By Ashley Oswald, B.S.
"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.
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 (*).
Read more about organic foods.
Free-Range (chickens and turkeys)
Hormone-Free, rBGH (Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone)-Free, rBST (Recombinant bovine somatotropin)-Free and No Hormones Added
Natural and Naturally Raised*
No Antibiotics Added (red meat and poultry only)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.