fed beef. Unfortunately, this term is fairly ambiguous, and A&W has capitalized on this, using the logic that ALL beef is technically grass-fed, and then spends a brief time in a feedlot to be finished. At Green Beach Farm & Food, all of our beef is grass-fed & finished. Notice the difference in our marketing? Grass-fed & finished. This is important. I will leave the research to you, but there are a number of nutritionists, doctors and other researchers that have outlined the human health benefits of grass-finished beef, as well as other meats raised on pasture (Stephen Van Vliet, Fred Provenza, Dana Rogers to name a few). The health benefits of grass-fed beef are significantly diminished if this animal is finished on grain. In fact, according to research by Dr. Stephen Van Vliet, the ‘health’ compounds in beef grazed on pasture are all but eliminated by 60 days on a high grain finishing diet. Interestingly, simply grass-fed may not be the best product out there. An animal finished on a low-diversity pasture is likely to have fewer human health compounds in their meat than an animal finished on a high-diversity pasture. We started down this road because, although it took a bit longer, it was cheaper for us to finish cattle on grass than buying grain and we liked the taste of our beef better than the store. Eventually we built a customer base who felt the same way – Green Beach beef tastes better than the grocery store beef. There is a grass-fed certification, although we have chosen not to certify yet for the same reasons we haven’t certified the livestock as organic. Once again, although there is a grass-fed certification, I feel strongly that the only way to know how your beef is raised and finished, is to know your farmer.
There are a number of other labels you might see in the grocery store (non-gmo, natural, free-range), but I imagine my opinions have become clear, however useful they may or may not be. In our experience selling nutrient-dense pasture-raised protein to Manitoba families, consumers are less concerned about the label, and more so interested in the story behind the food we are selling. At Green Beach Farm & Food, we fall under some ‘labels’ as well as the associated certification, other ‘labels’ we are not certified, so our customers are taking us at our word. Or perhaps they aren’t simply taking us at our word if they follow our social media pages or have ever visited the farm – which we encourage, because after all, we feel that it is important to know your farmer.