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Meat Labels

Organic, natural, 100% grain-fed 100% grass-fed. What do all of these labels really mean? We break it down below.

Foremost, it’s important to note that these labels only describe processes.  Labels such as “organic” or “100% grain-fed” do not indicate whether a product is safer, healthier or tastier.  They only describe the process by which the animal was raised.

Organic.  To be marketed as organic, animals must be raised under the organic standards set forth by the National Organic Program of the United State Department of Agriculture.  These standards focus on four main areas: housing, feed, health management, and processing/packing.  In general, animals raised under organic standards must have access to the outdoors, must be fed organic feed, cannot be treated with antibiotics and must be processed in a certified organic processor.  All organic farms must be certified by a third party. Again, an organic label does not indicate that a product is safer or healthier.  It just certifies that the animal was raised and processed under certain conditions outlined by the USDA National Organic Program.

100% Grass-fed.  This is a label that applies to beef cattle and it deals strictly with diet.  Grass-fed animals must be raised entirely on grass or forage.   Unlike the organic label, the grass-fed label is voluntary. If a producer can submit sufficient evidence that their cattle are grass-fed, they can label their products as such. No third-party verification is required.

The USDA recently began a third-party verification system for grass-fed products, but it is also voluntary. However, producers who have their production standards verified by a third-party can label their products as "grass-fed" and include the USDA process verification seal (see the graphic above).  

Natural.  Meat that is “minimally processed” can be labeled as “natural”.  Natural labels do not deal with how the animal was raised or its diet, etc.  These products simply do not have any added  preservatives or coloring. All raw meat, poultry and fish would qualify as "natural".  

Naturally Raised.  This is a newer standard.  It means that the animal was not given antibiotics or hormones or fed any animal by-products prior to processing.  There is nothing in the standards pertaining to housing, feed, etc.   Like the 100% grass-fed standard, this is a voluntary program. The USDA also has a program called "Never, Ever-3". Products carrying this label have been verified by a third party as coming from animals that were not treated with antibiotics or hormones or fed any animal bi-products.

Hormone free.  This is sometimes found on poultry labels.  Hormones are not used in poultry production so all chicken, turkey, duck is hormone-free.  Likewise, hormones are not used in pork production.

From cows not-treated with rBST.  These labels are sometimes found on milk or dairy products to indicate that the milk came from cows that were not treated with bovine growth hormone (also known as bovine somatotropin or rBST).  Milk from BST treated cows is indistinguishable from milk from non-treated cows. In addition, all milk contains the natural form of BST (also indistinguishable from rBST), so labels with "rBST-free" or "bovine growth hormone-free" are generally not allowed.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled. There are also labels that are not directly associated with USDA. Products carrying the Certified Humane Raised and Handled are raised and processed under conditions set forth by the Humane Farm Animal Care Group, a private organization. In general, products carrying this seal come from animals that were not fed antimicrobials or hormones and in some cases were given more space than in conventional systems. It does not imply that products without this label come from animals that were not treated humanely.

Learn the basics about antibiotics and livestock production here.

Learn more about hormones and livestock production here.

Learn more about organic livestock production here.

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