Decoding Meat Labels: What Do They Really Mean?
Grass-fed? Organic? Natural? Certified Humane? Make sense of the meat counter with this guide to meat labels.
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Q: Eating meat is an important part of my therapeutic diet to keep my blood sugar and energy levels steady. But I want to seek out clean meat from animals that are raised humanely and aren’t fed GMOs or pesticide-laden feed. What should I look for on the label?
You aren’t alone. More and more people are trying to avoid conventional meat produced from animals that are fattened up on genetically modified feed in crowded, confined conditions. Instead, they are seeking out meat from animals raised on pasture. Grass is what animals, including cattle, bison, goats, and sheep, ate more than 100 years ago: It’s healthiest for the animals, for the environment, and for the people who eat the meat. But it’s not always easy to identify healthier meat options. Label claims and seals can be deceptive, and it’s difficult for shoppers to know which claims have a meaningful definition behind them and adhere to standards that meet their expectations.
“Natural” Means Next to Nothing
Take, for example, “Natural.” Many people seek meat that has this term on the package because they assume it’s free of pesticides, genetically modified ingredients, and/or antibiotics. But that isn’t necessarily the case. According to USDA regulations, the term “natural” may be used on labeling for meat products if the product is minimally processed and doesn’t contain artificial ingredients, coloring ingredients, or chemical preservatives. “Natural” gives no information about what type of feed the animals ate or the living conditions in which they were raised.
Related: How to Read An Egg Carton
The Most Important Labels & Claims
So, what terms carry weight when looking for better-for-you types of meat? Here’s what to look for, according to Consumer Reports’ Guide to Food Labels:
American Grassfed Seal (americangrassfed.org)
This seal, which is awarded by the nonprofit American Grassfed Association, is found only on meat from ruminant meat animals—goat, cattle, bison, lamb, and sheep. It means:
- Animals are fed only grass and forage (no grain), from birth to harvest.
- Farms are inspected every fifteen months.
- The animals aren’t given antibiotics or growth-promoting drugs, including hormones.
- Farmers can’t feed the animals genetically modified (GMO) crops, and they can use synthetic pesticides on pasture only as a last resort.
- Standards include some protections for animal welfare, such as providing animals with shade and shelter.
Animal Welfare Approved Seal (agreenerworld.org)
The standards for this seal, which are set by A Greener World, address concerns consumers have about animal welfare, including:
- Animals are raised on pasture-based family farms and are treated humanely at all times.
- Farmers must provide living conditions that allow animals to engage in their natural behaviors, as well as outdoor access and freedom of movement.
- Growth-promoting drugs and using antibiotics for disease prevention are prohibited.
Certified Humane Seal (certifiedhumane.org)
This seal is overseen by the nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care organization. Like Animal Welfare Approved, the standards for Certified Humane address the majority of the expectations consumers have for a “humane” claim, but unlike Animal Welfare Approved, under Certified Humane, outdoor access isn’t mandatory for all animals: i.e., beef cattle don’t have to be raised on a pasture. This seal means:
- Farmers must provide living conditions that allow animals to move freely and engage in their natural behaviors.
- Farmers must treat animals compassionately at all times.
Non-GMO Project Verified Label (nongmoproject.org)
This seal is awarded by the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization that tests for at-risk ingredients so consumers can avoid genetically modified foods. When it comes to meat, this means:
• Meat, milk, chicken, or eggs with the label come from animals that have been fed Non-GMO Project Verified feed.
- The only focus of the program is GMO avoidance.
- A product could meet the standards of GMO avoidance but still come from animals that were given feed that has been sprayed with synthetic chemical pesticides or from animals that haven’t been treated humanely.
USDA Organic Label (usda.gov)
By federal law, foods that carry the USDA Organic seal must meet Department of Agriculture standards regarding how farm animals are raised and what they are fed. Under the standards:
- Organic livestock must be produced without genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge.
- Farmers must maintain or improve soil and water quality.
- Farmers must feed animals 100 percent organic feed. They are prohibited from feeding animals GMO feed or feed that has been sprayed with most pesticides and from using antibiotics and growth hormones in farm animals.
- Annual on-farm inspections are required. However, animal welfare requirements tend to be weak, according to Consumer Reports.
Select the Claims that Are Most Important to You
In the end, it really comes down to what is most important to you. The seals that let you know about the kind of feed the animals were given are American Grassfed, Non-GMO Project Verified, and USDA Organic. The seals related to raising animals humanely are American Grassfed, Animal Welfare Approved, and Certified Humane. Some products have a combination of these.
Related: Slow-Cooked Cherry Beef with Winter Squash
Grassfed Meat: The Grass Is Definitely Greener!
Compared with feedlot meat, meat from 100% grass-fed beef, bison, sheep, lamb, and goats is considerably more nutritious. It has less total fat and fewer calories while featuring more vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and healthy fats—including anti-inflammatory omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has fat-burning properties.
Some studies suggest that opting for grass-fed meat also may lower the risk of foodborne illnesses, such as infection from campylobacter and E. coli. And there’s another benefit: Not using grain in meat production helps the environment in numerous ways. It eliminates herbicides and fertilizers used to grow corn fed to cattle, and eliminates the oil and gas used in machinery to harvest grain and in vehicles that ship grain to the animals.