The Art of Understanding Meat Labels


"Natural" doesn't mean "Humane"

After my recent post about tasting beef for the first time in a quarter of a century, several people asked about the jargon in the grocery store. What does it all mean? Can we trust the signs and labels that we see? Or are they merely euphemisms and good marketing?

Whole Foods Market would lead you to believe that their meat is all produced in a sustainable and humane way. They even have this warm and fuzzy video showing how much they care…

But what do the terms really mean?

Are some of them misleading us into thinking we are making purchases that are better for the animals and the environment than they really are?

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Let’s see if we can summarize what the words all mean and what is worth prioritizing when you shop. (Luckily, my friend Rod from Rocky Mountain Cuts offered to help if I got too confused.)

We’ll start with the photo at the top of this post.

It is from our local market, on the poultry case.  It claims that the chicken is “all natural,” was fed a vegetarian diet, and contains no hormones or antibiotics.

  • Overall, those words tend to make me feel good – on the surface, it seems like the chickens ate a decent diet and weren’t stuffed with chemicals.
  • On a closer look though, it says nothing about how they were housed.  Commercial chickens are institutionalized (kept in very close quarters) and many of them are de-beaked so that they don’t peck their neighbors.
  • All Natural is described by the USDA as simply being minimally processed, with no added color or chemicals being added AFTER they are killed.
  • All Natural doesn’t mean that the chickens were not fed antibiotics while they were alive…which really stinks, since you might guess otherwise.
  • Hormone Free chicken is just a pretty label, since hormones in chicken have been banned since the late 50’s.  For beef, sadly, it’s a different story.
  • Suddenly, things don’t sound so rosy any more for these chickens…

Let’s move on to meat.

One of my former high school biology students commented on my recent meat post (she’s in medical school now!) and asked about all of the labeling on Whole Foods meats.  Rod shocked me when he said that because Corn is biologically classified as a Grass, that officially, corn-fed cattle can be called Grass-Fed.  That’s insane.  And we wonder why consumers are confused.

The term Grass-Fed implies happy cows grazing in large pastures.  But often, cows with calves are started in grassy fields, but are then moved to feed lots, where they are “finished” with grains that bulk them up before slaughter.  These high carbohydrate feeds are combined with required antibiotics to control the bacteria levels in cattle’s rumen.  Bacteria are required to extract sugar from celluse, so the antibiotics aren’t designed to kill all of the bacteria.  The combination of a highly caloric diet and antibiotics is the equivalent of “fast food” for cattle.  However, it frequently yields mutated ecoli bacteria and antibiotic resistant staph.

I believe that if you want to eat beef from cattle that lived their entire lives in pasture, you need to look for a good producer.  Rocky Mountain Organic meats is one that I trust.  They produce Certified Organic 100% Pasture fed cattle. Focus on terms such as “100% Grass Fed” or “Grass Fed and Finished”.  All other marketing claims are nothing more than marketing mumbo jumbo.

Free Range Organic Cattle vs. Feedlot Cattls

As Nature Intended vs. Factory Farming, (photos courtesy of and

First thing’s first – let’s not confuse Natural with Organic.

We’d hope that naturally produced foods were organic, but officially that is not so.  We talked about natural products with chicken above.  But what does Organic Food Production mean?

The USDA defines the national organic program as one that “is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”

Organic meat is meat that is raised according to the National Organic Standards which means that:

  • All ingredients must be 100% organically produced.  No chemicals were used, unless the animal needs to be treated.  That animal must, by law, be sold to the conventional food market and never be labeled as organic.
  • 100% organic feed is required (the food was produced with no herbicides, pesticides, or petroleum based fertilizers)
  • No added growth hormones are allowed
  • No genetically modified feeds are allowed
  • No animal by-products of any form allowed in feed
  • No antibiotics are allowed.  If antibiotics are used to treat a sick animal, then that animal is marketed through conventional channels and is not sold as organic.
  • Restrictions on pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers
  • No genetic engineering methods, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge for fertilization
  • No synthetic chemicals, artificial preservatives or harmful additives such as sodium nitrite allowed in processing
  • Annual inspection of producers and processors required for maintaining certification
  • Third party assessment required

While some people may shy away from buying organic because of a “crunchy or hippy” stigma, there are a few key points to remember:  When chemicals are used in farming to control insects and weeds, they leach into the soil, air, water and into the farmers growing the food.  Organic farming protects growers, food consumers, and the physical environment from any such chemicals.  This provides an immediate benefit and a long-term one.  And it is clear from our obese nation that people are not typically thinking long-term…and we should.

Organic foods tend to cost more than conventional foods because they meet stricter guidelines and undergo testing and evaluation.  They tend to be more labor intensive, because farmers do not take chemical shortcuts.  But the overall cost reflects healthier animals, plants, farmers, and most likely consumers.  If the long-term costs of health care and environmental clean-up were factored into “cheap” factory meats, it is likely that they would actually cost more than their organic counterparts.

The big picture:

  1. Know who grows your food, or at least find a vendor at your local farmer’s market who can tell you about how their animals were raised and what they ate.
  2. If you can’t know your producer, the next best choice is to look for these labels: Certified Organic AND 100% Pasture Fed and Finished
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19 Responses to The Art of Understanding Meat Labels

  1. I already knew a bit of this, but certainly not that the government classifies corn as grass! Pardon my French, but WTF.

    In Texas we always buy our meat from a local butcher/ranch combo that we know keeps the cows in pasture and they eat pasture grass. But I haven’t been able to find that in NJ yet. Clearly I need to make that a priority.

  2. Amanda says:

    Fantastic info as always!

  3. Wenderly says:

    Very interesting info! Thank you!

  4. Sherry says:

    I’ve been anxiously waiting for this report since your post about eating beef. I was one of those questioning the crazy USDA labeling and the confusion it breeds. This was most helpful. Thank you!

  5. I’m shocked of the thought that animals being fed corn could then be turned into meat labeled “grass-fed.” As for confusion, it’s endless. Thanks for doing your part to help clear things up for us, Michelle.

  6. Tracy says:

    Very good information, Michelle. I am always shocked to see advertising claiming feel-good things like “farm fresh” when in fact that is far from the truth!

    • Michelle Stern says:

      Sometimes I just feel so “used” by food companies. It’s like being a little kid and believing every slight of hand a magician uses on stage…

  7. whoa! i did not know that “corn” feed is technically considered “grass.” I know what you mean about feeling used by food companies.

    why can’t we just grow/eat food as it occurs in nature? i guess without mass crops, harvest, storage and refinement of crops, populous cities aren’t possible. but why do we have to trade health for modernity? is city living and industry possible while also accomplishing the consumption of nourishing food and therefore health? i’m saddened that we have to sacrifice our own health and the health of our kids in order to have city living with industry.

    if i solve my problem by moving to a rural area with good soil, water and air quality (does that place exist?) and exist in health that’s great for me and my loved ones, but there isn’t space and income generation potential for each parent who wants a healthy family to solve the problem this way. what is the answer? i can save my family this way, but not every human has my resources (bank account to fund a move, profession that allows me to earn a great income from any desk with a computer and internet connectivity). not to mention the hypocrisy of consuming internet connectivity, technology etc. that is made possible by the industry that makes growing more nourishing food a problem.

    great post, thanks for sharing.

    • Michelle Stern says:

      Thanks Jenna. I don’t think that each person needs to move to a grassy place and grow their own cow. That’s not the point…But there ARE lots of people all over the country who produce beef cattle this way (like Rod in the article). And they can send you their meat. It’s not ideal – sort of like eating a mango from Peru (when you live in Texas). But it is better than supporting factories that grow meat that isn’t healthy for us or for the planet. The poop that would be fertilizer on Rod’s ranch in Wyoming turns into pollution in a factory farm. It’s insane. I have some other Facebook and Twitter friends that also produce organic grass fed meat – you can pick one of them, and be satisfied that you can eat good meat, while still living in the city 🙂

  8. This makes me so glad that I get my beef from a family ranch (as in it was my grandparents but now is in a trust with my mom and aunts.) I KNOW that the animals are treated right! Yes they do get antibiotics if they are sick, but then they aren’t sold/taken to our local butcher for a certain amount of time – to get the antibiotics out of their system. I can say one thing – I can taste a difference between the meat we get from the family ranch and the meat from the store!
    I am sorely tempted to start keeping chickens once I get a house and a yard (if the place I live in allows them!) The more I learn about how animals are kept by factory farms the more I am really disturbed!

  9. J.R. says:

    Sometimes it sounds paradoxical if we find labels such as wholesome and all natural on food packages. Though a cow may have been fed on fodder, it sometimes happen that the grass had been fertilized artificially.It also occurs that preservatives and colors applied to give meat a healthy look, may also contain synthetics. So eventually, you have a conditional wholesomeness.

  10. You learn something new everyday. This was an excellent post and opened my eyes. I read labels now but will certainly be reading them with a different viewpoint in the future.

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  12. This is a very well done post. Lots of information to help people understand the differences in labels. I live on a farm and buy all of my meat from family or neighbors. I do not get hung up on having to have organic or grass fed. I don’t like the taste or texture of grass fed beef. Much prefer my brother’s corn finished beef. Also, I give my children antibiotics when they are sick and feel farmers should be allowed to do the same for their animals. I don’t want animals to suffer when it is sick if a farmer isn’t allowed to treat it. If an organic farmer does treat an animal when it is sick he can no longer sell it as organic.

    I also have a small garden, but use insecticides so the bugs don’t enjoy the fruits of my labor more than I do. I can produce more in a smaller space by using commercial fertilizers and pesticides. One of the reasons organic is more expensive is that the productivity is much less than farms using fertilizers and pesticides. I have gotten violently ill from eating organic greens due to residues (e. coli) left from organic fertilizers that hadn’t been composted and avoid them at all cost now.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing.

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