What is the most sustainable meat?
If you choose to eat meat, and you care for the environment and care for your own health, I bet you’ve wondered “what is the best meat to eat”?
It’s a question I’m asked a lot, particularly by my Self Sufficiency in the Suburbs members, and it’s a question I’ve also contemplated.
I mean if you walk into a typical supermarket meat section you’re faced options such as organic, free range, grass fed, grain fed, no added hormones, antibiotic free, pasture raised and more! It can be hard to make an informed choice!
If you’re keen to discover once and for all what the most sustainable meat is, this post is for you.
I’m chatting with Peri McIntosh from Borderpark Organics and we uncover what is the best meat to eat from an environmental and health perspective.
Before you dive in though, you may like to also listen to:
- Episode 34 – What Is The Most Sustainable Diet,
- Episode 49 –Regenerative Farming and It’s Role In Healing Our World (with Joel Salatin from Polyface Farm),
- Episode 51 – 7 Ways To Smarten Up Your Meat Consumption, and
- Episode 69 – 5 Simple Ways To Include More Plant-Based Foods in Your Diet.
In this episode Peri and I dive into what all those different terms for meat mean, what are some of the common additives included in conventional meats, and how you can better ensure less waste from the animal (i.e. tip to the tail eating).
This episode is a meaty one (ha ha!) but I hope you get a lot out of it. Because if you do choose to eat meat, I really want to help you make the most sustainable choice for you and the environment.
Podcast: Play In New Window
What Do All The Different Types Of Meat Mean?
Let’s start at the top Peri! So a lot of my followers are telling me that they’re really quite confused with the meats on offer in their supermarket these days. Of course, they’ve been changing over time and we could see no added hormones, pasteurised, grass fed meats, grain fed. They’re confused, I’m a little bit confused, so we thought we’d bring you onto the show to answer some of these questions.
So, what are some of these terms that we’re seeing in our supermarket, where they sprung from and what do they mean?
That’s a really good question Laura. Since about 60% of Australians currently buy meat from a supermarket, we’re largely seeing a lot of different labels come about, and as you said there’s so many that we now see. It’s confusing, we don’t know whether they’re actually legitimate. We can’t necessarily tell the difference between them and we can’t even test whether they are true or not.
We in Australia, at least are really spoiled for choice, but it’s trying to differentiate between what free range is and grass fed or no added hormones or antibiotic free. We’re just going to have a quick look at what organic or certified organic usually means. It’s not a regulated term under Australian law, but it is in most of the countries. It means that not only do we exclude application of chemicals, but it’s a holistic approach to food production. The livestock must be free to range, they have to access pasture or grass that is pesticide free, and also GMO free.
There also has to be certified organic whatever feed that is that they’re given. They’re not allowed to be given hormones, no growth promoters or preventative antibiotics, only for sick animals. You would expect to pay more whole organic meat, but what you’re really looking for is a certified organic logo, that will give you real peace of mind, knowing that it’s being accredited by an independent body, and they are one of or there are seven different bodies in Australia at the moment.
Good. There’s always one for every state and territory.
Absolutely. It’s obviously a growing area of concern and people are really shifting towards organic foods of all different types. Then we’ve also got free range. This is a really commonly used term and we might imagine we’ve gotten in mind that we’ve got happy animals running around open pastures. There’s a little bit more to it than that. Again, there’s not legally binding definition of free range meat in Australia, so it really does depend on the processor or the producer or the manufacturer up to the definition of the term.
Obviously there are different animals and who require different things. Some need more protection than other, obviously larger livestock can have access to pasture without a threat of attacks, but other things like chicks need to be more carefully managed as do pigs, because they’re obviously exposed to the elements. Yes, again, free range is a little bit of a term that can be used to mean many different things.
It can mean that they are born inside a shelter or a shed, and then allowed to go out. Or the other way around, they can be outside and they’re moved back into a shed. If you are looking for free range, if you’re looking for animal welfare, we really suggest that you look for accredited free range meat.
Is There a Specific Logo or Accreditation Body In Australia for Free Range Meat?
Okay, so is that a specific logo or certification body I guess in Australia as well? Or is it a bit like the organic one, where there’s like seven or so different ones?
Yeah, there are actually different companies I guess that would put themselves down as being free range. Obviously organic is one of them. There’s also a humane choice or RSPCA or FREPA, I’m not sure how you pronounce that for the poultry association, but again, they’ve all got their own different levels. It could be that the free range, but it might be 20,000 birds in hectare. Or it could be 1500 bird, so it’s very variable, there’s no clarity.
Just to clarify there, so if you’re buying an organic meat, does that automatically mean that it’s free range as well, because I guess organic or whatever the word is, supersedes that or it has to be free range to be organic?
Absolutely it does, and that’s why we always Suggest, sort of all the organic is sort of the top notch, that’s the one to aim for on the number of different farms, but yeah. It especially with free range they cannot be contained, they’ve got to be free to express their normal animal behaviours. They can’t be just in a small confined area.
Why Would We Want to Know If Our Meat Has Been Grain Fed?
What about some of the other types of labelling that we see on meats, so grain fed. Why would we want to know if our meat is being grain fed or not?
That’s really interesting. If we’d had this conversation probably 10 or 15 years ago, everybody would have been off to grain fed. Grain feeding, essentially assures consumers and gets restaurants and production supplies that you’re getting a consistent product. If you’re feeding grain, you’re able to do that no matter whether the season is a poor one or whether it’s lash. You’re also meaning that, you’re actually very carefully managing the rations that each of the livestock in that situation receive.
You’re going to be able to turn out say 6,000 rams over the course of a year, but each of those are going to not only have the same properties, they’re going to taste the same, because the big rations are all the same. Also, they’re going to have the same degree of marble and you’re going to be able to … If you buy loin chops, you’ll know that they’ll have a particular flavour and they’ll cook up well because the animals haven’t been stressed for feed in any way.
That you’ve said that sort of changed that these days people may not be looking for grain fed meat?
Absolutely. There’s been a massive change, not only in tastes, but also just in consumers awareness about what, I guess the effects of grain feeding do. Largely people are wanting to get back to more natural production systems, so they’re wanting animals to be either grass fed or pasture fed. They’re sort of pretty interchangeable lowest terms, and so they’re actually getting the chance to get a feed that’s got a great mix of different grasses and shrubs and produce and legumes and all sorts of things.
Each of those different feeds give a unique taste and flavour. What we’re looking at is thinking more about the animal welfare side of it when we’re looking at pasture fed, but we’re also looking at the health benefits of it. We know that grass fed meat in particular has higher CLA levels, which is conjugated to mean the linoleic acids that mostly got a much healthier ratio of omega 3s and omega 6s, and there’s a host of other extra minerals and nutrients that you’ll find in the meat profile of a grass or pasture fed animal.
I understand and it’s a much more environmentally beneficial way for the animal to eat as well given that the grains can be grown overseas and obviously there’s land clearing just to grow grains and food for livestock in other places in the world. There’s an environmental aspect of the grain feeding as well I imagine.
Absolutely. It’s about I guess being able to grow what you need largely on your own, so it’s obviously reducing food costs for the grain, but it also gives a unique aspect to each of the animals on that particular areas, because say in far North Queensland, they feed their stock with different sorts of pastures than we say we do in South Australia, where 90% bushland and things.
If it produces a slightly different marketing, I wouldn’t edge, but a different marketing area.
Keen to still delve into some of these terms, because there is quite a lot. When you say grass fed or pasture fed, like I kind of imagine like those green fields of Ireland or Tasmania where just undulating green hills, but we don’t really have much of them in South Australia. Or if you are buying Queensland meat or even WA or NSW meat. What does this pasture or grass fed mean there? Like they’re not eating green grass, surely not.
Exactly, and that’s why we try to use the term pasture fed, because we feel like it’s more accurate where like the grass fed does conjure up thoughts of rolling green hills with grass. I guess the pasture like we said before is such a great idea of mixes that can be grown. Some do need to be seeded, so there might be a grain crop that’s specifically seeded for pasture. To be allowed to be fed and still be grass fed and certified grass fed, it needs to be fed off before the grain has actually formed in the head, so you are actually just getting the stem and the reeds of it, not the grain that’s formed.
Yeah, there’s things like native grasses, there’s small trees, cattle bush and there’s clovers, medics, all sorts of things, native plants that are often thought of as weeds or a nuisance. They will be very easily fatten stock and they have a natural preference for different things.
One thing to note is that, with grass fed, unless it’s been verified that it’s 100% grass fed or grass fed and finished, there is a possibility that the animals could have been fed other things, mostly grain to finish them up. It I hard to actually finish an animal year around especially in Australia and marginal areas.
Okay. What do you mean by finished? Do you mean like a Feed Lot? Where they get fattened up before processing?
Yeah, fattening up. They’re looking to get the last 50 kilos on, that will help with marbling, which usually is quite abundant in grain fed animals. With grass fed, they’re usually much leaner, because they have to walk a lot further to get their feed and their diets I guess haven’t been so manipulated so that it’s not as high protein. Yeah, so just be aware that if it grass fed that you’re looking for that you know the whole story and that if you want it grass fed and grass finished, to ask those questions whether it’s just been grass.
These questions are quite hard for a consumer to ask of or like all supermarket I guess that’s encouraging more people to maybe buy from farm gates and things like that, to which we’ll chat more about it towards the end of this podcast episode. Just recognising that some of these questions can be a little bit hard to get the answers to, which is I guess, where we might be looking for those accreditation labels or being aware of that hierarchy of the best meats to buy and organic might be at the top. Then free range or maybe grass fed or pasture fed or whatever, whatever that order may be.
That’s right. That’s why it’s really important that even if you do buy your meat from the supermarket, it’s important as consumers to still ask questions. They may not know the answers, but the more people who ask these questions, the more that’s actually going to feedback and they’re then going to be forced to either find out the answers or find a different supplier who they can trust.
Just you’re buying it off a supermarket shelf, don’t think that you can’t ask questions.
What Does “No Added Hormones” Meat Mean?
One other term that is on my particularly self-sufficient in the suburbs members are asking, it this no added hormone. About this no added hormones businesses, that’s obviously they’re not adding hormones to the animal or is it, can there still be hormones in the feed? I guess this is particularly around chickens isn’t it, but other meats as well? I mean what the hell is no added hormones?
That’s right. It’s a really popular marketing tool and people are really quite afraid of it. Actually the no added hormone category is one of the top five fastest growing claims in the industry. It shows that people are really sort of aware and they are now starting to ask questions.
Unfortunately, like some of the other areas we’ve talked about, there isn’t a specific certification. Basically you’re taking the producer or the manufacture as they were. Basically it’s an exercising trust. They do suggest that the no added hormones label is more accurate than hormone free, because as we know we’re all made up of hormones. When we’re saying no added hormones, it’s not necessarily at the time of processing. What they’re referring to usually when they use that term is that, when the animals still growing, that there isn’t any hormones either injected into them or as you said, according to their feed.
I know that knowing some industries there is more of a chance to be putting hormones in and that particularly relates and the same with antibiotics to intensive farming. The more animals you have together, the more whisk I guess of disease and not growing up to full potential, so in those types of systems, pigs and chicks, the area is that largely would see hormones and antibiotics used.
There are also routinely HTPs, which are hormone growth promoters, and they can be used in the beef industry as well. Both grain fed and grass fed, there is a chance that they might have been injected with a pallet. Again, it pays to ask questions to actually know whether that has happened.
Just capping those, all those terms often, I don’t think we have forgotten any main ones in there that you can think of, or I think we’ve covered …
That’s right. Most of the main ones, there’s actually about up to 15 different terms that you can find in the supermarket. There’s all sorts of things like sustainable and ethical and locally produced and MSA graded and a host of different things, but yeah. We have covered the main ones that you will see on supermarket shelves or butchers or even farmers markets.
What common additives are included in conventional meats like mince and sausages?
I want to just move on to some more of the processed meats around now, and you may or may not know this, because I know you don’t process too many of your meats. I know you’ve got your own organic sausages at Border Park, which are fantastic and keep all the ingredients now pretty clean, well very clean there and tasty. With a lot of the other products on our shelves, do you know like some of the common additives that maybe included in conventional meats? I mean particularly meats and sausages and how these differ to organic meats?
Yeah, that’s a great question. If you’re pitching around the supermarket, I guess the biggest thing to be aware is that, most supermarkets nowadays don’t process all cut up and what they sell. They might buy it in bulk and then they cut it up and package it this way. There are additives known to have been added in Australia, other buyers supermarkets or butchers, but it’s actually strictly controlled by the food standard code and you will be caught if you’re found doing it.
If we’re talking about meats and sausages, there is the possibility that it would have been treated with preservatives. This will help them keep looking fresh and they will be red in colour. The difficulty here is that, there are some people in our population who are extremely sensitive to sulphites. I’m thinking …
I’m one of them.
Yeah, asthmatic, yeah. It just pays to be aware. Again, that’s about asking questions, but this is a little bit more of a difficult area, because I don’t know too many processes you are going admit that they do add it in. Then obviously with your packaging, there’s a whole other area. What we’re trying to do is make it convenient for customers and extend their shelf life and enhance the tenderness of the meat, like it looks fresh and cherry red or a nice white colour, but the problem with say vacuum packed meat is that it might inhibit the growth of bacteria, but it also means that there are A lines that are really high level.
Again people with food sensitivities aren’t that tricky, so that’s a little area that if you’re buying vacuum packed meats and you have got either histamine or A line sensitivity just to be careful about that. The same with what they call mat packing, which is the plastic tray overlaid with a clear plastic at the top. Usually they will last weeks and weeks if not months on the shelf, but they can also and are usually gassed with carbon dioxide and nitrogen just to inhibit that bacterial growth.
It doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be labelled that that’s happened, but it can cause problems, yeah, for some members of the population.
Yeah, for sure, and then I guess who even really knows what’s in the absorbing pads at the bottom of those packs too.
Absolutely. That’s a whole other area.
How can we better ensure there’s less waste from the animal?
Yeah, for sure. I would say this episode is for the followers and the audience who choose to eat meat and they’re looking to eat meat in a much smarter way. Obviously got to go for the animal better for the environment and the way of producing the meat, but also making sure we can get the most of the meat. I’ve covered some of my own tips in previous podcast episodes, but I’m really after your tips on how we can, as consumers we can better in shortlist waste from the animal.
How can we bring back offal and bones and suet. I grew up eating steak and kidney pie and things like that, but that’s not really a common item on the household menu these days. So how can we bring back some of these things or what tips have you got for us to reduce wastage and ensure that we’re eating the whole animal, not just a fillet of beef?
Yeah, I love that question. Eating offal was so common enough until about 40 years ago, but it’s now fallen out of favour, because it does take extra time to prepare and also you’ve got to know how to do it. The skills that some mothers or grandmothers had weren’t necessarily passed on. We’ve opted for convenience, so we’ve missed a lot of that learning that we could have had and when you’re choosing to eat meat, you do want to use the whole, not only the whole carcass, but the who animal as best as you can and to make is as sustainable as possible.
There’s lots of different options. Going right back to the beginning, if the thought of having eaten organ meats makes you feel a bit squeamish, there are plenty of other easy options that mean that you can have a meal of economy and that you’re actually still using the animal. The two most popular and I guess loved meats are sausages and mince.
You might not necessarily typically attribute those to being sustainable, but the small trim that is not a knack of it to make a good looking steak, all of those bits and when bones are scrapped off and all the small bits that come from there, they will make up your sausages and the meats. These two products are actually one of the most sustainable meats.
If you’re doing that, that’s fantastic. The other things like you mentioned using bones to make bone broth, there is a heck of a lot of bones displaying the beef. That might make up 15% of the carcass, but if you’re able to use those bones to make bone broth, to make all sorts of nutritious foods, that’s another great way to reduce waste.
You might also want to try ox tail or pigs tails or beef or pork cheeks. They’re things that you may have to go to a butcher to find, because they’re not usually found in a supermarket. Or you might even want to, like I said, render some soubrette and roast your veggies in. They’re the really easy ways that you can make more use of the animal, yeah, without necessarily going towards organs. I mean I’ve got a whole host of ideas using organs.
Our family we do our best to incorporate organs wherever we can as much as the kids don’t love it, they’re learning to appreciate it.
Obviously you’re selling mince with liver and things as well, so you’re able to use up some of the organs and pass them onto the customers in a probably more attractive for a customer to buy them as well.
Absolutely. Yeah it’s more convenient, yeah, more convenient and it means that there’s I guess less fast and less in your face. Sometimes organs can merely be quite confronting.
I know I still remember just side tracking a bit, we were in grade five at school and we were learning about organs and each week we had to dissect a different organ. Like we’d all go to the butcher and get like a lamb’s kidney or a brain and I still remember it. I felt, I came home and I was white. I thought, “I’m never going to be a butcher or a doctor, I can’t handle any of these.”
You still ate organs, so that’s great.
I don’t eat brains. That was the one that made me sick, but I will obviously grab the mince with the liver in it, just to get those minerals and yeah, particularly for my iron levels which I struggle, because I’m anemic. I have to go out of my way to be fed up.
Absolutely, yeah. The good thing I guess about eating organs is that you don’t have to eat as much of it to get the same or even more benefits than just eating standard meat. You would be getting a high hit of protein and all sorts of essential minerals and vitamins and things. Yeah.
From an environmental and health perspective, what is the best meat to eat?
Yeah, for sure. All right, so I’m going to hit you with a big question now. The whole point, and I guess why I wanted you in this podcast was to really get a good understanding on for those of us who choose to eat meat, what’s the best choice from an environmental and a health perspective?
We’ve gone through some of the terms and talked about how best to use the meat, but if you were able to say just one or two types to answer that question, is at straight answer? Is it just organic or does it have different variables? Yeah, what’s the best meat?
Yeah, well, I guess essentially it means the choice is what values you place most highly and where your highest level of concerns are you sort of more concerned about how the animals were raised and treated. Are you concerned about your own health benefits and what the animals eaten so that it will be then passed on to you? Are you concerned about farmers and producers being well paid?
There’s lots of different scenarios there, but if I had to sort of I guess address it and just choose one, it would be certified organic. The beauty of that is, that it covers all the different systems, environmental and production and health, all of those different areas that are covered in that. If I was to be really particular, I would want to say certified organic and 100% grass fed, that is the ultimate.
Certified organic doesn’t necessarily mean that it is 100% grass feed. Putting those two terms together, I think will for our families be epitome of the best meat that we can afford. Not necessarily eating a lot of it, but making really good decision when we do.
Where can consumers best go to source organic and ethical meats in their area?
Now that’s a great point. Obviously this is the type of meat that you’re making available to the consumers as well in your own business, so would you mind just sharing a little bit about what you do at Border Park Organics and yeah how it all works?
Yeah, thanks. Well we are a farming family and have been in South Australia for about six years no. We took over this farm when it was already organic, so Border Park has been selling organic since 1996 and we came into the farming game from very different roles previously because we really believed in the, not only the personal benefits, but the environmental benefits of being an organic farm.
We don’t want to set ourselves up to be same as the only way to farm, but we do regularly hired to protect our delicate environment. We live in a very marginal area and we need to adapt to that, so we do feed our beef and lamb and cattle and sheep. They are 100% pasture fed and because we are certified organic, they aren’t given any hormones. They’re not given any antibiotics or preventative vet chemicals.
If we do need to treat sick animals, they’re given things like vitamin C, which is allowed or apple cider vinegar or garlic or sea weed minerals. We do our best to try and improve not only our farming system, but our management practises so that our children are then able to take on this farm. Yeah, they’ll have a good future ahead of them.
Fantastic. For I guess all the listeners today who do definitely live in South Australia, well I’m not sure if your meats available in Victoria as well, but you can just let us know how if anyone’s interested and they do live locally, how they can place an order or yeah follow you?
Sure. Yeah, well we take all of our orders online and we have recently just reduced our collection points to just South Australia. We’ve become recently convicted about trying to say local and serve our local state better rather than trying to scale up, and that’s something that we’ve learned in the last 12 to 18 months.
Yeah, you put some great recipes in your newsletters too. Check out Border Park Organics and if you live in South Australia, you can order some great beef and lamb packs. You can even order your bones to make your own bone broths and you can get your suet so you can start making some tallow and cooking with that fat in the kitchen too. That is a very sustainable fat to use and it goes a long way and it’s got a very, very high cooking temperature as well.
Thanks so much for coming on Eco Chat today and just helping us to get our head around some of these confusing terms with meat and sensitive markets in particular, but also just helping us to make some more sustainable and healthy food choices.
Thanks so much.
Where can our listeners go to find out where they can source organic, ethical meats in their area?
Well Nourished Resources Section – Find Whole Food by state
Sustainable Table – Ethical Meat suppliers directory
Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance – organisational members directory
Fair Food Forager – focused on promoting ethical and sustainable foods and businesses around Australia and overseas
Flavour Crusader – Pork, Chicken and Turkey by state
Interested in the practical side of meat production?
See Target 100, that showcases Australian cattle & sheep farmers, discover 100 research projects and learn more about what is important to the sustainability of the industry
Josh and Peri McIntosh, Borderpark Organics
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