By Caroline Kaufman, MS, RD

How to Decode Meat Labels

  |  Health Advice & Tips  

Confused about what the labels on packaged meat mean? Here's a guide to decoding labels on beef, chicken, and pork products in the supermarket, including organic, natural, free-range, cage-free, grass-fed, and certified humane.


reading meat labels in supermarketWhen you choose to include meat in your family’s meals, the many different labels can make it difficult to know which are the best choices. Here, a decoder to bring along on your next supermarket trip:

Cage-free: Flock is able to freely roam within their shelter with unlimited access to food and fresh water

Free-range: Flock is provided with shelter but given continuous access to the outdoors (may be fenced or netted), as well as unlimited access to food and fresh water

Grass-fed: Received the majority of its nutrients from grass, but diets may have been supplemented with grain

Grass-fed organic: Grass-fed and free of antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides

Natural: No synthetic or artificial ingredients or added color. Not fed animal by-products, animal waste by-products, or aquatic by-products. Minimally processed. No growth promotants, and no antibiotics (other than one used to prevent parasitism)

No antibiotics (red meat and poultry): No antibiotics used in raising the animals

No hormones (beef): No hormones added or used in raising the animals

No hormones (pork and poultry): Contains no artificial ingredients or added color; minimally processed


USDA organic:

• Produced without excluded practices (e.g. no genetic engineering, no irradiation)

• Produced using only allowed substances and without prohibited substances

• Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations

• No antibiotics

• No growth hormones

• 100 percent organic feed

• Animals had access to the outdoors


Not official regulated USDA labels:

Pasture-raised: Not an official regulated USDA label

Certified humane (Humane Farm Animal Care): Meets the Humane Farm Animal Care program standards: nutritious diet without antibiotics or hormones; animals raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors.

Animal Welfare approved (Animal Welfare Institute): Cattle grazed on pastures; sows could build nests before giving birth; ducks were able to swim in clean water; chickens could forage, dust-bathe, and spread their wings. Awarded only to family farmers.


Sources: Animal Welfare Institute, Certified Humane, USDA Agricultural Marketing Service

Also See:

The Many Benefits of Meatless Meals


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