What Meat Labels Like ‘Organic’ and ‘Grass Fed’ Actually Mean—and Whether You Should Care

By Moira Lawler / Self.com –

Trying to buy meat these days can seem like a quiz on how well you know your labels. There’s organic. Grass-fed. The always-vague natural. Sometimes—OK, a lot of times—it’s not so clear what they mean. (Isn’t all beef “natural”?) To make matters more complicated, even if you have a solid grasp on what each label means, inspection standards vary greatly from label to label, even among the government-regulated ones outlined below.

Labeling standards are different depending on the animal, so here we’ll focus on beef labels, which seem to cause the most confusion. First, know this: Just because a beef product is labeled natural, organic, or grass-fed doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for you. There might be benefits for the animals or environment, but there are also plenty of myths about what’s healthy and what you should stay away from, which we get into below.

Here’s an explanation of the most common meat labels.


What it means: The animal ate only grasses and forages (like hay) for the length of its life, starting when it was weaned off its mother’s milk. The label is regulated by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) but isn’t strictly enforced.

How it’s regulated: The producer must send documentation to FSIS stating that its animals are raised on an all-grass diet. The claims then have to be verified by USDA auditors, which happens from an office rather than an in-person visit.

Keep in mind: The USDA’s grass-fed label refers strictly to the animal’s diet and has nothing to do with whether it did or did not receive hormones or antibiotics. If those are concerns for you, you can check for the American Grassfed Approved label, which is issued by the American Grassfed Association, not the government. Products bearing the AGA label must come from animals fed a diet of 100 percent forage, raised on a pasture, and never treated with hormones or antibiotics.

You may have heard that grass-fed beef is healthier than grain fed beef, but the nutritional differences aren’t that significant. One common health claim is that grass-fed beef has more omega-3 fatty acids than grain fed beef. While this is true, grass-fed beef still has less than 5 percent of the omega-3s found in salmon, so it’s not a significant source. Also, while grass-fed beef has less overall fat than grain fed, fat content depends more on the cut of meat than feeding practices.

Also known as: 100% Grass-fed


What it means: The meat has been minimally processed “in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product,” and it doesn’t have any artificial ingredients, such as spices or sauces, coloring, or chemical preservatives. “So, if you pick up fajitas that are already marinated, that technically can’t have the natural label,” Lindsay Chichester, an extension educator with the University of Nevada, Reno, who focuses on livestock and agriculture, tells SELF.

You can check the label of each product to figure out what the “natural” label means in each case. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”), per the FSIS guidelines.

How it’s regulated: Beyond requiring that producers include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural on each product, the label isn’t regulated at all.

Keep in mind: A 2015 survey from Consumer Reports found more than half of people polled look for the word “natural” on their food label. But, since the term isn’t well-defined and isn’t enforced, you really shouldn’t give it much weight. The animal could have consumed organic products or not, and it may have been given growth hormones or antibiotics.

You may, however, want to pay close attention if you have food allergies. Knowing the meat you buy doesn’t have a bunch of extras added is helpful when you’re trying to avoid specific ingredients.

Naturally Raised

What it means: Until 2016, this label meant that the meat had been minimally processed and didn’t have any artificial ingredients, and also that the animal didn’t receive growth hormones or antibiotics.

How it’s regulated: Naturally raised is no longer a USDA-regulated label. In January 2016, the AMS backed off from defining both grass-fed and naturally raised, saying it didn’t think it had the authority to do so. While grass-fed has since come to be regulated by the FSIS, naturally raised was dropped. So, the naturally raised label is voluntary and unregulated.

Keep in mind: If your goal is to avoid added growth hormones or antibiotics, there are other labels you should look for. More on that below.


What it means: This one’s the granddaddy of them all. The organic seal means the animals were raised on certified organic land, which is defined as land that hasn’t been subject to any prohibited substances, such as most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, sewage sludge, or genetic engineering, for at least three years. (Note that certain synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are allowed under organic regulations.)

To earn the USDA organic seal, the animals must also have year-round access to the outdoors, be fed an all-organic diet (which could include grains, as long as they’re organic), and may not be given antibiotics or hormones. They also need to be raised in a way that “accommodates their health and natural behavior”—that is, with access to sunny areas, shady spots, clean water, and shelter.

How it’s regulated: The organic seal is regulated by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Producers must submit documentation to the AMA’s National Organic Program, and a government agent visits the farm once a year. Meat can’t be marketed as organic unless it’s certified, the only exception being if it comes from a producer that sells less than $5,000 of total organic product each year. (These smaller producers can’t use the USDA organic seal without full certification, but they can legally market their product as organic.)

Keep in mind: You may decide to choose the organic option for environmental reasons, but it’s hard to say for sure that organic meat is significantly better for human health. European researchers recently compared the two and concluded that, given the relative lack of data on the effects of organic food consumption on human health, it’s “currently not possible” to say whether organic food is significantly healthier.

The major nutritional difference between organic and conventional meat is that conventional has “slightly, but significantly higher concentrations” of certain saturated fatty acids that have been linked to increased risk for heart disease. But the most effective way to curb your intake of these fatty acids is to limit your consumption of red meat and make sure saturated fat accounts for less than 10 percent of your total daily calories. And, since organic meat costs anywhere from 43 to 73 percent more than conventional meat, according to Consumer Reports, limiting red meat is more cost-effective as well.


What it means: A pastured-raised animal must have had access to the outdoors for a minimum of 120 days per year. According to USDA regulations, this label must be followed by additional terminology on what pastured-raised means in each particular case, since what’s considered pastured-raised could vary significantly from farm to farm. At one, the animal might live in a wide-open field, whereas another might only offer its animals an overcrowded parking lot.

How it’s regulated: The producer must send documentation to FSIS showing that the animal has had access to the outdoors for 120 days per year. The claims then have to be verified by USDA auditors, which happens from an office rather than an in-person visit.

Keep in mind: This label has to do with an animal’s quality of life, not what ends up in the products it becomes. Since the additional terminology required isn’t strictly regulated by the FSIS and can be difficult for consumers to understand, some producers who want to indicate a high quality of life for animals choose to include additional labels regulated by third-party organizations not affiliated with the USDA. Two highly regarded third-party labels are the Certified Humane label and the Animal Welfare Approved label.

Also known as: Pastured Fed, Not Confined

Raised Without Antibiotics

What it means: The animal was not given antibiotics at any point in its life—not in its food, water, or through injections.

How it’s regulated: The producer must send documentation to FSIS, including descriptions of how the animal was raised and how the producer ensures the claim is valid throughout the animal’s life. The claims are verified by USDA auditors, which happens from an office rather than an in-person visit.

Keep in mind: There’s a concern that antibiotics used in animals may contribute to the epidemic of antibiotic resistance in humans. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports there is “strong evidence that antibiotic use in food animals can lead to resistant infections in humans,” because antibiotic-resistant bacteria can grow in animals that have been treated with antibiotics, and these bacteria can be passed along to humans and cause infection. Both conventional and organic meat is tested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure that safe for human consumption, but choosing meat that’s raised without antibiotics can help minimize risk of being infected with resistant bacteria.

Also known as: No Antibiotics Administered, No Added Antibiotics, No Antibiotics

Raised Without Hormones

What it means: The animal received no added hormones during its life. Emphasis on “added,” since hormones occur naturally within animals. “I hear a lot of people say ‘no hormones,’ and that’s a misnomer because, naturally, anything that’s living produces hormones,” Chichester says. It’s more accurate to say “no added hormones,” she explains, because even if producers don’t dose the animals with hormones, no animal can ever be hormone-free.

How it’s regulated: The producer must send documentation to FSIS, including descriptions of how the animal was raised and how the producer ensures the claim is valid throughout the animal’s life. The claims are verified by USDA auditors, which happens from an office rather than an in-person visit.

Keep in mind: Federal regulations prohibit adding hormones to poultry, but hormones are allowed for cows and sheep, and some producers use them to make the animals grow faster. While growth hormones have been banned in Europe for decades and there’s concern that eating meat from an animal that was given growth hormones can lead to health issues, there isn’t conclusive research to validate these concerns. So far, studies have suggested that any artificial growth hormones in meat occur in too low a dose to have a measurable impact on human health. If you’re still worried about hormones, looking for the raised without hormones label can lessen that concern, as can limiting your intake of red meat altogether.

Also known as: No Hormones Administered, No Steroids Administered, No Hormones Added

So, OK, should you really care about any of these?

As is often the case with food, a lot of things come down to personal preference. “It’s based on your values and beliefs and truly what you think is best for you,” Chichester says. Organic and sustainable farming practices are better for the environment, and many can lead to a better quality of life for animals, too. If those things are important to you, some of these labels will be helpful when you’re choosing what kind of beef to buy. The organic label is by far the most all-encompassing and well-regulated government label. In terms of animal welfare, the Certified Humane label and the Animal Welfare Approved, while administered by third parties and not the government, are both highly regarded and worth looking out for.

When it comes to your own health, things are a little less cut and dried. There is evidence that antibiotics use in animals can lead to antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, and choosing meat raised without antibiotics can minimize that risk. Aside from that, there isn’t enough research yet to prove that organic or grass-fed beef is significantly better for you, and we still don’t fully understand the long-term effects of eating animals that have been administered hormones—if this concerns you, you can opt for beef that’s raised without hormones, or you opt for organic beef, which can’t have been administered hormones or antibiotics.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that both the USDA and the American Heart Association recommend eating less red meat overall as a way to reduce your risk for heart disease and increase your overall health, and neither touts organic as being healthier than conventional. All meat sold in the U.S. has been inspected and deemed safe to eat by the FSIS, so conventional meat can absolutely be part of a healthy, balanced diet.