Meat Labels: What Do They Mean?


I don’t know about you, but I spend a LOT of time at the meat counter at the grocery store.  I love my meat.  We all do, otherwise we probably wouldn’t be Paleo.

Not all meats are created equally, though, and they all have different, sometimes confusing labels on them – all natural, organic, grass-fed, free-range, etc.  Instead of just throwing up your hands in confusion and settling for the cheapest option, I want you to be versed in the vague and often misleading language of the meat industry.

This label can mean almost nothing at all or a whole lot.  It’s vague, so don’t trust it without doing your research on the chicken, beef or pork it’s ascribed to.  It means the animal could have subsisted on the most heinous of heinous factory farms and then been stressfully driven thousands of miles, only to be slaughtered in the most inhumane fashion possible.  Nothing natural about that. According to the USDA, something labeled “natural” is “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product).   The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.)”


The term “natural” has no bearing on what chemicals, antibiotics or hormones the animal was fed or how it lived, unless it specifically states “no hormones or antibiotics administered” or “grass fed” or some other elucidating descriptor. When you see this label, you can usually think of it as a marketing ploy.  Now, having said that, there are some brands that use “natural” in a more honest way.  Some farms are not organic, are too small to pay to be organic, and may never be organic.  However, they may give their animals clean feed or organic grass, provide a good environment for them, and have them slaughtered humanely.  Colorado’s Best Beef is a company like this.  This ranch is in Boulder, Colorado, and I know that their cows are grass fed for most of their lives on land that has not been sprayed with pesticides.  During the last few months of their lives they’re given corn and other grain silage that is not necessarily organic.  In the end, they take their animals a short distance away to be slaughtered in a facility that focuses on humane treatment.  They call their meat “natural” and I eat it when I buy it at the farmers market.  In fact, their website is even  No, I don’t love that their cattle may be getting GMO corn, but there are other things about it that I do love.

Free Range (Free Roaming, Free Running)
Usually used with poultry and eggs, this is one of the most misleading marketing tools ever used by the meat industry in my opinion.  Here’s the USDA’s definition of free range: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”

That’s it.  That means you could have a bunch (a BIG bunch) of chickens living in a dark, hot, toxic, over-populated shed being fed GMO corn, animal parts, antibiotics and growth hormones, and they have a door to the outside that they COULD walk through if they wanted to.  But that outside area could be gravel or dirt in the hot sun with nothing enticing about it.  Free range just means that the chickens are not in cages.  It doesn’t mean they have good lives or are fed an idyllic diet of bugs, grass and veggie scraps.

However, some meat/egg producers who use the label “free range” actually mean to say that their animals had access to a “range”, which included grass, weeds, bugs, and supplemental food.  You have to ask questions to find out what free range really means.

Pasture Raised Poultry/Eggs
Here’s one that is probably worth your money.  According to the American Pastured Poultry Producers’ Association, “pastured poultry relies on raising chickens directly on green pasture”.  Almost all chickens were raised outdoors until the 1950’s, when big factory farms started to become the norm (after they figured out that you can just supplement chickens’ feed with vitamins A and D instead of letting them get it from grass and the actual sun).

This way of raising chickens and eggs is becoming more popular because the chickens taste better (imagine that), the eggs are more nutritive (note the deep orange yolks) and because chickens have an uncanny ability to clean up cow manure; the farmers just let the chickens follow the cows around to spread their manure thereby fertilizing the land.  However, pasture raised doesn’t necessarily mean organic – the chickens could be eating off of sprayed fields – you just never know until you ask.

Grass Fed
This label usually pertains to beef.  If something is labeled “grass fed”, it means, by USDA standards, that the animal must have only been fed “forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state.”  That is, except for milk before weaning.  They can also have silage (stored grasses that haven’t been dried) and vitamin/mineral supplements.  They must have access to pasture in the growing season.

If it’s grass fed but it’s not labeled organic, it’s often because it comes from a small ranch that can’t afford to pay to become certified organic.  However, that doesn’t mean that they ever spray their grass fields, so ask your butcher or the rancher for more details.

Grass fed beef is beneficial for us because it’s higher in Vitamin A, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) (a potent anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and heart health promoter), and omega-3 fatty acids, and it’s lower in saturated fat.  The environmental practices on grass fed beef ranches, such as pasture rotation and no use of antibiotics or hormones, are geared toward sustainability, and the fact that the cattle are not in such close vicinity means that they carry less E. coli.  This is the good stuff – it closely resembles the meat we were designed to consume.

This one is complex.  The USDA states, “Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.  Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.  Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation” (a common and controversial method of killing bacteria on meat with radiation).  As of October 21, 2002, before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards.  If a producer uses the seal on a product that is known to be not organic, it can be fined up to $10,000 for each violation.

Sounds pretty good, but the requirements for being organic are still pretty vague. Animals have to be given space to move around and exercise, ample access to the outdoors, etc., but there aren’t specifics about what constitutes “ample.”  These animals may be given corn and other grains to eat – they just need to be organic.  So the fatty acid content of organic chicken or beef may not be any more beneficial than its conventional counterpart.

However, I am absolutely not saying that organic isn’t better than conventional meat. It is, in that you’re not consuming extra hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides that you would with conventional meats.  And you get some comfort in knowing that the animals are probably better cared for than their unfortunate conventionally grown counterparts.

Closing Thoughts
I think the bottom line is that some meat labels are more telling than others, but in general, grass fed and pasture raised animals and eggs are going to be your best bet in terms of the probability that: they ate what they were meant to eat, they led a pretty natural lifestyle, and they contain the fatty acid profile and other good stuff that we want. You can decide how important it is to you to eat well-raised, happy animals, and how much you’re willing to pay for that.

Here’s a link to a site to help you find places to buy local, sustainable meat and a guide to the Whole Foods Market animal welfare rating standards.  Also, Mark Sisson coincidentally just wrote an article on the differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef here.

Other than that, if you’re really interested in this stuff, I recommend you call your favorite meat companies and ask them about what their animals eat and how they’re raised.  You may be surprised.  Good luck out there, and stay tuned for more on this subject — it’s one of my favorites.