Watch for chicken coming back soon!!

What Meat Labels REALLY Mean

May 23, 2019

I thought I’d tackle meat labels today!

Labels are not always perfectly clear in what they mean. The wording is often suggestive, meaning that it leaves a lot interpreting up to the often uneducated consumer. I have myself been victim to my own assumptions.


"Natural" is one label that sounds pretty obvious, right?

But, “natural,” can suggest many things in the mind of the consumer. For instance, “natural,” might suggest that animals were raised outdoors in a natural habit, or that the animals were fed “natural” feeds, such as nonGMO feed (and no candy or other unnatural human food waste). The “Natural” label means no such thing though!


“A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).”

It seems to me that most, if not all meat should qualify as “Natural.” Beyond cutting, vacuum sealing, and freezing, what needs to be done to your meat?

Here are some more USDA meat label definitions:


Free Range is a term that I use. Maybe I shouldn’t! When I use it in reference to our pigs, what I mean is that the pigs are kept outdoors all the time in the woods. They are behind portable electric fencing (one does not want pigs all over the place as they can quickly become destructive when they are digging in your yard, or worse your neighbor’s yard!). They always have access to insects, grubs, roots, grass and other leafy matter to supplement their diet.

This is what the USDA means by FREE RANGE or FREE ROAMING: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”

Here’s what the label does not say, access to the outside can simply refer to a porch to which chickens have access. It does not mean that animals live outdoors, that they have access to sun, fresh air, grass, insects or other forages. Furthermore, this label applies only to chicken. There is no label for pork or beef!


“Fresh means whole poultry and cuts have never been below 26 °F (the temperature at which poultry freezes). This is consistent with consumer expectations of “fresh” poultry, i.e., not hard to the touch or frozen solid.

In 1997, FSIS began enforcing a final rule prohibiting the use of the term “fresh” on the labeling of raw poultry products whose internal temperature has ever been below 26 °F.

The temperature of individual packages of raw poultry products labeled “fresh” can vary as much as 1 °F below 26 °F within inspected establishments or 2 °F below 26 °F in commerce.

Fresh poultry should always bear a “keep refrigerated” statement.”


“Temperature of raw, frozen poultry is 0 °F or below."

NO HORMONES (pork or poultry):

“Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says ‘Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.'”

This is one definition that I’m pretty ok with.


“The term ‘no hormones administered’ may be approved for use on the label of beef products if sufficient documentation is provided to the Agency by the producer showing no hormones have been used in raising the animals.”

Here’s the truth though, about 2/3’s of beef cattle are administered hormones during their last 150 days before slaughter. The purpose is to increase feed efficiency and to increase the animal’s growth rate before slaughter.

The European Union banned the use of growth promoters in 1988. Why does the USA lag so far behind?

NO ANTIBIOTICS (red meat and poultry):

“The terms ‘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.”

Organic labeling – this applies to all food, and not just to meats.

100 percent organic

“100 percent organic” can be used to label any product that contains 100 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water, which are considered natural). Most raw, unprocessed farm products can be designated “100 percent organic.” Likewise, many value-added farm products that have no added ingredients—such as grain flours, rolled oats, etc.—can also be labeled “100 percent organic."


“Organic” can be used to label any product that contains a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Up to 5 percent of the ingredients may be nonorganic agricultural products that are not commercially available as organic and/or nonagricultural products that are on the National List.1.

Made with Organic ______

“Made with Organic ______” can be used to label a product that contains at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding salt and water). There are a number of detailed constraints regarding the ingredients that comprise the nonorganic portion.

Specific Ingredient Listings

The specific organic ingredients may be listed in the ingredient statement of products containing less than 70 percent organic contents—for example, “Ingredients: water, barley, beans, organic tomatoes, salt.”

This label really gets my goat!  “Certified Angus Beef.”


Easy – because at the stock yard, aka livestock auctions, black cattle sell for a premium price. For NO OTHER reason than that they have black coats. This is because under “Certified Angus Beef” labeling, the animal need only have a black coat to pass the first level of qualification.

Because black animals sell for a higher price, all other animals sell for below premium. This means that other breeds of cattle, regardless of quality always sell for a lower price. Always.

The below is copied and pasted from

Q: How is beef selected for the Certified Angus Beef ® brand?

A: The same independent USDA graders inspect black-hided cattle (typical of the Angus breed) and give it a grade. All beef considered for the brand must be the best Choice, or Prime, beef – truly the top of the scale. This top-quality Angus beef is then evaluated again, using the brand’s set of 10 science-based specifications for marbling, size and uniformity. If it’s good enough to make the cut, then it earns the distinctive Certified Angus Beef ® brand label.

Angus is actually a breed of cattle, but many animals are “black hided,” including many animals cross bred with Black Angus… Offering a premium price for any cattle that have a black hide, or as I’m told by farmers in my area – cows that are 89% black, seems discriminatory. Many other breeds make fine beef. In fact, I’d argue that for my own purposes of grass finishing, Black Angus are not ideal. One can also argue that animals with black hides suffer more in the sun and heat, but that’s another discussion altogether!
What’s the best way to ensure that the meat you are purchasing is raised the way the you want and expect?

You guessed it! Buy from a local farmer.

Visit the farm, ask for a tour! Ask questions! Most of us love to talk “shop” – or, in our case, “farm”. Find out where the meat is processed and what protocols the processor follows.

Get the next blog delivered right to your inbox!

All the latest farm news, blogs, events, new products, recipes and more.

Amie Herrera

Fresh Versus Frozen Meats

May 13th, 2019

Little Known Facts About Pigs

Mar 8th, 2019

Spring 2019 Lamb Coming Soon

Feb 20th, 2019
with customization by Grapevine Local Food Marketing