Study Up: 4 Must-Know Terms to Learn on Meat and Poultry Labels

4 Must-Know Terms on Meat and Poultry Labels4 Must-Know Terms on Meat and Poultry LabelsThe internet has been abuzz lately with talk of possibly labeling GMO's. From headline news organizations to mothers across the web, concerned about the general health of their family, many people have an opinion either for or against the labeling of foods which contain genetically-modified ingredients. (GMO is short for Genetically Modified Organism.) But while there's a strong back and forth about that issue, I was shocked to find out how little I actually knew about labels in another huge part of our diet: meats, poultry, and dairy products.

I thought perhaps it was just me in the dark about what these labels truly meant, but after some chatter on my Instagram account, it appears that a lot of us aren't entirely clear on the differences between "cage-free" eggs vs. "pastured" eggs, just to give an example. I've been doing a little, scratch that, a lot of research the past few weeks now, trying to decipher what the difference really is between all these labels, and what it means for me the consumer, and the animal, and how it all relates to the health of my family, the animals, and the environment. Keep reading to find out just what all these different labels actually mean, so that you can be an informed consumer and know just how you're spending your grocery money.

1. Certified Organic
Certified organic means something slightly different for each animal involved, but the label does agree on one thing, the feed and methods of raising for each animal. Let's first look at poultry and eggs, in terms of the certified organic label.

According to the USDA, for poultry, the birds must be raised organically no later than two days after they hatch. They must be fed certified organic feed for their entire lives, and the organic feed cannot contain animal by-products, antibiotics, or genetically engineered grains, and cannot be grown using persistent pesticides or chemical fertilizers. It is prohibited to give drugs, antibiotics, and hormones to organic birds, and all birds must have outdoor access, however, the amount, duration, and quality is undefined. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted, however, compliance is verified through third-party auditing.

For cattle, pigs, sheep and goat, the animals must be allowed outdoor access, and must be raised organically on certified organic pastures, and fed certified organic feed for their entire lives. Animals must be provided with bedding materials and must have year-round outdoor access. No drugs, antibiotics, or growth hormones are allowed, and compliance is verified through third-party auditing.

While certified organic doesn't necessarily speak to animal welfare, for consumers, you can be assured that the animals were not pumped with antibiotics or hormones, and were fed an organic, vegetarian diet, free of added antibiotics or animal by-products via the slaughter process. There is also a paper trail, and audits and inspections via a third party, therefore they tend to be considered safer for the consumer.

While some of these issues to consider may be unpleasant, more and more consumers are starting to grow concerned and interested with where their food comes from and how it was raised. By knowing the different meanings of these labels, it also helps you make better informed decisions on where and how you spend your money at the grocery store. Read on to see a step above certified organic.

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2. No Added Antibiotics

I see this label all over the place, and wonder what does it truly mean? And is "no added antibiotics" the same as "not treated with antibiotics?" It's all very consuming, especially when there is no universally used label or verbiage.

Here's the skinny on the antibiotic labeling. Under USDA regulations, meat and poultry products can be labeled as "no antibiotics added" if documentation is provided showing that the animals were raised without antibiotics. Similar labeling terms approved by the USDA are "no antibiotics ever," "no added antibiotics" and "raised without the use of antibiotics." However, the term "antibiotic-free" isn't USDA approved. It is permissible for an animal to be treated with antibiotics under this labeling, if needed to prevent or treat a disease. An antibiotic withdrawal period is generally required though. What does that generally mean? You'll often find this labeling on organic products.

More than anything, this seems like an added label to help the consumer feel better and safer buying this product.

3. Grass Fed
Grass fed beef is growing in popularity and popping up all over, from Paleo and Crossfit websites touting their nutritional superiority, to small family farms proudly raising pastured, grass-fed beef and lamb. What exactly does it mean though, and is it better for us, and worth the double to triple price tag?

By USDA regulations, grass-fed animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life, while organic animals' pasture diet may be supplemented with grain. These animals have access to the outdoors and are able to engage in some natural behaviors, such as grazing, and they must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.

Also USDA regulated, the grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. Meat products may be labeled as grass-fed organic. Therefore if you are concerned about hormones and antibiotics in your meat, you should seek out grass-fed organic products, not solely grass-fed, since antibiotics or hormones may have been used.

4. Natural, Certified Humane, Chemical Free & Other Pesky Labels
So what about all those other labels you may see plastered all over your animal products? The other day I noticed a brand of eggs were riddled with various labels and read, "organic, cage-free, humanely raised, vegetarian fed, no antibiotics ever, eggs." Wow, that's a mouthful! So do all these extra add-on labels really mean anything? You decide.

Natural: As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as "natural" must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices, and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. Since the food is still processed, just how natural is it? It really just means no artificial ingredients, but shouldn't our meat not have artificial ingredients anyhow?

Humane: Multiple labeling programs make claims that animals were treated humanely during the production cycle, but the verification of these claims varies widely. These labeling programs are not regulated under a single USDA definition.

Hormone Free: Under USDA regulations, this term isn't allowed on meat products. Beef may be labeled as "no hormones administered" if producers document that the animals were raised without hormones. Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in the raising of poultry, hogs, veal calves, or exotic animals not subject to USDA inspection, such as bison. Therefore, claims of "no hormones added" can't be used on labels for these products unless the label also states, "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."

Chemical Free: Under USDA regulations, this term isn't allowed on meat or poultry labels, so if you see it, be cautious about its meaning. Similarly federal regulations don't allow the terms "residue-free," "residue tested," "naturally raised," "naturally grown" or "drug-free."

Naturally Raised: Livestock have been raised entirely without growth promotants and antibiotics (except for parasite control), and that they have never been fed animal byproducts derived from the slaughter or harvest processes. It's a voluntary marketing claim and has no claim to animal welfare. It seems that the consumer should, overall, be leery of labels with any of these claims since in the end, they don't really carry significant meaning.

- By Andrea Howe

For 3 more must-know terms to learn on meat and poultry labels, visit Babble!

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