How To Decode Meat And Poultry Labels?

If you’ve ever stood in front of the meat and poultry section at the grocery store and felt overwhelmed by the array of labels and claims, you’re not alone. Understanding the information on meat and poultry labels can be like deciphering a secret code. From terms like grass-fed and organic to antibiotic-free and free-range, it can be challenging to navigate through the jargon and make informed choices about the meat and poultry you buy. In this article, we will decode these labels and provide you with the knowledge you need to confidently select the right meat and poultry products for you and your family.

Table of Contents

Understanding Labeling Terms

Organic

When it comes to meat and poultry, the term “organic” refers to animals that have been raised following specific guidelines. These guidelines include being fed organic feed, having access to the outdoors, and not being treated with antibiotics or hormones. Organic meat and poultry are produced without the use of synthetic pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), making them a popular choice for those looking for a more natural and sustainable option.

Grass-fed

The term “grass-fed” indicates that the animals have been raised on a diet primarily consisting of grass and forage, rather than grains. Grass-fed animals typically have access to pasture throughout their lives and are not fed any animal by-products. This method of raising animals promotes more natural grazing behaviors and can result in meat that is lower in overall fat content and higher in certain beneficial nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids.

Free-range

The term “free-range” refers to animals that have been given access to the outdoors, allowing them to roam and exhibit natural behaviors. Free-range animals have more space to move around compared to animals raised in confined spaces. However, it’s important to note that the specific requirements for free-range labeling can vary, and it’s always a good idea to do some research to understand the specific practices of the producer.

Antibiotic-free

The term “antibiotic-free” indicates that the animals have not been treated with antibiotics during their lifetime. This is important for those who are concerned about the excessive use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, which can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Choosing antibiotic-free meat and poultry ensures that you are supporting producers who prioritize responsible antibiotic use.

No hormones added

The label “no hormones added” means that no hormones have been given to the animals to promote growth. It’s important to note that the use of hormones in poultry and pork production is already prohibited by law in the United States. However, hormones can still be used in beef production, but only in certain circumstances and under strict regulations. Choosing meat and poultry with this label assures that you are consuming products that have not been artificially supplemented with hormones.

Natural

The term “natural” on meat and poultry labels can be confusing as it doesn’t have a standardized definition. Generally, it means that the product has undergone minimal processing and contains no artificial additives or preservatives. However, this term does not guarantee that the animal was raised in a specific manner, such as being organic, free-range, or grass-fed. It’s always a good idea to look for additional certifications or information to better understand the specific practices behind the “natural” label.

Certified humane

When you see the “certified humane” label, it means that the animals were raised and handled in accordance with strict animal welfare guidelines. These guidelines cover various aspects of animal care, including housing conditions, feed quality, and environmental enrichment. Certified humane products come from producers who prioritize the well-being and humane treatment of their animals.

Pasture-raised

The term “pasture-raised” refers to animals that have been raised on pasture, with access to fresh grass and other forage crops. This system allows animals to freely roam and engage in natural behaviors, promoting overall animal welfare. Pasture-raised animals have a more varied diet, which can result in meat and poultry that is richer in certain nutrients and has a distinct flavor profile compared to conventionally raised animals.

No nitrate/nitrites added

When a product claims to have “no nitrate/nitrites added,” it means that these compounds were not used as curing agents during the manufacturing process. Nitrate and nitrite are commonly used in the preservation of processed meats to inhibit bacterial growth and provide the characteristic pink color. Some studies suggest potential health risks associated with high consumption of nitrate and nitrite, so this labeling option can be appealing to those looking to limit their intake of these additives.

Kosher

The term “kosher” refers to food that is prepared according to Jewish dietary laws. In the context of meat and poultry, kosher certification ensures that the animals have been slaughtered and processed in accordance with these dietary laws. This certification is important for those who follow kosher dietary restrictions or prefer products that meet specific religious standards.

Knowing Certification Labels

USDA Organic

The USDA Organic label is one of the most widely recognized and regulated certifications for organic products in the United States. To be certified organic, farms must meet strict guidelines regarding soil quality, pest and weed control, and livestock management. Look for the USDA Organic seal to ensure that the meat or poultry you’re buying has met these rigorous standards.

American Grassfed Association

The American Grassfed Association (AGA) certification ensures that the meat or poultry you’re purchasing comes from animals that have been exclusively grass-fed and raised on pasture. This certification guarantees that the animals have not been confined to feedlots and have enjoyed a natural grazing diet. Look for the AGA logo to support producers who prioritize sustainable and environmentally friendly practices.

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Global Animal Partnership

The Global Animal Partnership (GAP) certification focuses on improving animal welfare in farming operations. The certification has a tiered system, ranging from Step 1 to Step 5+, with each step indicating increasing levels of animal welfare and environmental sustainability. The GAP certification provides transparency about the specific practices used in raising animals and allows consumers to make informed choices about the products they purchase.

Animal Welfare Approved

Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) is a certification that ensures animals have been raised on farms that meet rigorous animal welfare standards. This certification focuses on providing animals with a high quality of life, emphasizing factors such as pasture-based farming, ample space, and access to the outdoors. Look for the AWA label to support producers who prioritize the well-being of their animals.

Certified Humane

The Certified Humane label is another certification that focuses on high animal welfare standards. This certification ensures that animals are raised on farms that prioritize the Five Freedoms, which include freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, injury or disease, fear and distress, and the freedom to express normal behavior. The Certified Humane label provides assurance that the meat or poultry you’re buying comes from producers who prioritize animal welfare.

Food Alliance Certified

Food Alliance Certified is a third-party certification that encompasses various aspects of sustainable farming practices, including environmental stewardship, safe and fair working conditions, and animal welfare. This certification takes a holistic approach to evaluating the entire farming operation and provides consumers with assurance that the products they’re purchasing meet comprehensive sustainability standards.

Non-GMO Project Verified

The Non-GMO Project Verified label indicates that a product does not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While the label itself does not specifically address animal raising practices, it can be reassuring for those who prioritize avoiding genetically modified feed in their meat and poultry. Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified label if GMOs are a concern for you.

Certified Gluten-Free

The Certified Gluten-Free label is important for individuals who have gluten intolerance or celiac disease. While it doesn’t directly relate to the raising of animals, it guarantees that the product has been tested and certified to be free of gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. This certification ensures that individuals with dietary restrictions can safely consume the meat or poultry products labeled as gluten-free.

Kosher Certification

Kosher certification ensures that the meat or poultry has been slaughtered and processed in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. The Kosher certification is important for those who follow kosher dietary restrictions or prefer products that meet specific religious standards. Look for the Kosher symbol to ensure that the product meets these requirements.

Halal Certification

Halal certification ensures that the meat or poultry has been prepared in accordance with Islamic dietary laws. This certification guarantees that the animals have been slaughtered and processed according to specific guidelines, making the product suitable for individuals following halal dietary restrictions. Look for the Halal symbol to identify products that meet these requirements.

Decoding Numbers and Codes

PLU Codes

PLU (Price Look-Up) codes are numeric codes used primarily in supermarkets to identify different types of produce. While they are not typically used for meat and poultry, they can be useful when purchasing certain packaged meat or poultry products. PLU codes can provide information regarding the specific variety or brand of the product, making it helpful for tracking down specific attributes or certifications.

UPC Codes

UPC (Universal Product Code) codes are unique barcodes used to identify individual products at the point of sale. These codes are scanned at the checkout and provide information such as the product’s manufacturer, brand, and price. While UPC codes do not necessarily contain specific information about the meat or poultry itself, they are important for inventory and pricing purposes.

Animal Identification Numbers (AIN)

Animal Identification Numbers (AIN) are unique identifiers assigned to individual animals in the United States. These numbers are primarily used for tracking purposes and can be useful in identifying the source or origin of a specific piece of meat or poultry. Consumers may not typically encounter AINs directly, but they play a crucial role in traceability and food safety systems.

Establishment Numbers

Establishment numbers, also known as meat plant numbers, are assigned to meat and poultry processing facilities by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). These numbers indicate that the facility has met the necessary requirements for handling and processing meat and poultry products. Establishment numbers can provide consumers with important information about the source and processing of the meat or poultry they are purchasing.

Country of Origin

The country of origin labeling (COOL) requirements specify that the country of origin must be indicated on meat and poultry products sold in the United States. This labeling allows consumers to make informed choices about the products they purchase, particularly when it comes to factors such as food safety regulations, animal welfare standards, and environmental considerations. Checking the country of origin labels can help you identify the source of the meat or poultry you’re buying.

Identifying Animal Raising Practices

Cage-free

Cage-free labeling typically applies to egg-laying hens, indicating that they have not been confined to cages throughout their lives. However, it’s important to note that the term “cage-free” does not guarantee that the hens have access to the outdoors or ample space to roam. If you prefer eggs from hens with more freedom and space, consider looking for additional labels such as “free-range” or “pasture-raised.”

Barn-raised

The term “barn-raised” generally refers to animals that have been raised indoors in barns or similar structures. While barn-raised animals may not have access to outdoor areas, they are typically provided with ample space to move around within the barn and exhibit natural behaviors. It’s always a good idea to research the specific practices used in barn-raised systems to ensure they align with your personal values.

Indoor/outdoor access

Some labels may indicate that animals have access to both indoor and outdoor areas. This means that the animals have the freedom to move between indoor environments and outdoor spaces, allowing them to engage in natural behaviors and experience fresh air and natural sunlight. If animal access to outdoor areas is an important factor for you, look for labels that specifically indicate outdoor access or pasture-raising.

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Pasture-raised vs Free-range

While both pasture-raised and free-range labels imply that animals have access to the outdoors, there are some differences between the two. Pasture-raised animals spend a significant portion of their lives outdoors on pasture, grazing on grass and forage. Free-range animals also have access to the outdoors but may spend less time on pasture, as they may roam in covered or shaded areas. If you prioritize animals having ample time on pasture, look for the pasture-raised label specifically.

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are large-scale farming operations where animals are raised in confinement. Typically, these operations involve intensive practices and high stocking densities. While CAFOs are criticized for their potential environmental and animal welfare concerns, it’s important to note that regulations and standards may vary by region. Understanding the use of CAFOs in your food system can help you make informed choices about the meat and poultry you consume.

Recognizing Feed and Diet Information

Non-GMO

The non-GMO label indicates that the animals have been fed a diet that does not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This label can be important for those who prefer to avoid GMOs due to concerns about genetic engineering or environmental impact. If you prioritize non-GMO feed for the animals you consume, look for products with this labeling.

Vegetarian-fed

The term “vegetarian-fed” refers to animals that have been raised on a diet free from animal by-products or other meat-based proteins. This labeling option can be appealing to individuals who prefer to support a vegetarian diet or those who have specific dietary restrictions. It’s worth noting that some animals, such as cows and sheep, have digestive systems designed to digest grass and could be considered vegetarian by nature.

Corn or grain-fed

Corn or grain-fed labeling indicates that the animals have been raised on a diet primarily consisting of corn or grains. This feeding method is common in conventional livestock operations, as grains provide a concentrated energy source for rapid growth. While this can result in well-marbled meat, some individuals may prefer alternatives such as grass-fed meat due to concerns about the environmental impact of grain production or the potential for antibiotic use in grain-fed systems.

Grass-fed vs Grain-fed

Grass-fed and grain-fed labeling represent two different feeding methods for animals. Grass-fed animals have been raised on a diet consisting primarily of grass and forage. This method promotes more natural grazing behaviors and can result in meat that is lower in overall fat content and higher in certain beneficial nutrients. In contrast, grain-fed animals have been primarily fed corn or grains to promote rapid growth and marbling. The choice between grass-fed and grain-fed ultimately depends on personal preferences and priorities.

Omega-3 enriched

Omega-3 enriched labeling indicates that the animals have been fed a diet specifically formulated to increase their omega-3 fatty acid content. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients known for their potential health benefits, such as reducing inflammation and supporting heart health. This labeling option can be appealing to those looking to increase their intake of omega-3 fatty acids through the meat or poultry they consume.

Understanding Antibiotics and Hormones

No antibiotics ever

The label “no antibiotics ever” assures consumers that the animals have never been treated with antibiotics at any stage of their lives. The use of antibiotics in animal agriculture can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, making this labeling option important for those concerned about antibiotic overuse. Choosing products with the “no antibiotics ever” label supports producers who prioritize responsible antibiotic use and animal welfare.

Raised without antibiotics

The label “raised without antibiotics” indicates that the animals were not treated with antibiotics during their lifetime. This labeling option is slightly different from “no antibiotics ever” as it allows for the possibility of antibiotic use in the event of an animal falling ill but ensures that those animals are not included in the products bearing this label. Choosing products with this label still supports responsible antibiotic use and promotes animal welfare.

No added hormones

The “no added hormones” label means that no hormones were intentionally added to the animals during their growth. While hormones can be used in beef production under certain circumstances and regulations, hormone use in poultry and pork production is already prohibited by law in the United States. Choosing meat and poultry labeled as “no added hormones” ensures you are consuming products that have not been artificially supplemented with hormones.

Ractopamine-free

Ractopamine is a feed additive that is sometimes used in the production of pork and beef to promote lean muscle growth. The “ractopamine-free” label indicates that the animals were raised without being fed this additive. Some individuals may prefer to avoid ractopamine due to concerns about its potential impact on human health or the well-being of the animals. Choosing products labeled as “ractopamine-free” allows you to support producers who prioritize alternative methods of raising their animals.

Uncovering Meat Processing Techniques

Minimally processed

The term “minimally processed” refers to meat and poultry products that have undergone minimal changes, such as grinding, slicing, or portioning. Minimally processed products typically do not contain additives or ingredients beyond what is necessary for preservation or food safety. This labeling option can be appealing to those who prefer meat and poultry products in their most natural form.

Mechanically tenderized

Mechanically tenderized meat has been treated with machines or tools to break down muscle fibers and make the meat more tender. This process can enhance the tenderness of tougher cuts of meat but also carries some food safety risks. When meat is mechanically tenderized, bacteria can be pushed from the surface into the interior, making proper cooking temperature and handling essential. If you prefer mechanically tenderized meat, ensure that you handle and cook it properly.

Enhanced with a solution

Some meat and poultry products may be labeled as “enhanced with a solution.” This means that the product has been injected or marinated with a liquid solution to improve flavor, tenderness, or juiciness. The solution may include ingredients such as water, salt, spices, or other flavor enhancers. It’s important to read the label to understand the specific solution used and the percentage of solution added, as this can affect both the flavor and the nutritional content of the product.

Ground meat labeling

Ground meat labeling typically specifies the type or types of meat included in the product. For example, ground beef must be made exclusively from beef, while ground pork comes from pork. It’s important to read the label to understand the specific types of meat used in ground meat products, as this can affect the flavor and nutritional composition. Additionally, ground meat labeling may indicate the percentage of fat content, such as lean or extra lean.

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Nitrate/nitrite-free

The “nitrate/nitrite-free” label indicates that the product has not been treated with nitrate or nitrite compounds, which are commonly used as curing agents in processed meats. Nitrate and nitrite are added to prevent bacterial growth, contribute to the preservation of the meat, and provide the characteristic pink color. Some studies suggest potential health risks associated with high consumption of nitrate and nitrite, so this labeling option can be appealing to those looking to limit their intake of these compounds.

Recognizing Labeling Misconceptions

Natural vs Organic

While the terms “natural” and “organic” are often used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings. “Natural” refers to products that have undergone minimal processing and contain no artificial additives or preservatives. On the other hand, “organic” refers to products produced following specific guidelines that prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and certain farming practices. It’s important to read labels carefully and look for additional certifications to understand the specific practices behind the “natural” and “organic” labels.

Hormone-free

The term “hormone-free” can be misleading when used on meat and poultry products. Hormones are naturally occurring substances in animals, and no meat or poultry products can be completely devoid of hormones. While hormones are commonly used in beef production, hormone use in poultry and pork production is already prohibited by law in the United States. It’s important to understand the specific claims and regulations related to hormone use in different types of meat and poultry.

No hormones administered

The claim “no hormones administered” is commonly used on meat and poultry products, particularly beef. While it suggests that no hormones have been used in the production of the meat, it’s important to note that the use of hormones in beef production is regulated and permitted under specific circumstances. The phrase “no hormones administered” indicates that the producers have adhered to the regulations concerning hormone use in beef production but does not mean that the meat is entirely hormone-free.

Free-range vs Pasture-raised

The terms “free-range” and “pasture-raised” are often confused but have distinct meanings. “Free-range” generally indicates that animals have access to the outdoors, even though the specific requirements can vary. In contrast, “pasture-raised” means animals have been raised on pasture and have more extensive access to fresh grass and forage crops. While free-range animals may have access to outdoor areas, they may spend less time on pasture compared to those raised specifically as pasture-raised animals.

Cage-free vs Free-range

“Cage-free” and “free-range” are two labeling terms commonly used for egg-laying hens. “Cage-free” means the hens are not confined to cages but does not guarantee outdoor access. “Free-range” labeling indicates that the hens have the opportunity to go outdoors and engage in natural behaviors. It’s important to understand the specific labeling terms used for egg products to make informed choices based on your preferences and values.

Evaluating Label Claims and Certifications

First-party claims

First-party claims are statements made by the producer or brand regarding the product’s attributes or practices. These claims may provide some information about the product but should be validated by additional certifications or third-party verifications. While first-party claims can be helpful, they should be considered alongside more independent and reliable sources of information.

Second-party claims

Second-party claims are usually made by retailers or distributors and provide additional information about the product alongside the first-party claims. These claims may include details about the product’s origins, production methods, or certifications. While second-party claims can offer additional transparency, it’s crucial to verify the information through independent sources or trusted certifications.

Third-party certifications

Third-party certifications are independent verifications provided by organizations that evaluate and certify specific practices, attributes, or standards. These certifications can be helpful in providing reassurance and transparency about the quality, sustainability, and animal welfare of the meat or poultry products. Look for certifications that align with your values and support organizations with a strong reputation for reliable and rigorous standards.

Reliable certification organizations

There are several reliable certification organizations that provide independent verification of various aspects of meat and poultry production. Some reputable organizations to look for include the USDA Organic, American Grassfed Association (AGA), Global Animal Partnership (GAP), Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), Certified Humane, Food Alliance Certified, Non-GMO Project Verified, Certified Gluten-Free, and various kosher and halal certification authorities. Researching these certifications can help you make informed choices that align with your values.

Tips for Smart Buying Decisions

Determine your priorities

Before purchasing meat or poultry products, take some time to determine your values and priorities. Are you concerned about animal welfare, environmental impact, or specific dietary restrictions? Understanding your priorities will help guide your purchasing decisions and allow you to select products that align with your values.

Read the entire label

When evaluating meat and poultry labels, it’s essential to read the entire label and not rely solely on specific keywords or claims. Look for additional information that provides more insight into the producer’s practices, certifications, or other relevant details. The more informed you are about the product, the better equipped you’ll be to make a decision that aligns with your values.

Research certifications

Familiarize yourself with different certifications that address your concerns, such as organic, grass-fed, animal welfare, or non-GMO certifications. Take the time to research the specific requirements and standards behind each certification to understand how they align with your values. This will give you confidence in selecting products that meet the criteria you find important.

Understand farming practices

Gaining a basic understanding of different animal raising practices can help you make more informed choices. Educate yourself about the differences between conventional, organic, free-range, and pasture-raised methods. This knowledge will enable you to make purchasing decisions that support your preferred farming practices and align with your values.

Shop local and get to know your farmer

Supporting local farmers and purchasing directly from them can help you gain firsthand knowledge about their practices and build a connection with the source of your meat or poultry. Getting to know your farmer allows you to ask questions, learn about their animal raising methods, and feel confident about the quality and origin of the products you purchase.

Avoid misleading marketing claims

Be cautious of misleading marketing claims that may exaggerate or misrepresent the attributes of a product. Labels such as “natural,” “hormone-free,” or “sustainably raised” are not regulated as strictly as certifications, and their meanings can vary. Look for additional certifications or trusted sources of information to ensure the claims made on the label are backed by reliable standards or verifications.

By understanding labeling terms, decoding certification labels, recognizing numbers and codes, identifying animal raising practices, uncovering feed and diet information, understanding antibiotics and hormones, recognizing meat processing techniques, addressing labeling misconceptions, evaluating label claims and certifications, and employing smart buying decisions, you can make more informed choices about the meat and poultry products you purchase. With knowledge and awareness, you can support practices and organizations that align with your values, promoting sustainable and responsible consumption.