Natural Foods Merchandiser

Making Sense of Meat Labels

From "Behind The Label: A Guide For Retailers," A Supplement to Natural Foods Merchandiser


Corn Fed: Cattle that are corn-fed produce more fatty marbling, which raises their grade of beef cuts to "choice" in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's grading system. Corn-fed beef may graze on grass most of its life but be finished in a feedlot on grains.

Free Farmed: This label, administered by the American Humane Association's Farm Animal Services program, indicates humane treatment of poultry and cattle, including access to water, healthy food, rapid medical treatment and space.

Free Roaming/Free Range: Defined for poultry as animals having access to the outside. The USDA regulates use of "free range" claims for poultry, but not for eggs or beef. No specific amount of time outside is required.

Grass Fed: The label implies that cattle are raised in open pastures and fed on grass, producing a less fatty beef than meat from grain-fed cattle. There is currently no regulation of this label, but the beef often comes from small producers who can specify their practices.

Halal: These meats are prepared under conditions prescribed by Islamic law and under Islamic authority.

Humane Raised & Handled: A label and certification program for meat, poultry, egg and dairy products administered since May by Humane Farm Animal Care, a Herndon, Va.-based nonprofit. Certified Humane standards prohibit added growth hormones and antibiotics and use American Meat Institute slaughtering standards.

Irradiated (or Cold Pasteurized): A radiation treatment intended to kill bacteria in meat or other foods. Irradiated foods bear a symbol (at left) to distinguish them from nonirradiated foods. The practice is prohibited for organic foods.

Kosher: May only be used on meat and poultry products prepared under rabbinical supervision.


Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, "Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms," updated January 2001

USDA National Organic Program

Natural (beef, pork or poultry): According to the USDA, a meat product containing no artificial ingredients or added color and that is only minimally processed, i.e, "does not fundamentally alter the raw product." The label must explain the use of the term natural, such as "no added colorings or artificial ingredients" or "minimally processed." The label is not regulated or verified by an independent agent. Since practices can vary widely, some natural meat producers offer more specific information about their methods and standards. Natural livestock may be raised without antibiotics or growth hormones but still not meet organic certification rules.

No Antibiotics (beef, pork or poultry): The USDA approves claims of "no antibiotics added" or "raised without antibiotics" after reviewing documentation submitted by producers. The USDA does not allow an "antibiotic-free" claim.

No Hormones (pork or poultry): Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. If these products bear the claim "no hormones added," it must be followed by a statement that says, "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones." The USDA does not allow a "hormone-free" claim.

No Hormones (beef): Producers may be approved to use this claim by providing sufficient documentation to the USDA showing no hormones were used in raising the animals.

Certified Organic: Only food producers that adhere to USDA standards for the organic label, and are certified to have done so by an accredited certifier, may use the term. Organic livestock are not given antibiotics or growth hormones; are fed only organically produced feed grown without pesticides, herbicides or genetically modified organisms; and must have access to pasture. Organic meat cannot be irradiated.

Note: At press time, the USDA was reviewing input on proposed new definitions for meat marketing claims, including "free range" and those regarding antibiotic and hormone use. Stay up-to-date at

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