Getting to Know Your Meat Labels

January 21, 2011

Today’s feature was written by CUESA education intern Keith Tanner.


What is organic meat? Is it different from “natural” meat? Do “free range” and “grass fed” mean the same thing? Is “pasture raised” an official term? If you find yourself asking these questions, you’re not alone; navigating the world of meat can be a dizzying experience. Below, we’ll explore some of the numerous terms and labels that apply to meat, in the hopes of making your shopping experience a little less complicated.

But don’t expect to emerge with a clear new understanding of the meat aisle. The definitions and interpretation of these words can be vague and confusing — even for the most informed carnivores. It is also important to note that only some of these terms are regulated or legally binding; others are simply marketing phrases that aim to conjure images of happy farm animals and wholesome food.

Clearly Organic


Perhaps the most clearly defined and well enforced label is “organic.” Not just any meat can be called organic; it must be certified by an independent organization that is accredited by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). If a meat is certified organic, it means both that the animal’s feed was organic —  produced without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, or GMO seeds — and that the animal was given neither growth hormones nor antibiotics. Recently, the USDA took the added step of requiring all organic livestock and milking cows to graze on pasture at least four months of the year.

Grass Fed: Two Definitions


Making matters more confusing, the USDA also has a separate grass fed rule that applies to ruminants such as cattle, sheep, goats, and bison. These animals must be fed “grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state.” (Although ruminants are best adapted to a grass-based diet, most animals in today’s food system are fed grains.) The grass fed designation also requires the animals to have “continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” Because the term “growing season” isn’t defined, however, some critics believe this language still permits certain degrees of confinement. For this reason, the American Grassfed Association has developed more stringent standards, which say the animal “must not be confined to a pen, feedlot or other area” during the growing season, prohibit antibiotics and synthetic hormones, and address other elements of animal welfare.

Somewhat Free Range

The common term “free range” (or “free roaming”), for most people, implies that the animal was not confined to a feedlot and thus lived its life free to roam, presumably on open pasture. However, the USDA only regulates the term “free range” as it applies to poultry, not to egg-laying hens or other animals. To earn this designation, chickens and other poultry must be “allowed access to the outside,” though critics have pointed out this definition is too vague to guarantee the animals are in fact roaming freely. “Free range” often simply means a door on one wall of a giant warehouse-sized indoor feeding operation. As applied to other animals, especially grazers like cows, there is no standardized, enforceable definition of “free range” from the USDA.

Though it is unregulated at present, most small farmers consider the term “pasture raised” (or “pastured”) the best way to describe animals raised outdoors without confinement. Such farmers (and many eaters) still see “pastured” and “pasture raised” as more authentic terms that have yet to be co-opted by larger, industrial-sized companies.

Faux Naturalesites/default/files/label-100-natural.jpg

Perhaps the most confusing meat labeling term regulated by the USDA is “natural,” in part because of the discrepancy between “natural” and “naturally raised.” At the moment these terms mean two very different things and are in fact regulated by two separate agencies within the USDA. “Natural,” as defined by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, refers only to post-harvest products that contain neither artificial ingredients nor added color; “natural” animal products must also be only minimally processed. “Natural” does not refer to the way the animal was raised, which is where the “naturally raised” label comes in. As defined and regulated by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, livestock that has been “naturally raised” was not fed animal by-products or given growth promoting hormones or antibiotics. And here’s the especially confusing part: it is entirely possible for a meat product to attain one label but not the other.

Humane: Too Many Choices

sites/default/files/label_cert_humane.jpgThe USDA has no standardized definition of “humane” (aside from certain vague elements covered under the organic designation). However, many organizations have created their own labels and certification programs for animal welfare. This recent article from EcoSalon  details some of the more respected labels, including the Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane labels (the latter is managed by Humane Farm Animal Care, which also publishes a comprehensive label comparison chart). These certifications not only evaluate access to pasture and exposure to growth hormones, but also things like sleep periods, litter management, castration, and methods of slaughter.

There is plenty of disagreement inside and outside the food industry as to which labels are worth paying attention to. As is often the case, if you’re serious about buying meat that comes from a source you approve of, start by getting to know your local ranchers (many publish in-depth information on their websites and some give tours of their farms). And once you find a producer you really trust, you might not need to read so many labels.

For more on food terminology visit CUESA’s glossary.



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