5 On Your Side

Know the meanings of special meat labels

Posted May 23, 2011 6:04 p.m. EDT
Updated May 23, 2011 7:15 p.m. EDT

Fat-free, sugar-free, and carb-free used to be the big buzz words. Now, meat labels have all kinds of special phrasing – words like free range, no antibiotics, natural and organic. Some people are passionate about those labels and are willing to pay more for them.

For some families, like the Manleys, the labels mean quality. “I want them to have the purest form of food they can," says K.K. Manley. She buys organic whenever she can – from vegetables to hot dogs. Her beef is grass-fed. Her chicken is free-range. But what do the terms really mean? What are we really getting?

First, USDA Organic. It refers to how food is produced, not its quality. For meat, that means the farms are certified by a government-approved inspector. The animals don't eat animal by-products or anything that's not 100 percent organic. They're not given hormones or antibiotics. And they have access to the outdoors, although there are no rules for how long and how large a space.

Another big term is "Natural."

“It's a very friendly word," says Dr. Dana Hanson, a meat extension specialist in North Carolina State University's Food Science Department. "It gives the consumer the warm, fuzzy feeling that that's a good product to consume, and certainly it is, but there really is no strict standard for what natural means.

“In a nutshell, kind of what it means is the product is minimally processed and does not use ingredients that are quote, un-natural, but that definition of natural is really in question.” adds Hanson.

Next, free range. According to the USDA, the term means the birds are allowed outdoor access, but they don't necessary go!

“Birds are fairly social, and they'll congregate where most of the birds are,” says Hanson. “Unless you've got a large group that's going outside regularly, most of the animals will stay inside.”

Next, hormone free! The term is not allowed on packaging because every animal has hormones!

Instead, a label might say "No Hormones Added." But on poultry or pork that's misleading because in the United States, neither can have added hormones. That fact must be spelled out in the label -- often it's in fine print! 

Any label that claims "no Antibiotics added" is supposed to be backed with proof.

And there's grass fed. Ritchie Roberts owns Double R Cattle Services Farm in Hillsborough. As required for the USDA label, his cattle graze only grass. They don't eat grain or grain by-products. However grass fed is not necessarily organic. Roberts considers his farm practices near organic. “Our label says 100% grass fed, no antibiotics, no added hormones,” says Roberts.

All terms families like the Manleys look for. “I just feel like if it's being raised the way, it's gonna be better," says Manley.