What’s in a (Meat) Label

Understanding meat labels can be confusing. Does Free-Range mean your chicken is healthier for you? Does “Natural” mean antibiotic free? Peruse this primer to find out.

Most consumers are confident in choosing their organic produce or trans fat-free snack foods, but when it comes to meat (dairy) and poultry, understanding the labels can be a complicated affair. From “Grass-Fed” to “Natural” to “Hormone-Free,” do you really understand what each of these terms really mean? Following is a primer that will help you better understand the terminology used so that you can make a more informed decision when you visit the meat counter.

Naturally Confusing

Under the broadly defined USDA guidelines, the term natural refers to a product that has been minimally processed and does not contain artificial flavoring, coloring ingredients, chemical preservatives, or any other synthetic ingredients.

Unfortunately, the USDA’s definition of natural doesn’t take into account the growing methods, which includes the use of antibiotics or growth enhancers for either poultry or livestock. In fact, the USDA guidelines are a minimal standard at best. Under this definition naturally grown poultry can also have been fed antibiotics, but still bear the label “Natural.”

As a safe bet, look for meats labeled “Certified Organic,” since this label ensures that the chicken or livestock has been feed a certified organic diet and will have been raised without the use of antibiotics in their entire life.

Free Range

As the USDA defines free range (which usually refers to poultry), the chickens have access to the outdoors so that they can participate in activities similar to a natural environment. Free range does not necessarily mean that the chickens actually venture outside, and if they do, the USDA mandate requires only five minutes of open-air time. Keep in mind, that free range does not mean that the animal was raised without antibiotics or hormones.


If the meat or poultry is labeled as “Grass Fed” it means that the animals grazed on a pasture and ate only grass or hay. In the case of livestock, they are not fed grain. Grass-fed labels are not an assurance that no hormones or antibiotics are used, unless the label specifies this. The term grass-fed is generally interchangeable with “Pasture-Raised.”

Use of Hormones

Man-made hormones have been used in poultry and livestock for years with the purpose to fight disease or control the growth and metabolism of an animal. Dairy cows are given hormones to increase milk production, and the increase in hormones may lead to more infections that require the administering of antibiotics. There is concern that frequent exposure to the antibiotic residue that remains in the milk or dairy products can be a health concern for people in the long term.

A common genetically-engineered hormone that is administered to dairy cows to increase their milk production is Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (also called recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST). Dairy that is labeled rBGH-Free or rBST-Free is produced by dairy cows that were never administered this hormone. Additionally, organic milk is rBGH free.

The USDA has approved six hormones for use in beef cattle. There has been much debate on the affects of residual growth hormones found in the foods we eat. According to an article appearing on the Center for Food Safety website, “Two of these hormones, estradiol and zeranol, are likely to have negative human health effects, including cancer and impacts on child development, when their residues are present in meat.”

The USDA prohibits the use of the term “Hormone Free” simply because all animals produce hormones naturally. The terms “No Hormones Administered,” and “No Added Hormones” are allowed when animals were raised without using any added growth hormones. It is interesting to note that by law, poultry and pigs cannot be given hormones, therefore, the use of these labels on chicken or pork products is misleading.

Still confused? The next time you head to the store, ask your butcher to explain the labels, and also take the time to investigate the issue online.

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