What Do Meat Labels Really Mean?

If you’re a meat eater and want to get the healthiest, tastiest cuts, how do you know what to buy?

Most labels today carry some kind of certification from the USDA (US Department of Agriculture), which basically acknowledges that the meat came from a facility that is supposed to meet the USDA’s standards for health and safety. But you might see other words on the label as well, such as “natural,” “fed vegetarian feed” or “no hormones or added antibiotics.” Some of these terms are significant, but others are essentially worthless.

Here’s a guide to the most common labels you’ll see on packaged meat and what they mean.

Grain-fed: These words indicate that at some point in its life, the animal was fed grain. The animal may have been raised in a factory-farm type operation or on a small family farm. Grain-fed doesn’t tell you that information. It only indicates that the animal ate corn, soy, brewers grain or another grain-based feed.

Grass-fed: Rather than being cooped up in a barn eating grain, grass-fed cows roam outdoors eating nothing but grass from the time they’re weaned until the time they go to market. The term does not guarantee that the animals weren’t treated with antibiotics nor confined. Grass is closer to the actual native diet of cows than grain, but that in and of itself might not be a reason to buy meat labeled this way.

AGA-Certified Grassfed: This label has some teeth to it. It says that the cows verifiably ate only grass, that they were not confined in a feed lot, and that they’ve never been given antibiotics or hormones. Unlike other grassfed meat, that which is AGA-Certified Grassfed is guaranteed to have been born and raised in the U.S.

Grass Finished: According to American Grassfed, this label is completely meaningless. It does not meet any standards set by the USDA and is used primarily for marketing purposes rather than to indicate superior quality.

Natural: In this context, “natural” does not refer to how the animal was raised, but rather how its meat was processed and packaged. According to the USDA, describing meat as “natural” means that it contains no artificial ingredients or added color and was minimally processed (such as ground into beef or trimmed into steaks). The word natural does not refer to the animal’s diet or how it was raised.

Naturally-raised: An animal that is “naturally raised” was not fed animal byproducts (like ground up parts of other animals), nor was it administered growth hormones or antibiotics. Other than that, the animal could have eaten either grain or grass and could have spent its life outdoors roaming or confined in a factory-type feedlot.

Organic: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has established a set of standards that farmers must meet if they are to label their meat organic. Those include that the animal was given no antibiotics or synthetic hormones, ate a pesticide and herbicide-free vegetarian diet, and was was fed or ate no food that was tainted with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Cows may either be fed organic grain or eat organic grass, and they may be confined rather than allowed to roam free.

Pasture-Raised: This is a term that sounds nice, but like “natural,” means essentially nothing. There’s no federal definition for what pasture-raised means, and not much industry cohesion behind the term either. Any producer can put it on any package at any time.

Certified Humane: This label primarily attests to how animals were treated as they were raised. It says that “Livestock must have access to fresh water and a diet formulated or assessed to maintain full health and promote a positive state of well-being. Feed and water must be distributed in such a way that livestock can eat and drink without undue competition.” It prohibits treatment with hormones and antibiotics other than to selectively treat disease and mandates that feeding and watering troughs be kept clean. This label also requires that calves be able to suckle for 24 hours after they’re born and not be weaned for 6 months after birth.

Of all these labels, the ones that mean the most are Certified Humane, Organic and AGA-Certified Grassfed. Don’t waste your money on “natural” or “pasture-raised” beef.

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Christine J
Christine J1 years ago

Almost seems like they're deliberately designed to confuse consumers. What sort of a society do we live in when letting a poor little calf suckle from its mother for a mere 24 hours is seen as something worth advertising.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

william Miller
william Miller2 years ago


Virginia Belder
Virginia Belder2 years ago


Debbie Hartman
DEBORAH Hartman2 years ago

Thanks for the info

Jessica whitfield

can't remember the last time I bought meat, but good to know

sandra vito
Sandra Vito2 years ago


Elizabeth O.
Elizabeth O2 years ago

Thanks for the article.