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Food for Thought Food for Thought

Meat Labels -- What Do They Really Mean?

July 09, 2013

By Ashley Oswald, B.S.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

"Organic." "Hormone-free." "Free-range." These are just some of the labels meat manufacturers use on their products. But what do they really mean? Are they just a way to get consumers to buy certain products? Is there any true difference between one product and another?

The Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is the agency responsible for making sure that the labels on meat and poultry products are accurate.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency and state inspection offices work together to help ensure meat safety and integrity.

The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service is the agency responsible for grading meat and poultry.

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The Top 10

New labels are often added to product packaging. It can be time consuming to keep up with what they all mean. Here is a list of the most common labeling claims. (All of them refer to how the animal was raised except for those stared (*).

Animal-Welfare Approved

  • Animals have access to the outdoors.
  • No cages or crates are used.
  • Growth hormones and sub-therapeutic antibiotics (antibiotics used to prevent disease rather than cure disease) are not allowed.
  • Some surgical mutilations are prohibited, such as beak trimming and wing clipping. Others, such as castration, are allowed.


  • Animals are not individually caged.

Certified Organic

  • Animals are fed organic feed, allowed access to the outdoors and not given antibiotics or growth hormones.

Read more about organic foods.

Certified Humane

  • No crates, cages or tethers are used; bedding materials are provided.
  • Only a certain number of animals are allowed per cage size to prevent overcrowding.
  • Outdoor access is not required for poultry or pigs, but is required for other species.
  • Hormone and sub-therapeutic antibiotic use is not allowed.

Free-Range (chickens and turkeys)

  • Birds have access to the outdoors: regulations do not say how often and for how long.


  • Animals are fed only grass and forage, with the exception of milk, before they are weaned.
  • Animals have daily access to the outdoors with continuous access during summer.

Hormone-Free, rBGH (Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone)-Free, rBST (Recombinant bovine somatotropin)-Free and No Hormones Added

  • No genetically-engineered hormones (rBGH or rBST) are used.
  • Poultry and hog producers are not legally allowed to use hormones, so although this label won't be on all poultry products, it can still be assumed.


  • Meat and poultry products are prepared under a rabbi’s supervision.

Natural and Naturally Raised*

  • No artificial ingredients or added color is allowed.
  • Product is only minimally processed.
  • The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as "no artificial ingredients; minimally processed").

No Antibiotics Added (red meat and poultry only)

  • Animals are raised without antibiotics.

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Making Sense of Fat Claims

According to new USDA regulations, all packages of ground beef must have the "Nutrition Facts" label by January 2012. It will still be important for the consumer to acknowledge the number of servings in the package and not assume each package is a single serving.

There has been much controversy regarding the "lean" label, as it is often misleading. For example, 80/20 lean means the meat is 80% meat and 20% fat. This seems like a good ratio, but in fact, this cut is one of the fattiest you can buy.

A product may be labeled "low-fat" if it contains no more than 3 grams of fat per serving.

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Grades of Meat

Consumers can compare the quality and nutrition of different cuts of meat by checking the grade on the label.

In general, the more marbling a cut has the more fat it has. Meat has saturated fat which can be unhealthy.

Meat can be part of a healthy diet. Just eat it in moderation. And choose low-fat, lean options, such as "select" grade rather than "prime" grade, or white meat rather than dark meat chicken.

Quality grades refer to meat tenderness, juiciness, and flavor.

Yield grades refer to the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass.

Quality Grades for Beef

  • Prime grade meat cuts have much marbling and come from young, well-fed beef cattle. Prime roasts and steaks cook best with dry-heat (broiling, roasting or grilling).


  • Choice grade is high quality and has less marbling than prime grade. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy and flavorful. They are best suited to dry-heat cooking. The less tender cuts are most tender if braised.


  • Select grade is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It has less marbling and may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. The tender cuts (loin, rib, sirloin) should be cooked with dry heat while other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised for optimal results.


  • Standard and commercial grades are frequently sold as ungraded or as "store brand" meat.


  • Utility, cutter, and canner grades are rarely sold at retail but are used instead to make ground beef and processed products.


Pork is not graded with USDA quality grades as the meat is generally uniform. Appearance is an important guide in buying fresh pork. Purchase cuts with small amounts of visible fat that are firm and grayish-pink in color.


USDA grades for poultry are A, B and C.

  • Grade A is the highest quality. It means that the poultry products are virtually free from defects such as bruises, discolorations and feathers. Bone-in products have no broken bones and there are no tears in the skin or exposed flesh that could dry out during cooking.


  • Grades B and C are used on poultry meat that is cut up, chopped or ground, such as in turkey bacon. These products are usually not grade identified.

There are no grade standards for necks, wing tips, tails, giblets or ground poultry.

You can see how meat labeling in the United States is extensive and sometimes confusing. But once you understand the differences, use the labels to help you choose products that meet your nutritional, environmental and humane standards.

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Ashley Oswald is a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She graduated with a B.S. in Dietetics from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

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