Meat is probably the most costly part of our food budgets. When spending more money on something, I like to know exactly what I’m buying. I really don’t want to be tricked into buying an item of lower quality because of clever marketing, yet this is sadly easy to do when it comes to purchasing meat. Words like natural, vegetarian-fed, and free-range sound great, but what do they really mean, and which ones really matter when it comes to meat labels?
No doubt about it, meat labels can be tricky. I want to take a look at some of the most common ones and decode them, getting past the nice-sounding words and phrases. If we’re going to read food labels, we need to know what exactly those labels are telling us!
The Scoop on Meat Labels
There are so many nuances when it comes to the labeling of meat. It can be down-right confusing! Sometimes what isn’t said is more informative than the terms plastered on the packaging, but knowing what those terms actually mean (or don’t mean) according to the USDA can go a long way in helping you choose healthy meat options for your family.
Natural, 100% Natural, and All-Natural sound so wholesome. So promising. So deceptive. This is the one meat label that really is worthless and tells you nothing.
100% natural meat only means that the meat hasn’t been processed. All cuts of meat qualify. It doesn’t tell you anything about how the animal was raised, what it ate, what medications or other treatments it may have been given, or how it was slaughtered. It’s a meaningless and misleading label.
A 100% natural steak could have come from an animal raised in a CAFO, caked in manure, eating GMO corn, given subtherapeutic antibiotics and additional hormones, and finally inhumanely slaughtered in a mass operation. Don’t fall for the “natural” label.
Vegetarian Feed/No Animal By-Products
When a label says that an animal wasn’t fed any animal byproducts, that means that the feed didn’t contain any ground up remains leftover from the processing of other animals for meat. It’s good to know that your steak didn’t come from a cow eating any byproducts of beef processing. Common sense tells us that isn’t what cows are supposed to eat. “No animal byproducts” doesn’t tell us what the animal actually was fed, however.
Vegetarian-fed is a little more complicated, especially when dealing with chickens and eggs. Chickens aren’t by nature herbivores. They do eat plants, for sure, but they also love bugs! If your egg carton or chicken says “vegetarian feed”, you can be quite sure that the chickens were kept in an indoor controlled environment and probably fed a diet solely of grains.
Free-Range or Cage-Free
This is another tricky label that tends to be advertised on chicken products. It seems much more humane to have the chickens out of their cages and freely roaming an open field, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what the package usually shows, too? A happy farm with a green field?
Wrong. Cage-Free is a happy ways to describe chickens that were more than likely raised in the very cramped quarters of a crowded chicken house. It doesn’t tell you what they ate, how many chickens were in the house, or if the chicken house even had open windows.
Free-Range is a little bit more promising, but not by much. The chickens or other poultry must have access to the outdoors, which is an improvement from Cage-Free. However, there are no regulations as to how much time outdoors they must have, or how large of a space they need to be granted.
These two are very tricky.
Hormones cannot be used in poultry or swine in the US, yet you’ll still see them labeled as “hormone-free” like it is a step in the right direction. If you see hormone-free on beef or sheep products, then you are learning a little bit about the meat, as some farmers will give their animals additional hormones to speed growth.
When it comes to antibiotic use in animals, it’s even more muddled. Some agencies will verify that animals were raised without antibiotics, while other meat producers will set their own standards and self-verify with the USDA that they followed their standards. If you want to be certain about antibiotic usage, look for third-party certification or organic or local options.
Processed meats, like ham, hot dogs, or bacon, are typically cured using sodium nitrates or nitrites. These prolong the shelf-life of the food, but there are some concerns about their long-term effects.
These foods can be made without added nitrates or nitrites, however. Sometimes you’ll see them labeled as “uncured”. Manufacturers use celery juice or celery powder (which naturally contains sodium nitrate) to give the meats their flavor and preserve them. There’s a bit of a foodie controversy over how important it is for processed meats to be nitrate-free, but I liked this take on it.
Again, remember that this label only gives information as to how the item was processed, but not how the animal was raised.
Pastured animals were raised in an open environment, freely eating the grasses and other plants that are a natural part of their diets. Pigs raised this way are often referred to as “foraged” since they tend to root up their food from within the ground, as well. If you’ve ever seen movable chicken tractors, those are good examples of how to raise pastured chickens.
This label does not give any information as to any hormones or antibiotics that may be have been used. However, farmers who raise pastured/foraged animals tend to avoid hormones or subtherapeutic antibiotics.
Grass-Fed is often used to describe beef (or goat, sheep, etc.) that was raised only on grass and similar forage, arguably the natural food that cattle are designed to eat. During the growing season, this would be the green plants found outdoors. In the winter, it is hay.
Depending on the labeling agency, however, grass-fed may only mean that the animal has continuous access to pasture and may even allow for a substantial allotment of grain in the feed. The animals may even spend a large amount of their lives indoors. Yes, it’s getting a little murky again.
Generally, when a meat item is labeled as grass-fed, the animal was also treated more humanely.
In order for a meat item to be certified organic in the United States, it must go through the certification process of the USDA. The feed must be organic, certain living conditions must be met, and the animal is not allowed to have had any hormones or antibiotics. The animals must also have had access to the outdoors and/or pastures, depending on the type of animal.
Some producers will squeak by with the bare minimum to reach certification while others aim for best practices.
Your Best Option: Know Your Farmer
Meat options may carry multiple labels, but in order to really know about your meat, it helps to know the person who raised the animal. You can then ask very specific questions and get past the nuanced labels found on meats in the grocery store.
Local butchers can also be a great place to go for quality meat. We live near a fabulous meat store that is extremely knowledgable about the meats they carry: who raised them, what they were fed, and how they were treated. I love that I can ask specific questions and get specific answers. I also feel extremely confident in my purchases from them.
This list only covers about half of the labels that you might find on meat. If you are curious about other terms and labels you’ve seen, or want extra information on labels relating to fish and dairy, I found this post from the Environmental Working Group very informative. Like the post you just read, it’s a quick read and will help you be a more educated shopper.