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Meat Labels And What They Mean

Submitted by Kim Allison
Posted on 11 Apr, 2016

Meat Labels And What They Mean

Figuring out meat labels is like trying to decipher your IRS tax form. This is because meat labels are issued and monitored by different non-profits and government agencies. To help you get around the confusion, we’ve put together this nifty list of common terms.


Found on beef, lamb, and goat products only.
(You sometimes see this label on chickens and pork, which is ridiculous because they don’t eat grass.)

Grass-fed animals eat grass or hay for all or most of their lives, either on pasture or indoors.
(Factory farmed animals eat grain for most of their lives — a food they did not evolve to eat).

Some farms and food companies call their meat grass-fed even if the animals were fed grain during the last few months or weeks of their lives (this is called grain-finishing). If you want 100% grass-fed meat, look for that 100% number on packaging, or look for the AGA or AWA grass-fed certification label.

To use this label, farms and food companies of a certain size must have their farm practices verified by the USDA or the American Grass Fed Association. Both programs make annual farm visits and require animals to graze live pasture during the growing season. The American Grass Fed Association has its own label and has more detailed criteria than the USDA.

How grass-based farming can benefit animals:

  • Cows, sheep and goats (ruminants) evolved to eat grass. When an animal eats what it was meant to eat, there’s less of a chance it will develop digestive problems and disease. Grain, unfortunately, creates an acidic environment in ruminants’ stomachs, often leading to digestive troubles and the need for antibiotic treatment.
  • Grass-fed animals tend to be kept on pasture for the grazing season, allowing them to roam freely and engage in natural behaviors with other members of their species.



Found on all types of meat.

Pasture-raised animals live primarily on fields or in woods, where they eat grass, plants, or shrubs.
That said, farmers might add grain to the diet of pasture-raised animals during the winter, when pastures are covered with snow and animals are brought inside. And pigs and chickens raised on pasture need at least some grain to thrive.

To use the Pasture-Raised label, farms and food companies must have their farm practices verified by the USDA. They send the USDA a written description of their animal production practices, and the agency determines whether a pasture-raised label can be used (there are no farm visits). Animals must be raised outdoors for a ‘significant’ portion of their lives and must never be confined in a feedlot.

There is no regulated description of what "pasture" looks like or how much vegetation should be growing.

How pasture-based farming can benefit animals:

  • Animals on pasture have room to roam, fresh air and sunshine, and the company of other animals.
  • Pastured animals are eating what they bodies evolved to eat, lessening the chance of illness.
  • If a farmer is managing her grassland well, the chance of parasites and other health problems for animals is reduced.
  • Pasturing is experiencing a rennaissance in America and there’s lots of info about how it benefits animals.



Found almost exclusively on poultry products.

Free-range poultry are raised in barns and given access to the outdoors. How much time they actually spend outdoors, and whether the outdoor area is vegetated or bare ground, varies from farm to farm.

Indoor conditions might also vary; facilities might be crowded, or lack perches or nest boxes. You can’t be sure how a farm or company defines "free-range" unless you ask.

To use the Free-Range label, farms and food companies of a certain size must have their farm practices verified by the USDA. They send the USDA a written description of their farm, and the agency determines whether a free-range label can be used (there are no farm visits). Animals must have continuous access to the outdoors for more than 51% of their lives. The label cannot be used if animals are continually confined indoors. except during colder months.

How free-range systems can benefit animals:

  • Indoor poultry that are let outside now and then may have more access to fresh air and roaming space than indoor-only birds.
  • If given access to well-managed pasture, free-range poultry can eat the seeds, worms, bugs and vegetation they evolved to eat.


Certified Humane

Found on all types of meat.

A "humane certifier" is an organization that visits farms at least annually to make sure they’re following the organization’s detailed animal care standards. If a farm or company passes the audit, it’s officially certified and can use the organization’s label on its products.

There are four humane certifiers in the U.S.; you can look for their labels when you shop. Just keep in mind that each humane certifier has their own standard, and be aware that many small-scale farmers choose not to get humane certification.

How humane certification can benefit animals:

  • Humane certifiers have requirements about how much space an animal gets, how often it should be outdoors, what physical procedures can be done to it, how offspring should be raised and so on.
  • Standards are often based on scientific evidence about animal welfare, though scientific opinions do differ.
  • Humane certifiers make their standards public. By contrast, food companies that say they use "internal audits" to check on their farms might keep their standards private.
  • Some food certification programs (such as the American Grass-Fed Association) have animal care clauses in their standards, but animal welfare is not their main focus.



Found on all types of meat.

The USDA has federal organic standards in place that farmers must follow if they want to be certified organic. (Remember, some organic farmers choose not to be certified, because of the cost of certification.)

To become certified organic, a farm must be visited at least annually by a representative of a local organization or governmental agency that has been authorized by the USDA to audit farms to make sure they’re following the federal organic standards.

Organic meats are verified to derive from cattle that are fed 100% organic feed, not administered antibiotics or hormones, and given year-round access to the outdoors. Specifically, they must graze on pasture for 120 days of the grazing season and receive 30% of their dry matter intake from grazed organic pasture.

How organic farming systems can benefit animals:

  • All certified organic animals must have access to the outdoors, though for how long and how often is not specified. Cows, sheep, and goats must have access to pasture during the grazing season. Pigs and poultry aren’t required to have pasture, only access to an outdoor area.
  • Certified organic farms must ensure that living conditions allow animals to express natural behaviors, but there is no federal definition of “natural behaviors” and no exact space requirements.
  • Because certified organic farmers are banned from treating their animals with certain conventional medicines, they must take more care to prevent animal illness and disease before it happens.
  • Regulations on the handling, transport and slaughter of certified organic animals have been developed by the National Organic Standards Board.



There is currently no nationwide organization or governmental entity that oversees or verifies the use of the “local” label on meat products. Some states have their own definition of "local" as being within their state or within a certain mileage of their state.

"Local" offers no information about how the animals were raised.


Final Note

Many farmers use the above labels without registering their label with the USDA. You have to trust your farmer or visit their farm to determine if they truly practice what they claim.

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