As you walk through your grocery store's meat department, you will come across some very enticing, yet misleading labeling. You might look at a beef label that says "All Natural" and think it sounds pretty good. However, even though the meat is labeled "All Natural", producers can still give their animals Growth Hormones, Antibiotics and raise the animals in crowded feedlots on an unnatural grain-based diet.
The "All Natural" label may be used on any meat that has been minimally processed and containing no artificial ingredients. This simply means that no chemicals can be added to the meat during or after processing. So, sadly, under these guidelines, most commercial beef and chicken sold raw in the grocery store qualifies for this label.
Contrary to what you might think, the USDA labeling laws for meat do NOT contain narrow definitions or strict standards that might enable the average consumer to know exactly what they are eating. On the contrary, the terms are usually more "broadly defined" and only require minimum standards resulting in misleading labeling. So exactly how does this happen? One word, lobbyists. The big meat packers and feedlot owners have money and lobby very hard for the broadest set of protocols with the fewest standards. Sadly, this is true for most labeling laws governing the food you see in the grocery store, not just meat.
So, its up to you the consumer to educate yourself and be aware of the tricks of the trade when it comes to grocery store labeling.
- All Natural— As defined by the USDA, “natural” or “all-natural” means the meat has been minimally processed and contains no preservatives or artificial ingredients. This simply means that no chemicals can be added to the meat during or after processing (although using a chemical disinfectant bath during process to try to reduce E. coli on the carcass is allowed) . Since virtually all fresh beef conforms to these standards, the term has no real significance. The "natural" label does not exclude meats raised using feed-grade antibiotics or hormone implants, nor does it exclude animals raised in a feedlot. The USDA does not even regulate this term on labels, meaning that meat labeled as such is not given any additional inspection. Beef bearing the USDA's "Natural" label can be grown, fed and handled in the same way as other common cattle.
- Organic — Beef that carries the USDA organic logo has met the department’s standards, which prohibit the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified feed, and animal byproducts. However, the standards do not require a grass-only diet; the animal can still be fed an unnatural and unhealthy grain based diet.
- Pasture Finished—means a producer can feed his animals a “grain-based diet” as long as animals have access to pasture. The problem is that merely opening a gate from the feedlot into an adjacent “small” pasture qualifies as Pasture Finished. Unfortunately, cattle are similar to humans and prefer sweet foods like grain and corn to grass. They will, therefore, spend the majority of their time at the feed trough and a minority of time eating grass…if there is grass to eat.
- Grass-fed—according to the USDA, "grass-fed" means an animal must have “access” to grass and pasture during its life, and the animal must get the majority of its nutrients from grass. However, there is no restriction on the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides, and the program is voluntary, which means a producer may use “grass-fed” on its labels without verification. True grass-fed beef should be pasture raised from beginning to end. It is not enough to feed the animals 100% grass and hay, but not raise them in pasture. Unfortunately, the USDA's current voluntary labeling guidelines do not strictly enforce this concept. So just because it says "grass-fed" on the label does not mean the animal was grass-fed and pasture raised from beginning to end.