For health conscious meat-eaters, we know it is important to choose the most natural and least modified meat you can buy. Unfortunately, with the confusing array of labels and claims, picking your meats is easier said than done.
Here's a guide to the legal definitions of labels you could find in the butcher’s department at your local grocery store:
"Cage Free" - The animals were not put in cages. However, this does not mean they were free-range or even set foot outdoors.
"Barn Roaming" - This is a relatively new one. These animals were not caged, but were also not free to go outside.
"Free Range" or "Free Roaming" - The animals had access to the outdoors, but does not necessarily mean they ever went outside.
"Grass-fed" - For ruminant animals (like cows, goats, and sheep) were fed a diet of only grass and forage. Animals were able to graze.
"Vegetarian-fed" - Animals were not fed any animal by-product, but may have had a diet that included grains.
"Certified Humane" - Animals were kept so as to allow free movement, without tethers, cages, or crates. Does not necessarily indicate access to outdoors. This label contains no information about the animals’ diet.
"Natural" - May not contain an artificial ingredient or added color and can only be minimally processed (meaning the product cannot be fundamentally altered).
"No Hormones Administered" - On beef, this means no hormones were administered to the cattle. Use of hormones in raising pigs or poultry is illegal nationwide.
"No Antibiotics Added" - No antibiotics were used at all (even for illness) in the raising of the animals.
"Certified Organic" - Animals had access to bedding and the outdoors, but its uncertain for how long. No hormones or antibiotics were used in their raising.
To make matters worse, there are even more labels and claims that don’t necessarily have legal definitions like “sustainable” or “pasteurized.” What’s a smart shopper to do? The best place to buy your meat is at a farmer’s market where you can talk directly with the person who raised the animals.
For more information on food labeling, visit to USDA's website.