Meat and Poultry Labels and Claims: Part 2

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Claims on and labels are confusing, and trying to determine if they actually have value is even more confusing. After working on this column, I walked into a local supermarket and asked for organic chicken. The butcher handed me a package that said “” and “Certified Humane,” but nothing about its being organic — yet he insisted it was organic.

The following is designed to help you better determine how the animals you’re eating were raised, what they’ve been fed and how they’ve been cared for.

What it implies: These terms on the label suggest that the poultry had access to the outdoors — to roam around, eat natural foods and live a normal life.

What it means: Here’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of these terms in its entirety: “Producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” In other words, there has to be a door, and it has to be open at least part of the time, providing optional access to the outdoors each day (free range) — no time period, no standards of outdoor conditions, no restrictions.

Verification: None.

The real story: This label turns out to be one of the least helpful for educating consumers about their poultry purchases. Not only is there no current system in place to verify the claim, but the claim itself doesn’t have a clear definition — meaning that even if there were a verification system, there isn’t an accepted set of standards farmers must meet. According to the definition, “free range” means that the chickens have had daily access to the outdoors. While that sounds pretty good, it actually means very little: The coop door can be open for even just a few minutes a day, and if the bird doesn’t go outside (or is returned to the coop after a minute or two), the term “free range” still applies, says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., a senior scientist and policy analyst at the nonprofit Consumers Union. You can open the door on a coop filled with thousands of chickens and then close it, and even if no chickens go outside, you can use the free-range label.

What it implies: That the animals were treated in a humane manner.

What it means: Both certified labels or stamps (which are trademarked) require that livestock have access to clean and sufficient and water, proper protection from the weather and adequate space to move around naturally, and that their environment is not dangerous to their health; managers and caretakers must also be thoroughly trained in the humane treatment of animals. ( and

Verification: Yes. According to Rangan, “These are some of the most credible labels.”

There is a serious process that shows the animals are treated properly. There is an extensive application process and yearly on-site assessments that include interviews with staff and detailed inspections. The “Free-Farmed” label on poultry and meat indicates that the American Humane Association has verified that the animals had access to clean water and food and that no antibiotics were used for growth promotion. “Free-Farmed” uses an independent inspection company, while “Certified Humane” relies on individual inspectors who are trained in sustainable animal-management systems. Both labels occasionally use the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service Livestock and Seed Program as alternative inspection services. Both require an initial inspection and annual recertification.

The real story: Treating animals in a humane fashion can help prevent disease and the spread of infection, resulting in healthier food. You have to be even cleaner about raising these animals, says Rangan. But keep in mind, free-farmed and certified humane do NOT mean organic. For instance, if pregnant sows are put into a crate where they can’t move or turn around, that issue is addressed in the humane/free-farmed category but not in terms of the meat being organic. You can see both labels or one or the other, but one does not mean the other. If you see organic in conjunction with certified humane or free-farmed — that means it’s actually verified, and you can trust it.

What it implies: That the animal was raised roaming the fields and hills eating grass and hay — basically pasture-raised.

What it means: The terms vary and may include “grass-fed,” “grass-fed, grain supplemented,” “pastured” and “pasture-raised.” But “grass-fed” does not necessarily mean “pasture-raised,” and consumers should check with the producer or company to get more information. Grass is a low-starch, high-protein, natural-based, fibrous food, as opposed to carbohydrate-rich, low-fiber corn and soybeans. When cattle are 100 percent grass-fed, they usually have higher levels of omega 3s, vitamins A and E and conjugated linoleic acid (a good fat and potential cancer fighter), and lower levels of saturated fat. The USDA recently issued a proposed standard for what “grass-fed” must mean on meat (but not poultry) products: The animals’ diets consisted of at least 99 percent grass over their lifetimes. Until these standards are finalized, consumers should look for the 100 percent, grass-fed label, especially in terms of nutritive benefits.

Verification: None, although once the USDA standards are in place, producers can seek an additional USDA “Process Verified Program” label, which, in conjunction with the claim, will mean that the product has been verified to meet the standard.

The real story: Good standards on how much grass a “grass-fed” animal must eat are in the works, says Rangan. The downside is they’re limited to meat, not poultry or even milk. And while “100% Grass-Fed” isn’t verified, it’s still a specific enough claim to be enforceable under truth in labeling laws, she adds. However, the USDA does not currently regulate or recognize these terms, and their intended meaning is very vague. While “grass-fed” implies that the animals are fed grass and hay, they are not necessarily “pasture-raised” and vice versa. (For example, although it’s not a regular practice, a grass-fed animal can be kept indoors and fed clipped grass.) Also, there is no way to know how much grass and how much grain a “grass-fed, grain-supplemented” animal receives. Following are the voluntary guidelines currently being proposed by the USDA: “Grass (Forage) Fed: Grass (annual and perennial), forbs (legumes, brassicas), browse, forage, or stockpiled forages, and post-harvest crop residue without separated grain shall be at least 99 percent of the energy source for the lifetime of the ruminant species, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. Routine vitamin and mineral supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen.” For more about grass-fed cattle, go to, which lists approximately 800 grass-fed beef ranches.

What it implies: That it is wholesome and natural.

What it means: “Certified organic” means the animals were raised on a diet of 100 percent organic feed. No growth hormones can be administered, and no animal byproducts can constitute any part of the feed. It also means that the animals were raised without the use of most synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, antibiotics, genetic engineering, irradiation, sewage sludge or artificial ingredients. Additionally, all animals must be raised with continuous access to the outdoors, although problems of lax regulation and enforcement of this requirement exist for poultry and dairy animals.

Verification: Yes.

The real story: The organic labels are actually among the most meaningful on meat and poultry. Farmers must receive certification from an organic certifier (there are nearly 100 certifiers in the United States alone) who has been approved by the USDA and verifies that the standards set by the USDA have been met. When buying meat, the situation is pretty straightforward.

Bottom line: “If you want to purchase a product that is more natural, presumably the organic animals are among those that have been raised as close to nature as possible, and that’s what people expect,” says Rangan. “You cannot, however, assume that organic poultry or dairy animals have had continuous access to pasture or outdoors, although you can be reasonably certain that organic animals raised for meat have had access to and were outdoors for a significant portion of their lives.”


What it implies: Right from the farm, and as close to nature as possible.

What it means: In terms of meat and poultry, which are regulated by the USDA, the term “fresh” can only be used on foods that have never reached temperatures below 26 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite the fact that this is below freezing, the USDA has stated that the product still remains “fresh” and pliable at this temperature. “The freezing temperature of muscle tissue is approximately 26 degrees Fahrenheit, below the freezing temperature of water, so the standard for ‘fresh’ was set at the freezing temperature for meat,” adds Karen Killinger-Mann, Ph.D., a consumer food safety specialist at Washington State University.

According to the USDA, the term “natural” means that the meat or poultry product does not contain ingredients, colors or preservatives considered artificial and not natural to the product. It has nothing to do with how the animal was raised or what it ate.

Don’t confuse the term “natural” with “organic.” They’re not interchangeable. Natural foods are typically made without additives or preservatives, but they may still contain chemicals, pesticides or genetically engineered components. Certified organic food has few of these things, and most of the synthetic ingredients, if used, have been reviewed and approved for use.

Verification: None. The only organization behind this claim is the company that produces or markets the food.

The real story: Since there’s no hard and fast definition and no verification system in place, this label means very little. While some marketers use the term “natural” hoping to imply that the animal has not been exposed to hormones or pesticides, the USDA’s definition of “natural” does not prohibit such practices, and the label is not a reliable way of determining what went into the meat.

Note: If you’re looking for food from “healthier” animals, check out The Eat Well Guide, a free Web site that provides lists of “sustainably-raised” meat, poultry, dairy and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns and hotels and online outlets in the United States and Canada:

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