The Meat of It: Decoding Meat and Poultry Labels When it comes to meat and poultry, you’ve probably heard more than one of these terms: antibiotic-free, hormone-free, grass-fed, free-range, organic, natural. But what do they actually mean? What’s regulated and safe? What’s the healthiest choice? Let’s take a look into these classifications so you can make the smartest choices for you and your family next time you stop by the butcher’s!

Antibiotic-Free & Hormone-Free

This label means the producers have submitted documentation to the USDA that their animals were not administered these drugs—however, there is currently no third-party verification of these claims. 80 percent of U.S. meat sold contains antibiotics which are used for disease prevention and control. However, the overuse of antibiotics in food has created and increased antibiotic and drug-resistant bacteria which are a serious threat to public health. As for growth hormones, although the FDA and USDA insist they’re safe for human consumption, research has shown that they can be harmful to people, potentially causing cancer and early puberty.

Grass-Fed

Under this label, the animals have had a grass-only diet and access to pasture year-round. Grass-fed meats are leaner, have lower levels of saturated fat and contain more nutrients than grain-fed. And if you’re concerned about ethical treatment, grass-fed animals have had the opportunity to live and roam in pastures instead of being born and bred in a feed lot.

Free-Range

Free range might sound good, but all it means is that the animals have access to the outdoors; however, this does not account for what kind of outside (pasture vs. lot) or how long. While this classification isn’t as humane as it sounds, it’s still better to choose free-range over conventionally farmed meat and poultry. Also, studies show that chickens with access to pastures lay eggs that contain less saturated fat, less cholesterol and more vitamin A, E and omega fatty acids.

The Meat of It: Decoding Meat and Poultry Labels

Natural & Organic

While often used interchangeably, these classifications are two completely different labels. According to the USDA, the term “natural” means the meat contains no artificial ingredients, preservatives and was minimally processed—which is the case with all fresh meat and poultry so this term doesn’t hold much weight.

If you see a label that says USDA-certified organic, this means the poultry or meat contains no growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified feed or animal by-products. It does not, however, address the treatment of the animals.

Organic is a great choice for all food products, but when buying meat, choose organic, grass-fed beef or organic, free-range chicken when you can.