To Your Health

Demystifying Meat Labeling

Do you know the difference between grassfed and free-range?

Demystifying Meat Labeling
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It can be dizzying to keep up with the labeling of farm-raised meat and poultry today. Terms like natural, free-range, organic, grass-fed, heritage are found on restaurant menus and at grocery stores and butcher counters in most cities. The government has half-heartedly regulated the industry and left the onus on the consumer to read the fine print. If you want to know about the beef tenderloin you bought, how do you interpret the terms?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are the official governing bodies legally certifying meat and poultry in the United States. Because there are some loopholes in the way the labels are defined, independent organizations such as Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), Certified Organic, The American Grassfed Association (AGA), and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have provided standards for farmers who are committed to more stringent sustainable and humane principles. AWA publishes Food Labels for Dummies which is a comprehensive glossary of food labels and practices in the meat industry. (

Below are some of the more commonly used labels for meat and poultry:

Demeter Certified is a third-party certification by the biodynamic food industry. Considered to be the highest level of certification, it requires producers to be certified organic for three years before even qualifying for the Demeter stamp of approval. For more on biodynamic farming, click here. Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, N.Y., is a Demeter-certified farm. ( They sell their meat only at farmers’ markets in the New York area.

Free-Range and Free-Roaming are terms defined and regulated by the USDA for poultry only. To qualify, producers must give animals outdoor access, although it isn’t specified whether this must be a pasture or if a dirt lot will do. And there are no regulations to determine for how long the animals must stay outdoors. Fast-food chain Burger King announced in April 2012 it would start using free-range chicken in their restaurants, vowing to complete the process by 2017. It is questionable whether this would result in any significant health value for the consumer.

Global Animal Partnership (GAP) is a non-profit, third-party-operated organization founded by Whole Foods to establish a strict five-step standard for beef cattle, pigs, broiler chickens, and turkeys. Whole Foods just finished a two-year pilot program and GAP is planning to certify other retailers as well. ( Look for the label in Whole Food stores in the coming year with an accompanying explanation of what each step means.

Grassfed is a USDA-defined diet for cattle, sheep, goats, and bison. It does not indicate whether the animal has been allowed free range (pastured) or if it has been raised in a feedlot and /or given antibiotics or hormones. Grassfed is a term also independently certified by the AGA for meat from animals on a 100 percent foraged diet (raised on a pasture with no confinement, antibiotics, or added hormones). The best way to ensure that a product is truly grassfed is to speak with the rancher or farmer who raised the animal or go to the AWA website for a comprehensive listing of farmers, restaurants, stores, coops and caterers who carry this type of certified meat.


Image of chicken via Shutterstock