Making your meat choices can be confusing! If you can get to a farm and talk to the farmer, that’s the best way to know what you are getting – but not always possible. If you are buying meat at a grocery store or at a butcher, keep the following tips and definitions in mind. Our suggestion – buy the best meat you can afford. If price is a concern – and yes, the good stuff will invariably be more pricey – then consider buying less, and use meats as an ‘accent’ in the meal. Or take a page out of grandma’s book and purchase less expensive cuts to use in soups or stews. Here’s a roundup of the most familiar labels you’ll see and what they mean:
100% Grass Fed and Finished
Animals that are fed exclusively on grass, hay and other non-grains throughout their life cycle, and no animal by-products. The label may also say “Grass Fed Only.” The ideal choice. You can look for certifiying labels like Certified Grassfed by AGW, NOFA-NY Certified 100% Grass Fed, or PCO Certified 100% Grass Fed.
This means the animals were fed grass at some point, possibly frequently, but not necessarily throughout their entire lifespan. So they may have been fed grains, animal by-products or rendered animal protein. They may also have been treated with growth hormones and antibiotics.
USDA Certified Organic labels ensure that the meat comes from a source that doesn’t feed its animals on animal by-products; doesn’t treat them with antibiotics; and doesn’t feed them medication-laced feed. However, unless it says ‘grass fed only,’ the animals may have been fed grains.
Free-Range or Free Roaming
Take this one with a grain of salt. Though the designation is approved by the USDA for poultry, the animals may or may not have actually spent any time outdoors, and it’s no indication whether or not the animals have been treated with antibiotics nor if they have been fed grains.
Certified Humane Raised And Handled
This label means that a producer has met the standards of Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), an independent inspection and verification agency which has free-range requirements which must be met by those producers who wish to be certified humane.
No Antibiotics Added – or Raised Without Antibiotics
These are nice phrases, and approved by the USDA, but not, however, certified by a third party so compliance is potentially questionable. In theory, meats with this designation have never received antibiotics during their life spans, but have usually been fed corn or other grains.
No Animal By-Products
In theory, this phrase indicates that these animals were not fed other animals, potentially putting them at lower risk for transmitting mad cow disease. However, unless specified, these practices are not necessarily verified by a third party, so look for additional verification labeling by an independent organization.
Natural – or All-Natural
Meat marked “natural” or “all natural” doesn’t mean much — it’s an unregulated designation. These meats come from animals that may have received antibiotics. All it really means is that the meat was minimally processed, without additives, added color or preservatives.
Meat with this designation indicates that the animals have been raised without growth promotants or antibiotics and have not been fed animal by-products. But they may still have been raised on a feedlot in less than humane conditions and have usually been fed corn or other grains.
Want to dig even deeper? Check out FoodPrint’s food label guide.