Decoding Meat and Dairy Labels

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fresh meat and tomato on plate

Hello, my name is Jesi and I’m a label-holic.  I read labels while eating breakfast, shopping and whilst visiting the loo. I’ve always had a morbid curiosity in what was inside whatever I was porking down or rubbing on myself.  In the last few years, the habit has become manic.  The more I learn and try to live as naturally as possible, the more I scour.

I’m pretty sure you need PhD after your name to be able to tell what all those fancy words mean, but I can give you a short tutorial on how to decode your basic food labels.  This list *is not*  by any means all inclusive, but gives you a good jumping off place. Just being aware and making an effort to police what’s in your food can make a big difference in your health. For this post, we will focus on Meat and Dairy labels.


Meat and Dairy Labels

Certified Organic – the animals must be given outdoor access.  Grazing animals animals must have access to pasture, but frequency and duration is undefined.  Hormones and antibiotics is prohibited.  Certified through third party auditing.

Free Range Chickens and Turkeys – the animals should have outdoor access, but there are no definitions regarding frequency, duration or quality of the outdoor area. Additionally, there are no definitions regarding stocking density or how many animals per square inch.  This “accolade” is attained by the producer submitting an affidavit to the USDA to support their claim of “free range”.

Grass-fed – Ruminant animals (sheep,cows, etc.) are fed a diet comprised solely of grass and forage.  They are allowed natural habits such as grazing and must have continuous pasture access throughout the growing season. Producers receive approval for this label by submitting an affidavit.

Hormone-Free, rGBH-Free, rBST-Free and No Hormones Added – This means that the animals were not dosed with genetically engineered hormones to increase milk production or speed growth.  Chicken and pig producers are not legally allowed to use hormones anyway.  There may be some verification for this claim, but not always.


 Cage-Free – Chickens grown for meat are rarely caged before transport however, chickens raised for eggs are routinely caged in severely restrictive cages where they cannot engage in natural and important behaviors such as freely grazing and pecking as well as spreading their wings.  Think cage-the-same-dimensions-as-an-iPad. Yuck. The “cage-free” distinction is basically useless on chicken meat, but on egg cartons it gives a little insight on how the chicken who laid the egg was raised. It does not tell you they were certainly humanely raised, it just tells you they weren’t kept in a miniscule cage. There is virtually no checking for adherence to any of these claims, so your guess is as good as mine whether the chicken really was cage-free. All the more reason to raise your own chickens, people!

Vegetarian-Fed – Vegetarian – that’s good right?  Not necessarily.  This may mean that the animal was fed a more natural feed than their factory farmed counter-parts, however this tells us nothing about their living conditions or otherwise.  This may also mean that the chicken was fed a diet primarily made of corn and/or soy. Natural and normal chicken diet?  I think not.

Natural and Naturally Raised – There is no substantiation for this claim and it has no relevance to the diet or care the animal was given.  It can be put on basically anything with no governing body or recourse.  Naturally raised corn flakes, anyone?

Grain-Fed – Feeding ruminants (cows, sheep and goats) high levels of grain can cause liver abscesses and problems with lameness.  Not to mention produces inferior and unhealthy meat for us carni humans. It usually means the animals suffered lower welfare than those labeled “grass-fed”.  Think corned-beef.  Cows locked in tiny stalls where they can’t even turn around and are only given corn.  Man, I used to love corned beef and cabbage. Until I saw a picture of a corned-beef farm.  Gross.

Pastured – Not to be confused with pasteurized. Pastured means the animal was hypothetically raised on pasture – i.e. grass, roughage and forage. Pasteurized means food is heated to kill bacteria and pathogens. Incidentally, foods that are pasteurized have less nutrients and enzymes to help you digest them because of the heating process.  Milk is a commonly pasteurized food.

November's Bytemarks Lunch visit to the McKinley aquaculture fish farm.

Wild-Caught – This means the animal (or fish generally) was caught in the wild from it’s natural habitat and diet.  This is usually the best way to obtain fish. Commercially farmed fish are usually fed unnatural soy based diets and sometimes even poo from other fish or animals. Oh yes, chicken doodie is the main ingredient in a lot of commercial farm fish food. They are also treated with antibiotics frequently because of crowded conditions as well as saturated with pesticides for sea lice.  Yum.

Now that you’re thoroughly disgusted, what do you do now?

Now I just know you want to run right out for some farm-raised tilapia for dinner, don’t you? Take this list, study it and then read the label every time you put something in your cart at the grocery store.  Decide what you’re willing to compromise and what you’re not and go from there.  Taking simple steps to make sure you’re not knowingly buying unhealthy or inhumane products will make a big impact on your diet and your health.





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