Here’s How to Read Meat, Fish & Poultry Labels

In the 1950s, a trip to the grocery store was simple. You could buy milk, eggs and meat. Fast forward seventy years later, the simple trip is anything but that. With thousands of choices, consumers are barraged with cleverly crafted marketing statements to appeal to their buying preferences.

When it comes to meat, egg, and dairy, you find labels that say “free-range,” “natural,” “certified humane,” “organic,” and “harvested in the USA.” It can be hard to figure out what all of the different labels mean. You ask yourself:

  • Are these products better for me?
  • Are the animals treated better treated than others?
  • Or is this an advertising campaign designed to make me spend more?

Whether or not these labels make sense, they can have a big impact on the products that you choose to purchase. These labels can also have a huge impact for the billions of animals that are raised and slaughtered each year for peoples’ consumption.

In 2017, there were 52 billion pounds of meat processed in the U.S. and another 48 billion pounds of chicken processed in the same time period. The way the meat you eat is labeled is the end product that informs how the animal was raised and the type of life it lived.

Who Sets Labeling Requirements For Meat?

As a general rule, animal welfare terms that you see on food labels have been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). However, they don’t actually define most of these terms. Instead, they allow the producers to make that definition as long as they can provide proof that they are adhering to the terms they create.

In addition to USDA labels, there are a few nonprofit animal welfare programs like Certified Humane and Global Animal Partnership that have created additional labeling programs; these have clear requirements for the animals raised with higher standards of care utilizing better farming practices.

Why Are Consumers Increasingly Questioning Labels?

As consumers, we often want meat that we know is all-natural. We don’t want added antibiotics or other things that could be hazardous to our health. But we also want to know about the animal’s welfare.

For many people who raise their own animals, they are allowed to manage the entire life of their livestock; the animals are born, raised, and die on the same farm. Unfortunately, when it comes to meat sold to stores, USDA regulations don’t allow for farm kills. Animals must be slaughtered in USDA approved facilities.

The end of life process in USDA facilities is under fire as most people view them as overly violent, thus putting unnecessary stress on the animals.

As consumer demand for better quality meat and better animal welfare standards increase, the consumer conversation on how the meat tastes because of better end-to-end practices has drastically shifted labeling. People say they are able to taste the difference between meat that is grass-fed or organic versus meat that comes from traditional practices. Some people are even saying they can now taste the difference in how the animal died. These are big statements, so it’s more important than ever to understand what the different food labels actually mean.

Independent Food Labels Consumers Want To Look For

For the average consumer, independent ratings from advocacy groups are likely the most important labels to understand because they actually have auditing systems for holding producers accountable. These labels are likely to show “GAP Certified,” “Certified Humane,” and “Animal Welfare Approved.”

  • GAP Certified — You’ve likely seen this label from Global Animal Partnership at Whole Foods. The GAP label is a five-tier rating systems for the overall welfare of chickens, cattle, pigs, bison, sheep, goats, and turkeys. Their standards vary by species but require things like improved space requirements, quality air and lighting, and continuous pasture access. Only 14 producers under this label carry a rating of 5/5+.
  • Animal Welfare Approved — This certification is overseen by A Greener World and it carries the highest standards for animals across all species. In order to receive this certification, outdoor pasture access must be continuous and cages/crates are prohibited for all species. This certification isn’t associated with any particular grocery chain, but you can search this database to find if a product has been certified. You are also not likely to find this in large stores.
  • Certified Humane — This welfare rating program is operated by Humane Farm Animal Care and has a rating system for each species. There are no cages allowed for hens or pigs, lighting must be improved inside facilities, and cattle are required to plenty of space and shade (even in feedlots). You can learn more about the producers that are certified here.

Understanding The Most Common Labels At Most Grocery Stores

So, what about the labels we see at many common grocery stores? Are these quality products, better for the animals, healthier for us? The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. The thing you need to know is that many (but not all) of these labels must be approved by the USDA, and as we stated above, many of the standards aren’t enforced. With that said, here are a few of the common labels you will see when making a trip through the grocery store and what they mean.

  • Cage-Free: We’ve heard a lot about the cage-free campaign, and over 200 food companies have already promised to source only cage-free eggs by the year 2025. Cage-free means that a producer is required to give each bird one to one and a half square feet of floor space as well as a perch and nest. This does not mean that are required to have access to the outdoors.
  • Wild-Caught: You’ve probably heard this term when it comes to fish. In 2017, there were approximately 9.9 billion pounds of fish and shellfish harvested in the U.S. For the most part, the fish we eat, even those that are wild-caught die a slow and painful death. Most of them suffocate on ice in a process that takes 55 to 250 minutes depending on the species. The term “wild-caught” is not enforced and analysis has shown that roughly half of all salmon sold in stores were not labeled correctly. When it comes to fish, look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label. The MSC has certified almost 200 fisheries. To obtain the MSC seal of approval, a fishery must demonstrate effective management, and maintain healthy populations and ecosystems.
  • Free-Range: This is a term used for chicken and other poultry. It means that the birds must be allowed to roam outside for at least 120 days of each year. There is no definition of the quality and space requirements for that outdoor time.
  • Grass-Fed: According to this standard, once an animal has been weaned from their mother, they must be fed only forage and grass. While this may sound like they are allowed to graze open pastures, that isn’t always the case. It defines what the animal is fed. Grass-fed also doesn’t mean grass-finished, which means that the animal was fed grass until the day they are slaughtered. Many of them are fed grain to fatten them up right before they are slaughtered.
  • USDA Organic: This is one term that actually has a very specific legal definition. It refers to the feeding standards and medication that were given to the animal. They are only allowed to be fed organic grain and grass that included no by-products, hormones, or antibiotics. Animals are also required to be allowed to graze outside on a pasture for at least 120 days annually. The outside area must include shelter, shade, fresh air, direct sunlight, clean drinking water, an exercise area, dry and clean bedding, and be suitable in temperature. The conditions must allow for reduced stress and freedom of movement. On-site inspections are done to enforce this.
  • Farm-Raised (Fish): Farm-raised fish are commercially bred and raised in tanks, net pens, or other enclosures. Farm-raised fish have earned a terrible reputation over the years as these fish are often fed corn meal, soy, genetically modified canola oil, and other animal by-products. It’s reportedly common practice to give them antibiotics due to overcrowding and added growth hormone may be used to allow for speedier production. The USDA has yet to finalize organic standards for farmed fish, but “organic” salmon, shrimp, cod, and tilapia from abroad are still available. Because of the lack of regulation when it comes to farm-raised fish, most U.S. consumers tend to look for U.S. produced products. The industry has started to address the negative connotation surrounding farm-raised fish by introducing “responsibly raised” practices into their farming activities. Today, nearly 50 percent of all seafood on the market is farm-raised, as wild-caught options continue to be more limited, looking for farm-raised fish that follows responsible practices something you should consider.
  • Natural: This also calls to mind wholesome images of how animals are raised, but the term has nothing to do with animal welfare. Natural refers to food that is minimally processed without artificial ingredients. Producers are required to provide supporting documents for their claims of natural, but the USDA doesn’t conduct on-site inspections to verify the claims.
  • American Humane Certified: American Humane certified is different than Certified Humane. Animals under American Humane certified can be raised in feedlots and chickens aren’t required to have outdoor access.

A Cautionary Note On Package Statements

When you see, statements like “all-vegetarian diet,” “humanely raised,” “pasture-raised,” “free-range,” or “all-natural,” these don’t actually adhere to anything that is properly regulated and/or requires third-party certification. Don’t think the meat with these statements is what it says it is. For example, the term “natural” only refers to processing after slaughter.

The Decision is Yours

Ultimately, when it comes to understanding food labels, the reality is, it boils down to what you are comfortable with, what your idea of humane treatment of animals is, and what you believe it takes to make an animal healthier for your consumption. Knowing exactly what happened to animals when buying meat from a store can really be a game of chance.

If you really want to know where your meat came from, look for a producer near you that raises, slaughters, and sells their own meat. Most of them will not only sell you a product that you can rest easy knowing where it came from but will likely also give you a tour of their farm so you can see for yourself what you’re really getting (and some will even farm kill for you if you buy the whole animal).

Ultimately our consumption patterns and choices as consumers will be what drives changes in our food system and the agricultural industry. How will you impact it with your beliefs?

Feel free to subscribe to my quarterly newsletter Refinding Food.

Data Analyst and Strategist for Food and Ag. I’m badass cowgirl who raises her own meat and can always bee found with my horses.

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