Meat Labels: What Do They Really Mean?

usda organicYou're strolling past the meat counter, wondering what to grill this weekend, and you see all of those labels: organic, free range, natural. Natural? What does "natural" mean, anyway? As it turns out, a few of these labels are more than just marketing -- the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has some strict rules about what these labels should mean.

1. Natural: According to the USDA, a "natural" label means meat containing "no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed." The label also has to provide more specific information, such as "no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed."


2. Certified Organic: In order to get the "official" Certified Organic label, the USDA must verify that the animal was given pesticide- and chemical fertilizer-free food and never given hormones or antibiotics -- ever. Meat from animals treated with antibiotics for illness cannot be sold as organic, even if the animals recover to full health. Organic meat has to be processed (slaughtered and butchered) in a Certified Organic facility.

3. Free range: The animals have access to the outdoors at least part of the day. Mind you, just because the animal has access to the outdoors doesn't necessarily mean they ever get outside. A free-range chicken could very well spend most of her time stuck inside a crowded pen.

4. Hormone free: First of all, there is no such thing as a "hormone-free" animal. All animals have hormones naturally. But because cattle are often given synthetic hormones to promote growth, there is a USDA label for beef grown without these hormones. Keep in mind that it's against federal regulations to treat pork and poultry with hormones, so never pay more for that label on a chicken.

5. No antibiotics added: This means the animals have not been treated with antibiotics. As with the "natural" and "organic" labels, this must be verified by the USDA. In the US, animals raised in crowded conditions are often treated with antibiotics to prevent illness and to help promote rapid growth.

6. Grass-fed: The vast majority of beef cattle in the US are fed grain. According to USDA marketing standards, grass-fed cattle feed exclusively on grass and forage plants (like hay) for their lifetime once they are weaned. They must have access to pasture during "the growing season" and cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts. The American Grassfed Association (AGA) has a stricter label that means the cattle are not confined or treated with hormones or antibiotics.

7. Grass finished: This can mean anything from cattle fed exclusively on grass to cattle raised on corn and then fed grass during the last few weeks before slaughter.

8. Pasture raised: This usually means that the animal spent most of its life feeding in an open pasture rather than in a feed lot. However, there are not official standards for this label yet.

For more on what the USDA considers organic, see their National Organic Program.

CBS News stirred up a lot of controversy recently when it reported on the possible effects of antibiotics in pork.

Want to learn EVEN MORE about meat labels? Check out Gather and Food Renegade

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