Trying to navigate the plethora of ambiguous food labels during routine trips to the grocery store can be quite overwhelming, and the meat products are no exception. In 2002, in response to consumer confusion, the USDA created a standardized guideline of official food packaging labels. Utilizing this knowledge of what food labels truly mean can help you to separate the difference between quality and shady meat products.
- All Natural – This is one of the most common labels found on meat packaging no matter what grocery store you shop in. Unfortunately, this label is misleading. According to the USDA, “natural” labels on poultry, meat, and egg products simply mean they contain no artificial ingredients and are minimally processed. There are no restrictions on hormones, antibiotics, or GMOs, so “natural” labeled products are essentially equivalent to conventional.
- No Added Growth Hormones – This common meat product label is regularly used on conventional meat as well as organic products. Without the use of growth hormones, meat most likely contains antibiotics which speed up the animal’s growth in a different way. There is no USDA certification for this food label claim, so buyer beware.
- Free Range – This labeling suggests the animals have access to outdoors along with unlimited access to food and water. Because this label is not officially certified, there is no way to regulate and ensure the validity of the claim.
- Antibiotic Free – Similar to the label, “No Added Growth Hormones,” this is not regulated by the USDA, and is actually illegal based on their regulations. Many shady meat labels work around this by using “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics administered.” Buy with care because, when this claim is made, it is most likely that growth hormones are used instead.
- Cage-Free – Commonly found on poultry products, this label indicates the birds are not raised inside a cage. Typically, poultry with this label is raised in extremely tight quarters, windowless henhouses that allow only for the same amount of movement or space a cage would permit. Therefore, this claim means nothing more than that the product is factory-farmed.
- Grass Fed – With rising popularity of this label (especially on beef products), be sure to look for specifics. This label does not mean it was solely pasture-raised. Meat not labeled “U.S. Inspected 100% Grass Fed” is usually finished on corn and soy feed. Look for the “100% U.S. Grass Fed” and “Organic” labels, keeping in mind that use of antibiotics and growth hormones are still legally used in the livestock’s feed.