Labeling Lingo

Do you ever find yourself in the meat and poultry section of a store faced with an overwhelming assortment of quality labels on each product? Familiar terms such as organic and free range seem familiar enough, but then what is the difference between these terms and grass-fed and cage free? And what does natural even mean when it comes to a slab of steak?

Don't let the various labels confuse you! Here is a guide to a few of the most commonly-seen labels so that you can make a confident and knowledgeable decisions at the grocery store, butcher, or local farmers market:​

Natural tells you about the processing of the meat, but does provide any information about how the animal was treated and raised.

A natural label promises:

  • no additives in the meat (artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, etc.)
  • minimal processing, which is defines as "processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product" - this is not a terribly helpful explanation, but it does mean no mechanical separation (like the now-infamous "pink slime")

However, animal products labeled "natural" do not tell us anything about the animal's diet and lifestyle during their life CAN be raised in conventional feedlots, given growth hormones, administered antibiotics and fed GMO grain.

Free range labels tell us that the animal had access to the outside. Unfortunately, this is a somewhat vague requirement that doesn't indicate how often the animals were able to go outside, how they were generally treated, or how they were fed. Free range chickens CAN be raised primarily indoors, and they can also be de-beaked.

Cage free is similar to free-range. It promises only that the animals have not been kept in cages. They CAN be confined in close quarters and we don't learn anything about what they are fed.

Organic is one of the more prominent labels for meat and poultry products, as well as dairy and eggs. The organic label promises:

  • no antibiotics or growth hormones
  • diet of 100% organic feed (grain or grass)
  • year-round access to outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water, and direct sunlight
  • livestock are not fed any animal byproducts

This is one of the more stringent labels for animal products and, though pricey, offers a lot of certainty about the quality and background of your meat. Organically-labeled meat CAN come from raised on grains.

Pasture raised / Grass-fed labels promise:

  • a diet that was grass-based or foraging
  • continuous access to pasture during growing season

The animal's diet CAN be non-organic (in fact, it often is due to the complications and hassles involved with obtaining organic certification for pastures) and the animals CAN be fed grains during what is known as the "finishing stage" (last 200 lbs gained before harvest).

Further Resources

There are many other labels as well, both regulated and independently added. Check out these additional resources to learn more:


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