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Meat And Poultry Food Labels

Today, our food is riddled with labels claiming this and that.  But what do all these terms mean?  Which labels are valid?  Which should you care about?  Well, here you labels, demystified. 

The Quick Guide

Unfortunately, the U.S. government does not require third-party verification for any label except “organic.” 

  1. “Organic” means a lot of great things—but  unfortunately it doesn’t really tell us much about how the animals were treated. 
  2. If you care about humane animal treatment, your best bet is to go with “Certified Humane” or “Free Farmed” products. Both certify producers along pretty stringent animal welfare guidelines.
  3. Be aware that "no chemicals added" has no legal meaning.  Zero.
  4. "Fresh," "natural," and "no additives" do have legal meanings--but those meanings aren't necessarily the same as the ones we use in everyday life! 


The Nitty Gritty

“Organic” (also “certified organic”) 

  • To put “organic” on a product, farmers must receive certification from a third-party organic certifier who has been approved by the USDA. Certifiers follow standards created by the USDA to verify that animals were raised on a diet of 100% organic feed (none of which was animal byproducts); that no growth hormones were administered; that the animals were raised without the use of (most) fertilizers, antibiotics, genetic engineering, irradiation, sewage sludge, or artificial ingredients.
  • Theoretically, animals must also have been raised with continuous access to the outside, although there have been numerous complaints that certifiers are more lax about applying this requirement than the others. Complaints have centered on the treatment of dairy animals and poultry, where there is more industry pressure to have indoor raising areas.
  • This label is third-party verified.  Yay! 


“No antibiotics administered” (or “raised without antibiotics”) 

  • This label means that the animal was not given antibiotics as part of its regular diet, and that it was not administered antibiotics for specific therapeutic reasons.
  • About 70% of the antibiotics in this country are fed to healthy animals. This promotes animal growth and prevents disease, although it significantly raises the resistance to antibiotics. Strains of salmonella, e.coli and campylobacter are all now resistant to significant numbers of antibiotics, because of this practice. It is not clear how much of the antibiotics fed to animals remain in the meat, although many people prefer to avoid even small quantities of unneeded antibiotics.
  • There is some concern that farmers may refuse to treat infected animals with antibiotics, so that they can use this label. Any animal treated with antibiotics—even if treated for an acute infection—may not be labeled “no antibiotics administered.”
  • There is no third-party verification of this label—you just have to trust the company making the claim. 


"No chemicals added" 

  • This term is not defined by the USDA, and it is not third-party verified. The problem is that almost everything is technically a “chemical.” So essentially, this means whatever the company wants it to mean.
  • There is no third-party verification of this label—in fact, it pretty much means nothing. 


"No additives" 

  • The USDA defines a food additive as any of 2800 listed substances used to provide a “technical effect” in food. This includes coloring, preservatives and flavorings (including sugar, corn syrup, and salt).
  • The animals may have been fed antibiotics and/or hormones, and the label makes no claims about whether they were treated humanely.
  • There is no third-party verification of this label.  You just have to trust the company. 


"Free range" (also "cage free"

  • USDA regulations let producers put this on products made from poultry that have been “allowed access to the outside.”  What does that mean? It means that the animal had to have the option of being outside (i.e., there had to be an open door to some outdoor area), for some amount of time (even just minutes), during some part of the day or night.
  •  “Free range” does not mean “organic.” Free range products may contain antibiotics or hormones.
  • There is no third-party verification of this label, so you just have to trust the company making the claim. 


"Grass-fed" (also “pasture-raised”

  • Cattle fed on 100% grass have higher levels of vitamins A and E, more omega 3 fatty acids, and lower levels of saturated fat—but it’s less clear just how much grass cattle have to eat before these benefits accrue. For now, producers can put “grass-fed” on their products even if the animals were fed only partly grass, so it’s worth looking for the “100% grass fed” label if that’s important to you. (The USDA has issued a proposed standard for meat that will require “grass-fed” to mean “100% grass-fed,” but those standards won’t apply to milk or poultry.)
  • Grass-fed animals are not necessarily pasture-raised (that is, they could be kept inside and fed grass, although this is not particularly common--imagine feeding huge quantities of grass to hundreds of cows inside a big warehouse, and you can probably imagine why). Nor does “grass-fed” mean that the animals were treated humanely. Grass-fed animals may still have been fed antibiotics and hormones, even if it says 100% grass-fed, because these are not considered “food” products.
  • This label is not third-party verified, so you just have to trust the company making the claim. 


"Certified Humane" and "Free Farmed" 

  • These are both trademarked stamps, created by third-party companies—Humane Farm Animal Care (Certified Humane) and the American Humane Association (Free Farmed). The companies set their own standards about what they mean.
  • Both require that livestock have access to sufficient, clean food and water; proper protection from weather; adequate space to move around; and that their environment is generally not dangerous to their health. Animals must be cared for by “humane-trained” handlers.
  • These labels are administered by Certified Humane and American Humane Association. Both have very strict verification procedures.
  • These labels are good signals that the animals have been treated humanely. Humane treatment of animals usually requires fewer antibiotics, and cleaner raising environments. There is also some evidence that stressed animals (especially pigs) release stress hormones that can affect humans. 
  • Despite these probable health benefits, these products are not necessarily organic, and producers are allowed to use hormones and antibiotics.
  • This label is third-party verified.  Yay! 



  • “Fresh” has a legal meaning: the food must never have reached temperatures below 26 degrees Fahrenheit—the freezing temperature of most muscle tissue (ew). This standard comes from the USDA regulations.
  • This label has nothing to do with how an animal was raised, or what it ate. 
  • This label is not third-party verified, so you just have to trust the company making the claim. 



  • “Natural” has a legal meaning too: it means that the product contains no “artificial” colors, preservatives, or ingredients. That’s it.
  • This label has nothing to do with how an animal was raised, or what it ate. The animal may have been exposed to pesticides, given hormones and/or large quantities of antibiotics.
  • This label is not third-party verified, so you just have to trust the company making the claim.




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Green Options › Articles › Meat And Poultry Food Labels