The Truth about Cage-free, Free-range, No Antibiotics, Humanely Raised

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Nutrition claims are confusing. How do you know if you should pay more for a carton of eggs or package of meat based on a claim on the package? Is it legit, or made up by a marketing team to make their food stand out from competitive products on grocery store shelves? This post will help you sort through the confusion on common food claims including cage-free, free-range, antibiotic-free and differences in egg quality scores so you can choose which option is best for you.


free-range, cage-free eggs

Eggs: Cage-Free, Free-Range & AA, A and B Quality

Cage-free (eggs) – “cage-free” refers to the environment the hens (hens lay eggs) live in. Cage-free hens are housed in an environment allowing unlimited access to food, water and freedom to roam. There is no known nutrition difference in eggs produced by hens that are cage-free versus those that are not cage-free1.

AA quality eggs – the shells must be “clean, unbroken and practically normal.” Also, the white must be clear and reasonably firm, with a clear distinction between white and yolk. The yolk must be free from apparent defects. The air cell—the part of the egg that separates the inner shell membrane from the outer shell membrane—for AA quality eggs must not exceed 1/8 inch2.

A quality eggs – the only difference between AA and A quality eggs is the air cell. The air cell for A quality eggs must not exceed 3/16 of an inch2.

B quality eggs – the shells must be unbroken, but may be abnormal or have slightly stained areas. Shells with prominent stains or dirt are not permitted. The egg white can be weak and watery, while the yoke may be dark and large and flattened. Small blood or meat spots may be present2.

Meat and Dairy Claims

Pasture-raised, free-range, free-roaming – the animals have continuous, unrestricted access to pasture (land covered with grass and other plants) throughout their lives. Cattle and sheep must not be confined to a feedlot. Pigs must have continuous access to pasture for at least 80% of their life. You might see “free-range – never confined to feedlot,” on your meat3.

Antibiotic-free or No Antibiotics – all meat, milk and other dairy products are free from antibiotics. Therefore, a package of meat that says “antibiotic-free” is no different from the one next to it that does not carry this claim. When an animal is on antibiotics, their milk is not sold, and they cannot be slaughtered for meat. Instead, the farmer must wait until all traces of medication have cleared the animal’s body before the cow can be milked or the animal can be sent for slaughter. For more on this topic as related to milk, click here.

Humanely raised – this term makes me think of a farmer who knows each animal by name; pets and cares for them daily while attending to their needs. However, this isn’t the case. “Humanely raised” is a term made up by food companies. There is no formal definition and therefore, it is up to the food company to decide what they consider humanely raised. Ignore it. 

Naturally raised – there is no official definition for naturally raised. Therefore, this claim could mean anything. Ignore it.

Grass-fed – there is no universally accepted, standardized definition for the term grass-fed. All cows, sheep and goats eat grass for most of their lives. However, some of these animals are grain-finished—they spend several months on a grain-based diet until they reach their ideal weight. At this time, their diet consists of grains, grass, vitamin and mineral mixes, citrus pulp and other feed as determined by an animal nutritionist based on their dietary needs. Other animals are grass-finished, they consume grass their entire life, and may be given vitamin and mineral mixes as needed. There are no nutrition differences between grain-finished and grass-finished meat.

Food is a very competitive business. Consumers may choose a product based on a variety of factors including great packaging, superior taste and good nutrition value. Food claims may sway your decision; however, be sure you’re getting what you are paying for. Look for claims that are backed by a standardized definition, versus those with no definition.

This post was sponsored by USFRA, all views are my own.

References

  1. Questions and Answers About Shell Eggs. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.
  1. United States Standards, Grades and Weight Classes for Shell Eggs AMS 56. USDA.
  1. Federal Register. Vol. 67, No. 250. United States Standards for Livestock and Meat Marketing Claims. 67 FR 79552. Federal Department of Agriculture.

Yikes! Are there Antibiotics or Hormones in Your Milk & Dairy Foods?

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milk

Are antibiotics and hormones used in dairy cows contributing to the obesity epidemic, early puberty and antibiotic resistance? Before going down that road, we have to first we have to first ask if there are any antibiotics or hormones in milk and dairy products.

In this blog post I will cover:

  • Why are antibiotics given to cows?
  • Antibiotics are not in milk, here’s why.
  • Why are growth hormones given to cows? Are there any hormones in my milk and dairy food?
  • What are the cows Eating?

Why are Antibiotics given to Cows?

Antibiotics are used on farms to treat animals who are sick just like you would give an antibiotic to your child if he or she gets sick or take one yourself. There is no reason for dairy farmers to give antibiotics to cows who are not sick. Doing so costs additional money,  serves no clear purpose and arbitrarily giving animals antibiotics could contribute to antibiotic resistance. Now imagine you are a farmer and your life depends on the health of your cows – would you want to run the risk of antibiotic resistance and your cows getting sick with fewer treatment options?

Some antibiotics are also used for animal growth. The FDA is phasing out this practice so medically important antimicrobial drugs (antibiotics) will no longer be allowed to enhance growth or feed efficiency. In the future antibiotics will only be allowed to treat, control or prevent disease and of course require a prescription from a licensed veterinarian. Regardless of whether or not the antibiotic is used for growth or treatment of disease, no traces of antibiotic residues are allowed in milk or dairy products.

Antibiotics are Not in Milk, Here’s Why.

Any cow that gets an antibiotic is milked separately from the rest of the herd and the milk is thrown out. That milk will never be sold or consumed. All antibiotics have a different period of time before all traces of the medication leaves the body (whether we are talking about a cow or a human). Once this period is up and the cow is completely healthy again, the farmer tests her milk. Milk cannot be sold until it is completely clear of all drug residues. Whether organic or conventional, all milk is tested several times before making it to market. It is tested on the farm and at the milk processing plant. Any milk that tests positive for any medication residue, including antibiotics, is thrown out (1).

According to national Milk Drug Residue Data Base compiled for the years 2013 to 2014, 0% of milk tested positive for drug residues. In 2015, the FDA’s Center of Veterinary Medicine surveyed 1,918 raw milk samples (before pasteurization) from across the country. Samples were tested for residues of 31 drugs including the antibiotics, NSAIDs (ibuprofen etc.) and an antihistamine. They found 99% of sampled milk was free of any drug residues. Keep in mind the 1% of milk with residues must be thrown out – it cannot be sold (1, 2).

Cheese and yogurt are made from milk and therefore, there are no antibiotics in your cheese or yogurt either.

If you want to learn more about what farmers are doing about antibiotic resistance, Minnesota Farmer Wanda Patsche wrote an excellent blog on this topic.

Growth Hormones in Dairy Cows

Growth hormones are approved for use in dairy cows to improve milk production. Greater milk production means fewer environmental resources used to raise cows for milk. Bovine somatotropin (bST; also called bovine growth hormone or rBGH) is perhaps the most well recognized growth hormone used on dairy farms. bST is “a protein hormone produced in the pituitary gland of animals, including humans, and is essential for normal growth, development, and health maintenance.” Very little bST is used in dairy cows and there is no test that can distinguish between cows treated with bST and naturally occurring bST (3). Humans do not have receptors for bST and therefore it is passed through your body intact without being absorbed (4). As a result, there are no known side effects or health issues associated with consuming dairy from cows treated with bST. IGF-1 (insulin like growth factor 1) concentrations are slightly higher in cows treated with bST. However, the human body synthesizes IGF-I and drinking 1.5 L of milk is equivalent to an estimated 0.09% of the IGF-I produced by adults each day (5, 6, 7, 8).

USDA organic dairy products are “produced without antibiotics fed or administered to the animal at any point in its life” (9). There are no meaningful nutrition differences between organic and conventional dairy products. I covered that topic in this post.

What are the Cows Eating?

Cows’ diets also vary depending on many of the same factors that influence your food choices. However, unlike humans, all cows have the benefit of seeing a nutrition expert (like dietitians, animal nutrition experts are specialists). Many consumers also have questions about how cows are fed. Cows are fed nutritious diet to ensure health of cow and nutrition of milk. Typical feed mixtures may include haylage (grass with a higher water content), corn silage, sugar beet pulp and a protein mineral mix.

Rest assured, your dairy products are safe. In fact, the dairy product that says it is made with cows not treated with antibiotics is the exact same as the one from a cow that may have been treated with antibiotics. Both contain no antibiotic residues. Growth hormones used in dairy also pose no known threat to human health. The human body does not even recognize the main hormone used in cows. So, regardless of what milk, yogurt, or cheese you choose, all have been produced and extensively tested to ensure they are safe for human consumption.

This post was written as part of my ongoing sponsored partnership with U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. All opinions expressed are my own and per the usual, took me hours to research and double check my facts.References (if not cited via a hyperlink in the text of this post)

References

1 Questions and Answers: 2012 Milk Drug Residue Sampling Survey. FDA.

2 NATIONAL MILK DRUG RESIDUE DATA BASE FISCAL YEAR 2014 ANNUAL REPORT October 1, 2013 – September 30, 2014 http://www.fda.gov/downloads/food/guidanceregulation/guidancedocumentsregulatoryinformation/milk/ucm434757.pdf

3 Bovine Somatotropin (BST) http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/SafetyHealth/ProductSafetyInformation/ucm055435.htm

4 Bovine Somatotropin. National Institutes of Health, Technology Assessment Conference Statement. December 5-7, 1990. https://consensus.nih.gov/1990/1990BovineSomatotropinta007html.htm

5 Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). 1998. Toxicological evaluation of certain veterinary drug residues in food; Summary and conclusions. 50th report of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives. World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.

6 Collier RJ, Bauman DE. Update on human health concerns of recombinant bovine somatotropin use in dairy cows. J Animal Sci 2013; 92(4): 1800 – 1807. https://www.animalsciencepublications.org/publications/jas/articles/92/4/1800

7 Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/recombinant-bovine-growth-hormone                  

8 Report on the Food and Drug Administration’s Review of the Safety of Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/animalveterinary/safetyhealth/productsafetyinformation/ucm130321.htm

9 Stacy Sneeringer, James MacDonald, Nigel Key, William McBride, and Ken Mathews. Economics of Antibiotic Use in U.S. Livestock Production, ERR-200, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, November 2015. http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1950577/err200.pdf

 

 

America’s New Food Icon ‘MyPlate’ Teaches Us How to Eat

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Yesterday morning the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled MyPlate – the new food icon that replaced MyPyramid. I wavered back and forth about hopping the metro down to the press conference but decided it was more important to spend the morning with my nephews, walking them to their elementary school and talking to them about everything from school to the summer to upcoming birthday parties.

So, as I watched the press conference and waited for reactions on Twitter with eager anticipation, I wondered if the American public paid any attention to this monumental change in nutrition history and what percentage of the public actually uses the food guidelines put out by our government. I don’t remember being taught anything about nutrition in elementary school. Were my nieces and nephews given any guidance from their teachers? Is nutrition incorporated into their other subjects?

Our government has provided dietary guidance since the early 1900’s (click here for more information about this history). And, dietary guidance will continue to change through time as our knowledge about nutrition grows thanks to new developments in food and nutrition research.

MyPlate replaced MyPyramid, an icon I thought was horribly confusing when it first came out (with colors and no words to represent food groups and bands that were supposed to indicate the relative proportions of each food a person should consume).

My first reaction to MyPlate was very positive – a plate is something people can relate to and it shows the approximate proportions of food very well.

The messages on the MyPlate website are quick and simple yet there is more information if you click on any of the links (tons of information in fact). And, after years of working with people, I’ve learned that easy works whereas complicated messages can lead many people to forget making any changes!

Though my initial reaction was very positive, after reading Twitter I heard many different views, some positive, some negative, and some asking where certain foods are – nuts, seeds, healthy oils, dessert etc. And, I took all of these viewpoints into consideration but still came to the same conclusion: MyPlate is a positive change in the right direction, it is simple and easy to understand and making massive dietary recommendations to the public is an arduous task – the USDA will never be able to zone in on every American’s dietary needs with one food icon or include every single concept (like discretionary calories, exercise) in a succinct manner with one picture. And, I think the First Lady has brought much needed attention to nutrition and exercise, attention that I certainly wasn’t aware of when I was growing up. This is a positive step in the right direction and I look forward to seeing the messages that come from MyPlate and the increased nutrition knowledge in children, teenagers and adults!

For more information on what RDs are saying about MyPlate, check out Janet Helm’s blog as well as the sites mentioned at the end of her post:

Nutrition Unplugged

What do you think of the new food icon?