By: Pooja Sharma

Are you confused and overwhelmed by the different labels that are put on meat these days? Most labels come with a kind of certification from USDA, which means that the facility where the meat has come from passed the USDA’s food safety standards. But that does not solve anything. It does not make sense of the labels placed on the meat itself. Since the labels range from ‘natural’, ‘grass fed’ to ‘no hormones’, ‘no antibiotics’ etc., it is difficult to analyze the safety standards, health standards, and inspection standards on each. It is downright confusing.

Demand for organic products has increased substantially over the past few years. Experts in the organic industry believe that the growth will continue to increase no less than 9% annually. This has further fueled up categories like no harmful pesticides used, no chemicals used etc. adding further to the confusion. Here are some helpful explanations to make your next food shopping easier.

  1. Grass-Fed:

Grass fed on meat means that the animals are made to eat grass all their lives. Beef from cattle that are raised exclusively on grass have less saturated fat and more nutrients than grain fed beef. Conventionally, beef is fed a lot of grain at the end of their lives to fatten them up. The label is regulated by ‘USDA’ but is not strictly enforced.

How the regulation is done?

The producer must send documentation to FSIS that states that its animals are raised on a grass fed diet. This is further verified by USDA auditors who checks it from the office rather than personal visit. USDA labels have nothing to do with whether the meat received hormones or antibiotics or not.

The program does not have any third party verification. Labels that read ‘100% grass fed’ or ‘grass finished’ are verified by American Grassfed Association. Products made with AGA label are fed a diet of 100% forage, raised on a pasture and never treated with hormones or antibiotics.

  1. Natural:

This label does not mean anything except that the produce is very minimally processed, contains no preservatives or artificial ingredients, like spices, condiments, sauces, coloring, etc. So, if you purchase a chicken that is not marinated, then it will not be considered natural.

How is it regulated?

As per FSIS guidelines, the label ‘natural’ must proceed by a statement that explains what it means. Besides this single rule, the label is not regulated at all. Since the term is neither well defined nor properly enforced, it is not advised to give much weight to it.

  1. Naturally Raised:

Until 2016, this label used to mean that the meat is minimally processed, prohibits antibiotics, hormones, artificial ingredients and other animal by-products.

How is it regulated?

This label was developed by USDA but is no longer regulated by it. In January 2016, AMS decided to no longer define both grass fed and naturally raised labels. They believed they did not have the authority to do so. Grass fed has since been regulated by the FSIS. But, the naturally raised label has no legal meaning, is not regulated and has no verifiable standards.

  1. No Antibiotics

This label means that the animal was not administered with antibiotics at any point of time during his life cycle – neither in the food nor in the injections. Producers must submit documentation that the animals were not given any antibiotics but there isn’t any third party verification or testing done to get it verified. The label goes equally for beef, chicken, pork etc.

How is it regulated?

The producers are required to send the documentation to FSIS. The documentation includes the details regarding how the animals were raised and how the producer has ensured the validation throughout the animal’s life cycle. The USDA auditors then, verify the claims from the office rather than by in person visit.

This label is given a lot of importance now a days by nutritionists and health experts because of the growing antibiotic resistance in humans. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reports on how use of antibiotics in animals can further escalate this epidemic. Antibiotic resistant bacteria that grows in animals due to antibiotic use can easily be passed onto humans. Choosing meat that is raised without antibiotics can minimize the risk of being infected with resistant bacteria.

  1. No Hormones

Meat that is labeled with ‘no hormones’ means that the animals was not given any growth hormones during its cycle. Hormones do occur naturally among animals and this label just means to emphasize on how no hormones are ‘added’ during the animal’s life cycle.

How is it regulated?

The producer must send documentation to FSIS. The documentations should include details on how the animals were raised and how the claim producers have made are kept valid.

Note: Federal regulations do prohibit adding hormones but it is allowed for cows and sheep to help them grow faster. There is a concern that eating meat of animals that have been administered with growth hormones can lead to health issues, there are no studies that have validated these concerns yet. Some studies have also proven that hormones in meat occurs in too low a dose to have any significant effect on human health. But, if you are still worried, do check for the label ‘raised without hormones’.

  1. Organic

This one is probably the most popular of them all and constitutes so much. The label means that the animals were raised on an organic land i.e. land that is not subjected to use of fertilizers, pesticides, genetic engineering etc. The animals should also have an year round access to outdoors, should not be given any antibiotics or hormones and feed on an all organic diet (this could mean grains too as long as they are organic)

How is it regulated?

This seal is regulated by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Producers must submit documentation to AMA’s National Organic Program and government agent then visits a farm once a year. All the organic meat must be certified before it hits the market.

Note: As far as health is concerned, studies have not yet proven whether eating organic food is healthier or not.

  1. Pasture Raised

This label means that the animals have access to outdoors for a minimum of 120 days per year. The label requires additional terminology because what is considered pasture raised can vary from one producer to another.

The regulation for this one requires a documentation to be send out to FSIS showing that the animal has had access to the outdoors 120 days per year. The claims are verified from office by USDA auditors.

We guess we have boiled down your choices according to your personal reference. With detailed explanation, it might be easier to choose among the options now.

Food poisoning lawsuit?