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What Meat and Egg Labels Really Mean

By on January 15th, 2014 Categories: Uncategorized

Anyone who’s read even one of my Think Pink, Live Green columns knows that I am passionate about food and making sure that I eat the healthiest, most nutritious food I can afford. But sometimes when I’m deciding what to buy, I get confused by all the “natural,” “lean,” “responsibly raised,” and other stickers trying to grab my attention on meat and egg products. Since meat, eggs, and poultry don’t really have more than one ingredient, companies are using these other terms to try and set their product apart in a crowded refrigerator case.

But what do the words really mean? Is there a difference between pasture-raised and grass-fed? I turned to experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Working Group to get my answers and am happy to share what I learned with you.

No antibiotics (you also might see Raised without antibiotics, No antibiotics ever, or No antibiotics added): An entire herd of valuable farm animals can get sick from one infected animal. To prevent this from happening, it’s common to routinely give antibiotics to the whole herd (even if all the animals appear healthy). This is called giving the antibiotics preventively. But there’s concern that preventive antibiotics are creating antibiotic-resistant germs and other problems in people and the environment. Because there is no standard definition of “no antibiotics,” “raised without antibiotics,” or “no antibiotics added,” figuring out what the terms mean can be tricky. They might mean what they say, or they might mean something different.

If a product also has a USDA certified organic seal on it, you can be confident that the animal was raised without antibiotics. But producers who aren’t USDA certified organic can create their own antibiotic standards and labels and present them to the USDA for approval. The key is to look for the USDA Process Verified shield next to an antibiotic claim. This means that the producer has paid the USDA to verify that his or her antibiotic protocols are being followed.

Avoid products labeled:

  • no antibiotic residue
  • antibiotic-free
  • drug free
  • chemical free
  • no antibiotic growth promotants

The USDA says these terms aren’t allowed on meat labels. If they are there, it means that the producer isn’t following best labeling practices, doesn’t have a good understanding of the law, or may be trying to be purposely confusing.

Free-range (you also might see Free-roaming): In the United States, this term applies only to poultry. It means the birds have access to the outside, but the USDA doesn’t say how big the outside area must be or how long the bird must have access to the outside.

Natural: This means the product has no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed. The label has to explain exactly why the product is labeled natural, so you might see “no artificial ingredients, minimally processed” on the label, too. Still, “natural” on a label has nothing to do with:

  • how humanely the animal was raised
  • whether or not the animal was given antibiotics or growth hormones
  • whether or not the animal was raised following organic standards

Organic: Food with the USDA organic label on it has to be certified by an independent third party that it meets USDA organic requirements. Organic meat and poultry can’t be treated with hormones or antibiotics. Sick animals must be treated, but can’t be sold as organic. Organic meat and poultry must be fed only organically grown feed with no animal byproducts and have access to the outdoors and pasture for grazing.

Cage-free: You’ll probably only see this term on eggs because most chickens raised for meat aren’t kept in cages. It means that the hens that laid the eggs aren’t raised in cages, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re allowed to go outside.

Kosher: Kosher means that the meat or poultry product was prepared under the supervision of a rabbi so the food is acceptable for Jewish people who follow the dietary laws in the Torah. Kosher guidelines don’t say anything about growth hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides in feed.

Halal (you also might see Zabiah Halal): These foods are handled according to Islamic law so they are acceptable to Muslims who follow the dietary laws in the Quran. Halal guidelines don’t say anything about how the animal was raised or antibiotic use.

Pasture-raised: This label means animals roam freely in a pasture and are able to eat grasses. The organic label requires that animals have continuous access to pasture, but not all pasture-raised meat is organic. Pasture-raised has nothing to do with antibiotic or hormone use.

Grass-fed (you also might see 100% grass-fed): This is supposed to mean that the animals eat only grasses and other forages. Still, some companies try to be confusing and use the term “grass-finished” on their labels. Grass-finished means the animals spent part of their lives eating grain. If you want to be sure that the animal ate only grass, it’s a good idea to look for products that are American Grassfed Association certified. This certification means the animal has eaten nothing but grass its entire life, has not been confined, and has never been given antibiotics or hormones. If you buy your meat or milk locally, you can ask the producer what’s on the animals’ menu.

No added hormones (you also may see Hormone-free): Some producers give beef or dairy cattle extra hormones to make them grow faster or produce more milk. You may have heard about rGBH (recombinant bovine somatotropin [or growth hormone]), a genetically engineered hormone that increases milk production in cows. The “no-added hormones” label means the animals were never given hormones. The USDA doesn’t allow hormones to be used in chickens, turkeys, or pigs. The European Union doesn’t allow hormones to be given to any animal raised for food. Meat and eggs with the USDA organic seal come from animals that have never been given hormones.

Lean (you also may see Extra lean): These terms are defined by the USDA. Lean beef (3.5 ounces) must have less than:

  • 10 grams of fat
  • 4.5 grams of saturated fat
  • 95 milligrams of cholesterol

Extra lean beef (3.5 ounces) must have less than:

  • 5 grams of fat
  • 2 grams of saturated fat
  • 95 milligrams of cholesterol

Animal Humane Certified (you also may see Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane): The American Humane Association created the standards used by the oldest animal welfare certification program. An independent auditor makes sure that producers are following the standards. Antibiotics are allowed to be used to treat sick animals but growth hormones aren’t allowed.

The Animal Welfare Institute certifies independently owned farms that raise animals outdoors on pasture or range in a way that allows the animals to behave instinctively. Antibiotics are allowed to treat sick animals only if recommended by a veterinarian. The certification doesn’t allow hormone use and requires that animals not be able to feel pain before they’re slaughtered.

Certified Humane was created by Humane Farm Animal Care and requires that animals never be confined in cages or crates, birds not be de-beaked, and animals be slaughtered in specific ways designed to minimize suffering. The certification doesn’t allow the use of hormones. Antibiotics only can be used to treat sick animals as directed by a veterinarian. The certification doesn’t require that animals have access to pasture.

To make sure I’m getting exactly what I want, I make sure to buy organic meat that’s also labeled American Grassfed Association certified and certified humane. While I have had some success finding meat like this in stores, I’ve found a much better selection at my local farmers’ market. At the farmers’ market, I can ask about what the animals eat and how they’re treated. It’s important to me to make sure that the labels mean what they say.

Are there certain labels that you always look for on your meat or eggs? Do you have a hard time finding exactly what you want? Let me know.

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president, and chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 14 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.


  1. Marisa Weiss, M.D.

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