7 Must-Know Terms on Meat and Poultry Labels

gwyneth-made-me-do-it-logoThe internet has been abuzz lately with talk of possibly labeling GMO’s. From headline news organizations to mothers across the web, concerned about the general health of their family, many people have an opinion either for or against the labeling of foods which contain genetically-modified ingredients. (GMO is short for Genetically Modified Organism.) But while there’s a strong back and forth about that issue, I was shocked to find out how little I actually knew about labels in another huge part of our diet: meats, poultry, and dairy products.

I thought perhaps it was just me in the dark about what these labels truly meant, but after some chatter on my Instagram account, it appears that a lot of us aren’t entirely clear on the differences between “cage-free” eggs vs. “pastured” eggs, just to give an example. I’ve been doing a little, scratch that, a lot of research the past few weeks now, trying to decipher what the difference really is between all these labels, and what it means for me the consumer, and the animal, and how it all relates to the health of my family, the animals, and the environment. Keep reading to find out just what all these different labels actually mean, so that you can be an informed consumer and know just how you’re spending your grocery money.

  • Cage Free or Free Range 1 of 8

    Primarily used to refer to poultry and eggs, what exactly do the terms "cage free" and "free range" mean?  Well, nothing to do with the nutritional value of the egg or chicken, but it is really just used to refer to how the chickens, or hens in the case of eggs, were raised.  Traditional factory farming keeps chickens in what are refereed to as "battery cages," and they are stacked on top of each other, in extremely close proximity so that they usually can't even turn or move much at all.  


    So here's where my confusion set in.  In most cases, cage-free and free-range eggs for instance, aren't usually much more than regular old eggs, usually at most $1 more, and so to make a compromise between spending the extra $2.00 to $3.00 on organic eggs, I often buy just regular cage free eggs, like the ones you see above.  Come to find out, these eggs aren't roaming the prairie, much like I'd imagined. 


    According to USDA food labeling regulations, here are the primary differences between regular eggs and cage-free and/or free-range eggs and chickens.


    Cage-Free: This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.  "Cage-free" doesn't mean the hens have access to the outdoors. Cage-free birds can engage in some natural behaviors, such as nesting and spreading their wings.  However, practices such as beak cutting are allowed. Beak cutting is often required because the birds are still living in very close proximity, which often causes them to peck each other.  Poultry raised for their meat are rarely caged.  There is no third party auditing system to confirm compliance.


    Free-Range: The USDA has defined the meaning of "free-range" for poultry raised for meat, but there are no standards in "free-range" egg production. Typically, free-range birds are uncaged inside barns and have some degree of outdoor access, but there are no requirements for the amount, duration, or quality of outdoor access. Since they are not caged, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. There are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed, so it may or may not be a vegetarian diet. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted, and there is no third-party auditing system to confirm compliance. Also to be noted, the USDA has defined free-range for poultry only, so if you see this on pork, beef, or some other product, it has no meaning whatsoever.


    Do you still feel like an extra $2 for a carton of free-range eggs is really worth it now?  I was a little disheartened to know that all this time, I proudly thought I was doing my part to make things a little better for the chickens, but I now feel a bit duped. Nutritionally speaking, these birds and eggs are no better for you either.

  • Certified Organic 2 of 8

    Certified organic means something slightly different for each animal involved, but the label does agree on one thing, the feed and methods of raising for each animal. Let's first look at poultry and eggs, in terms of the certified organic label.


    According to the USDA, for poultry, the birds must be raised organically no later than two days after they hatch.  They must be fed certified organic feed for their entire lives, and the organic feed cannot contain animal by-products, antibiotics, or genetically engineered grains, and cannot be grown using persistent pesticides or chemical fertilizers. It is prohibited to give drugs, antibiotics, and hormones to organic birds, and all birds must have outdoor access, however, the amount, duration, and quality is undefined. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted, however, compliance is verified through third-party auditing.  


    For cattle, pigs, sheep and goat, the animals must be allowed outdoor access, and must be raised organically on certified organic pastures, and fed certified organic feed for their entire lives.  Animals must be provided with bedding materials and must have year-round outdoor access.  No drugs, antibiotics, or growth hormones are allowed, and compliance is verified through third-party auditing.


    While certified organic doesn't necessarily speak to animal welfare, for consumers, you can be assured that the animals were not pumped with antibiotics or hormones, and were fed an organic, vegetarian diet, free of added antibiotics or animal by-products via the slaughter process. There is also a paper trail, and audits and inspections via a third party, therefore they tend to be considered safer for the consumer.


    While some of these issues to consider may be unpleasant, more and more consumers are starting to grow concerned and interested with where their food comes from and how it was raised. By knowing the different meanings of these labels, it also helps you make better informed decisions on where and how you spend your money at the grocery store. Read on to see a step above certified organic.

    *photo credit Farm Lot 59

  • Pasture Raised 3 of 8

    I learned what pastured, or pasture-raised, means just a couple of weeks ago, and now understand the difference in how pasture-raised animals are set apart.


    Pastured eggs, poultry, beef, pork, sheep, and goat basically means the animal was set out to pasture and eat the grasses of their surrounding area.  This sort of pasture-raised diet usually allows for what we think of as free-range, in that the animals are allowed to forage and roam free.  Chickens and cows diets are usually supplemented with grain, and for sheep they may be solely grass fed. 


    According to the USDA, due to the number of variables involved in pasture-raised agricultural systems, the USDA has not developed a federal definition for pasture-raised products, however manufacturers who use this label still have to meet certain requirements, including access to pasture throughout the grazing season and a diet limited of grains. 


    Pasture raised animal food products are more expensive, but is it worth it?  For those concerned about the animal welfare aspect, most would agree it definitely is. Animals are allowed to roam free and aren't confined to feed lots or cages, as in typical factory farm conditions. Nutritionally, pasture raised animals are shown to be better for you too, and are also promoted as being a more sustainable way to raise animals, therefore better for the environment. Many people, including myself and my kids, also swear that pastured eggs taste phenomenally better than eggs from caged hens.


    Because pasture-raised animal products aren't widely available in most markets, you have to reach out to your local farming community, if one exists where you live, and buy directly from your farmer, especially with fresh eggs. This allows the consumer to learn the true roots of where their food comes from, and some farms even welcome farm tours.

  • No Added Antibiotics 4 of 8

    I see this label all over the place, and wonder what does it truly mean? And is "no added antibiotics" the same as "not treated with antibiotics?" It's all very consuming, especially when there is no universally used label or verbiage.


    Here's the skinny on the antibiotic labeling. Under USDA regulations, meat and poultry products can be labeled as "no antibiotics added" if documentation is provided showing that the animals were raised without antibiotics. Similar labeling terms approved by the USDA are "no antibiotics ever," "no added antibiotics" and "raised without the use of antibiotics." However, the term "antibiotic-free" isn't USDA approved. It is permissible for an animal to be treated with antibiotics under this labeling, if needed to prevent or treat a disease. An antibiotic withdrawal period is generally required though. What does that generally mean? You'll often find this labeling on organic products.


    More than anything, this seems like an added label to help the consumer feel better and safer buying this product.

  • Grass Fed 5 of 8

    Grass fed beef is growing in popularity and popping up all over, from Paleo and Crossfit websites touting their nutritional superiority, to small family farms proudly raising pastured, grass-fed beef and lamb.  What exactly does it mean though, and is it better for us, and worth the double to triple price tag?


    By USDA regulations, grass-fed animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life, while organic animals' pasture diet may be supplemented with grain. These animals have access to the outdoors and are able to engage in some natural behaviors, such as grazing, and they must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. 


    Also USDA regulated, the grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. Meat products may be labeled as grass-fed organic. Therefore if you are concerned about hormones and antibiotics in your meat, you should seek out grass-fed organic products, not solely grass-fed, since antibiotics or hormones may have been used. 

  • Grass Finished 6 of 8

    Another label popping up all over when it comes to pastured, grass fed meat, is the term grass finished.  What in the world does that mean, you ask?


    Grass finished means that the animal is not sent to a feed lot, usually 90-180 days before slaughter, to fatten up on grains like corn and soy. Alternately, the animal is allowed to eat grass its entire life. 


    Why is this important?  Grass fed and finished meat has about twice as many omega 3's and lower levels of unhealthy fats, as grain fed meat. Grass-fed and finished beef also has lower levels of dietary cholesterol and offers more vitamins A and E as well as antioxidants.


    It does taste different though, and it costs more. The yummy marbling effect that we've come to love about a beef steak, comes from the grain finishing that happens at a feed lot, which is also what makes it higher in levels of unhealthy fats.  So this is a personal choice you'll have to make. Taste over health benefits, or would you really even know the difference?

  • Natural, Certified Humane, Chemical Free & Other Pesky Labels 7 of 8

    So what about all those other labels you may see plastered all over your animal products?  The other day I noticed a brand of eggs were riddled with various labels and read, "organic, cage-free, humanely raised, vegetarian fed, no antibiotics ever, eggs."  Wow, that's a mouthful!  So do all these extra add-on labels really mean anything?  You decide.


    Natural: As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as "natural" must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices, and only applies to processing of meat and egg products.  Since the food is still processed, just how natural is it? It really just means no artificial ingredients, but shouldn't our meat not have artificial ingredients anyhow?


    Humane: Multiple labeling programs make claims that animals were treated humanely during the production cycle, but the verification of these claims varies widely. These labeling programs are not regulated under a single USDA definition.


    Hormone Free: Under USDA regulations, this term isn't allowed on meat products. Beef may be labeled as "no hormones administered" if producers document that the animals were raised without hormones.  Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in the raising of poultry, hogs, veal calves, or exotic animals not subject to USDA inspection, such as bison. Therefore, claims of "no hormones added" can't be used on labels for these products unless the label also states, "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."


    Chemical Free: Under USDA regulations, this term isn't allowed on meat or poultry labels, so if you see it, be cautious about its meaning. Similarly federal regulations don't allow the terms "residue-free," "residue tested," "naturally raised," "naturally grown" or "drug-free."


    Naturally Raised: Livestock have been raised entirely without growth promotants and antibiotics (except for parasite control), and that they have never been fed animal byproducts derived from the slaughter or harvest processes.  It's a voluntary marketing claim and has no claim to animal welfare.


    It seems that the consumer should, overall, be leery of labels with any of these claims since in the end, they don't really carry significant meaning.


  • So What To Do About All These Labels? 8 of 8

    When all is said and done, it is up to you, the consumer, to make the best educated decision you can based off of your values, personal preference, and pocket book. In a perfect world, many, if not most people with the proper information would probably choose to purchase pasture raised meat and poultry products from their local farmer down the road. This allows you to truly know where your food comes from, how the animals were raised and treated, and learn more about the environmental sustainability of their farming practices. Are they being good stewards of the land, and so forth? But this scenario is both cost prohibitive and unfeasible for many.  


    So what is the average consumer, on a budget, to do?


    -Buy local, organic, and/or grass fed and pastured animal products when you can. In order to keep your grocery budget in line, try cutting back on the amount of animal products you use on a weekly basis, and refer to these tips I shared last month, on cutting back.


    -If pastured animal products are cost prohibitive, the organic label at least insures that the animals were fed an organic diet free of antibiotics and animal byproducts, which is considered safer for the consumer overall, as well as for the environment.


    -More companies and markets are starting to carry humanely raised animal products, including big name brands like Columbus deli meats, made up of pork and turkey raised on family farms with no antibiotics and 100% vegetarian feeds. I've taste tested this new line and it's delicious and not much more than their regular line of deli meats. Chipotle, the popular chain restaurant is also committed to only using food with integrity.


    As demand for these products and "food with integrity" increases, the confusing marketing labels may proliferate. But with a bit of research and knowledge, you can be informed on what's just for show, and what's worth investing in with your hard-earned grocery money.

Read more of Andrea’s writing at her blog For The Love Of
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