Reading the different labels on meat is confusing…. Can you help?

It is very confusing, but here is what I understand of the complicated labeling of animal products


Means the meat should have been produced from animals that were fed only grass, hay and other non grain vegetation, for their entire lives and therefore, no grains and no animal by-products.


Without the only or 100%, may mean that the animal ate grass for part of its life, but not its whole life. I recommend you contact the farmer or producer and ask whether the animals were also fed grains, animal by-products or rendered animal protein. Unlike the organic label, “grass fed” claims are not necessarily verified by an independent organization unless otherwise specified. Also there are no restrictions on the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. Because these standards are considered way too lenient by the American Grassfed Association, (, they have decided to take matters into their own hands and set up an independent certification system.


Organic labeled meat provides consumers with the assurance that meat came from a farm that prohibits using animal by-products or antibiotics or related drugs in the feed for farm animals. All food labeled “organic” must be verified by an independent organization. When organically raised animals become sick, they are treated with antibiotics but then do not receive the organic label. A third party certifies these standards. Problem here is, unless it also says grass fed, the animals have been grain fed.


These labels have been approved by the USDA for poultry that have been allowed access to the outdoors (though they may never actually go outdoors) but the claim implies nothing about the antibiotic use practices of the producer.


This label indicates that the animals have not been fed antibiotics at any point in their lives. Meat from sick animals treated with antibiotics cannot be sold under this label claim. Although the USDA approved the use of this claim, compliance is not certified by a third party.


The USDA defines a “natural” meat product as one that contain[s] no additives or preservatives or added color and is only minimally processed, although it does allow flavor injections. Meat labeled “natural” may or may not have been treated with antibiotics. It is not regulated and there are no national standards. But — it doesn’t mean naturally raised.


Means “Livestock used for the production of meat and meat products have been raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics, and have never been fed mammalian or avian by-products.” Although this is an attempt to increase the standards for how the animals are fed, there is no consideration for their living conditions. In other words they could still be raised in feedlots.


Means that this meat should have been produced from animals that were fed food without animal by-products. However, these claims are not necessarily verified by an independent organization unless otherwise specified e.g. accompanied by a USDA Verified Shield). Mad cow disease is known to pass from one animal to another through the use of animal by-products in animal feed. Certain labels indicate that animal by-products are not used in the feed that produced the meat. Therefore, meat carrying these labels is very low risk in terms of mad cow disease.


This label means that a producer has met the standards of Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), an independent inspection and verification agency. This label is particularly useful if you’re unable to verify a producer’s free-range claims on poultry or eggs. (The term free range is not regulated or standardized by the federal government.) HFAC has free-range requirements for producers that want to be certified humane.

The best thing is to try shop at local farmers’ markets whenever possible and ask the farmers how their meat is raised. Develop a relationship with your farmer, so you know exactly how he raises his animal. Supporting farmers who pasture feed their cattle and don’t give them antibiotics helps make the meat production system more sustainable and is much healthier for you.

If you can’t find a local farmer, a great resource is

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