Have you ever seen the Portlandia episode where Portland restaurant diners care SO much about the quality of the meat they’re about to order that they ask the waiter not only if it was grass-fed and free range but was it pet often talked to and, most importantly…was it happy??
They end up leaving the restaurant to drive to the farm where it was raised to investigate for themselves. A bit much? Maybe. But short of driving around to farms and interviewing farmers, what is a consumer supposed to do when presented with labels like cage-free, pastured and free-range? What’s the difference? Which one is better? And why is it so confusing?
It’s confusing because food companies are catching on to the fact that consumers want to be healthy. To turn a profit, these companies work hard to capitalize on that “healthy” desire, some in sincere efforts and some in not-so-sincere efforts.
This post will help you understand all the labels that are floating around out there so you can make a truly informed decision on what to purchase for your family without being duped by a tricky label or driving around to farms.
Food labeled organic must be third-party certified to meet USDA’s criteria. Organic meat and poultry cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics (sick animals are treated but cannot be sold as organic, they are resold elsewhere), and they must be fed only organically grown feed (with no animal byproducts). Organic meat animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants must have access to pasture. Notice they only have to have access. It does not indicate the amount of time they spend on pasture or any other factors.
*The Verdict: Buying organic is very important to me, but notice it does not mean you’re getting a picture-perfect product. You still need to be aware of other components of your product. Organic means no antibiotics or hormones but doesn’t ensure a lifetime on the pasture, so make sure you look at all your organic options to determine which brand is the best bet.
This label means that the animals were never given hormones. Some farmers give hormones to cattle and sheep to speed growth and increase milk production. The USDA does not allow hormones for chickens, turkeys, or hogs ever, however. The extensive use of hormones in meat and dairy has been linked to cancer in humans and higher rates of infection in animals.
*The Verdict: Be sure to buy hormone-free cattle and sheep products.
These products are from animals not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). rGBH is a genetically engineered hormone approved by the FDA in 1993 that increases milk production by 10-15%. There are health concerns for both cows and humans exposed to the drug.
*The Verdict: Buying organic dairy products will help you avoid rGBH since its use does not meet the organic criteria.
1. Producer-specific labels: The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service approves labels proposed by the producer, BUT producers are at liberty to come up with their own standards and terminology for approval. Variations you may see are: raised without antibiotics, no antibiotics ever, no antibiotics administers, and no antibiotics added. Since there is no standard, these can mean whatever the producer deems fit. Audits are done, but the agency does not say how frequently.
2. USDA “Process Verified” antibiotic claims: Through the Process Verified Program, producers pay the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to verify that they are following their own animal production protocols so they can place their own version of the “USDA Process Verified” shield, or logo, next to an antibiotic claim on their meat. A “no antibiotics” claim accompanied by a “USDA Process Verified” logo means there have been more precautions to ensure the veracity of the claim through on-site audits of processing and production facilities. The agency does not set standards for producers to follow, so it’s basically ensuring the producer meets their own standards, which I personally don’t trust. Note that the “USDA Process Verified” shield is not specific to antibiotic use (it can be used to verify ANY practice such as “cage-free.”) So you need to look for the antibiotic claim AND the “USDA Process Verified” seal to make sure you’re buying meat that was raised without the unnecessary use of antibiotics.
*The Verdict: While I don’t trust the USDA Process Verified Process, it is better than nothing when it comes to ensuring that no antibiotics were used.
This is a VERY misleading label, often leading consumers to believe the product is healthier and more humane than it really is. The USDA defines a natural product as one that contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” This label does not require that animals be raised in open space, does not indicate that antibiotics have been used prudently, does not bar growth hormones, and does not mean organic. That’s a lot of “nots,” huh?
*The Verdict: Honestly, when I see “natural,” I stay away.
In the US, the label “free range” applies only to poultry and is regulated by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). It requires that the animals have been “allowed access to the outside,” BUT there is no specification of the quality or size of the outside range or duration of time an animal has outdoor access.
This label refers to hens raised without cages BUT doesn’t mean they have access to the outdoors. Hey, there’s no cage, so that’s good, right?! Wrong. It generally means the birds are free to perform “natural behaviors” (like perching), which can be good, but it can also mean thousands of hens are shoved into a building and are squashed into each other, creating a stressful and unsanitary condition for the hens. Many cage-free claims are not even certified, though some cage-free eggs are certified by the American Humane Certified label (I’ll go over this label in a bit).
This means the animals are raised in a pasture and can roam freely in their natural environment, where they are able to eat nutritious grasses and other plants that their bodies are adapted to digest.
Sounds really nice and cute at first glance, but chickens aren’t actually vegetarians! Their natural diet consists of foraging around in a grassy field eating grubs and bugs, among other things. Seeing vegetarian fed generally indicates the chicken did not have access to an environment that would allow them this vital addition to their diet.
*The Verdict: Each label gives us a small piece of information, but none of them is a slam dunk. It’s crucial to look at the whole picture and search for as much information as you can given the choices at your local grocer or farmers market. For example, Vital Farms volunteers a host of additional information on their practices, from the quality of their feed and the animal treatments to the range time and more. I know it’s time-consuming to read labels all day at the grocery store, but once you find a brand you like, you can be done with labels and just keep buying that same brand! Try to find eggs and chickens that are as close to encompassing all key areas as possible: pasture-raised, organic, non-vegetarian, free-range, and cage-free.
This typically implies that an animal is fed a diet of natural grass and forage (and not grain) but all this label really means is that at some point in the cow’s life, it ate grass. Some companies that market their meat as “naturally raised” or “grass-fed” actually feed their animals grain for significant periods of time because it’s much cheaper and they only give them grass for a bit so they can say it’s “grass fed” (tricky!). USDA’s grass-fed marketing standard requires only that animals “must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” but it doesn’t mean they spend their entire lives in pastures. Some cattle marketed as USDA grass-fed actually spend part of their lives in confined pens or feedlots.
*The Verdict: The key here is to find 100% grass fed and organic meat. I always ask my butcher if it is “grain finished” or 100% grass fed. Grain finishing is a common practice because it helps to quickly and easily fatten them up before sending them to slaughter. If your butcher is knowledgable they will know if it was grass fed for it’s entire life or grass fed then grain finished. If it’s grain finished, or not organic, walk away.
Processed meats such as bacon, lunch meats and hot dogs often contain nitrates or nitrites (most commonly in the form of sodium nitrate) to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, to enhance color or add a smoky flavor. Eating meat treated with nitrates may increase the risk of cancer and other health problems through the formation of nitrosamines.
*The Verdict: There are several products on the market that are “nitrate free” and uncured so you can still enjoy your hot dog without the worry. Be sure your processed meats are completely nitrate and nitrite free and organic.
The oldest animal welfare certification program in the U.S., it uses standards developed by the American Humane Association, an independent third-party audits producer. Animals are kept in cages large enough for “natural behaviors” like perching and de-beaking is allowed in certain cases. Antibiotics are allowed for treating sick animals but not to speed growth. Growth hormones are not allowed.
This certification is granted through the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute. Certification is for independently-owned family farms that raise animals outdoors on pasture or range. Antibiotic use is allowed only for sickness and sick animals must be treated and can later be sold as “Animal Welfare Approved” as long as slaughter occurs after the drug has cleared from the animal’s system (twice the legally-required drug withdrawal time). No growth hormones are permitted, and animals must be rendered insensible to pain prior to slaughter.
This is set up by the nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care, and has endorsements from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States. Animals can never be confined in cages or crates, poultry are not subjected to de-beaking and animals are slaughtered with minimal suffering. No growth hormones are allowed. Antibiotics can be used to treat sick animals. The label does not require that the animals have access to pasture or range. Unlike “Animal Welfare Approved,” “Certified Humane” is available to corporate farms.
The “5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program” was started by Whole Foods research and completed by nonprofits. Step 1 does not allow cages and crates. Step 2 requires “environmental enrichment” for animals kept indoors. Step 3 dictates outdoor access. Step 4 is a “pasture-based” system. Step 5 indicates an “animal-centered approach with all physical alterations prohibited.” Step 5+, the highest level, means that the animal spends its whole life on the same farm with access to pasture. All steps prohibit the use of antibiotics in beef cattle and pigs but allow antibiotics for sick chickens and turkeys. Growth hormones are prohibited in all steps. Third-party certification companies audit and issue the ratings.Confusing stuff, right? I know. Ugh. It's hard. And you know what?
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