Meat and Poultry Labels and Claims: Part 1

by Charles Platkin, PhD

I was passing the meat counter in the supermarket the other day, and the butcher was telling one of the customers, with pride, that the market had just started selling chickens that were free-range and had not been given any hormones. Well, that sounded great. Having confidence in the foods we’re about to consume is important. But what do free- range, hormone-free and all those other terms really mean when it comes to meat and ? Here’s a guide, as the first of a two-part series.


What it implies: That no antibiotics (drugs used to kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria in people and animals) were used in raising the animal.

What it means: There are basically two methods for using antibiotics in raising animals. The first is called “subtherapeutic,” meaning that low levels of antibiotics are mixed with the feed, even if the animals are not sick. This is supposed to promote animal growth and prevent disease. In fact, according to Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., an environmental scientist at the nonprofit research group Consumers Union, up to 70 percent of all antibiotics have been estimated to go into the daily feeding of animals in this country. “Some antibiotics are fed to cattle to alter the balance of bacteria in the stomach or rumen in order to favor the presence of bacteria that assist in the digestion of corn and improve animal efficiency,” says Karen Killinger-Mann, Ph.D., a consumer -safety specialist at Washington State University.

The other reason antibiotics (“therapeutic”) are used in raising animal is if the animals are sick. Normally, if one animal in the herd gets sick, the entire herd is treated as a prophylactic measure. Organic farmers, however, can treat only that one animal and must remove it from organic production, says Rangan.

While the phrases “no antibiotics administered” and “raised without antibiotics” are allowed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture prohibits the labeling of any meat product with the term “antibiotic free.” The term “no antibiotics added” may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics. There is also a question about whether poultry treated with other antimicrobials, such as ionophores (antibiotics used in animals but not in humans), could still be labeled “no antibiotics added.”

Verification: None. The USDA is technically responsible, but there is no system currently in place to check the validity of such claims — so while the labels are specific and, therefore, somewhat meaningful, without verification these general claims provide assurance only up to a point.

The real story: Rangan says that the legally allowable amounts of antibiotic residues in meat are not the primary concern in terms of harm to our health. But the fact that farmers are boosting animal growth by giving them these “low levels” of antibiotics all the time may be contributing to an increase in the number of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, which is a serious public health problem. Some strains of the bacteria salmonella, campylobacter and E.coli 0157:h7 are already resistant to several types of antibiotics — which means that if humans contract infections of these resistant strains, typical antibiotics will be less likely to cure them.


What it implies: No growth hormones (chemicals used to increase the size of the animal) were used in raising the animal.

What it means: Pork or poultry: The USDA does not allow hormones in pork or poultry production. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” cannot be used on the label unless it is followed by a statement that says, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” However, those regulations are not always followed. Consumers should not pay extra for pork or poultry products, including eggs, boasting this claim.

Beef: The term “no hormones administered” indicates that the animal was not given any added hormones over the course of its lifetime. It may be approved for use on the labels of beef products with sufficient documentation provided to the USDA by the producer.

Verification: None. Companies that make and market products labeled “no hormones” are the only organizations responsible for adhering to the claim. They are accountable to the USDA’s standards for the “no hormones” label, but there is no system in place to verify the claims.

The real story: Cattle that are not rushed to grow using hormones are often raised on pastures and live low-stress lives. As a result of their superb nutrition and lack of stress, they are healthier. When you choose products from pastured animals, you are the food that nature intended. However, the “no hormones” claim does not guarantee that the cattle were raised in a pasture.


What it implies: That the animal had not been given any of the approximately 2,800 substances termed “food additives” (natural or artificial), including salt, sugar and corn syrup, which are by far the most widely used additives in this country, according to the USDA.

What it means: “Food additive” is defined by the Food and Drug Administration as any substance used to provide a technical effect in foods. Additives are used for flavor and appeal, food preparation and processing, freshness and safety. They include agents such as coloring, preservatives and flavorings (including salt). “No additives” means that the cut of meat or poultry itself has not been enhanced with any natural or artificial ingredients. It has nothing to do with how the animals were raised or what they ate, including antibiotics or anything else.

Verification: None. The USDA and FDA share authority over the approval of additives in meat and poultry, but there is no standard guidance or verification for manufacturers using the “no additives” label. And even though the agencies may take action if meat or poultry is misbranded, since there is no formal definition, it would be difficult to enforce. This means that there is no official word on determining standards for foods without additives. To view commonly used meat and poultry additives and terms, check out this USDA article.

The real story: According to Rangan, even if the claim is truthful, it is not meaningful, because most people think it has to do with how the animals were raised.


What it implies: That the animal was raised and produced without antibiotics, additives or pesticides.

What it means: Unfortunately, no one has really decided. You might be surprised to learn that “no chemicals added” is not a term regulated by the USDA, and no government body has proposed a solid definition. However, the USDA does prohibit the use of the term “chemical-free” on both meat and poultry.

Verification: None.

The real story: Since there’s no government definition, this label doesn’t really help you at all. Antibiotics, pesticides and additives are not legally classified as chemicals; so, presumably, they could be added by a manufacturer using this label. According to Rangan, when the label or producer defines what they mean by “no chemicals” — for example, listing no antibiotics, no pesticides, no hormones — at least there is some level of clarity. But merely stating “no chemicals” on a label is meaningless because the term chemical doesn’t mean anything.

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