Once upon a time, a trip to the grocery store was a simple task. Hit the meat case, pick up a few pork chops, and call it a day. Today, it’s a bit more complicated. The same meat packaging symbols and phrases intended to make shoppers’ lives easier have turned into a veritable guessing game. Is Hormone-Free the same as No Hormones Ever? What does All-Natural even mean?
You can thank the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) for doing the legwork to ensure food labels are truthful. Their job is to make sure that a company can’t claim its bacon will make you smarter or that their ham is aged a year if it’s only been aged for one week. Likewise, claims about how animals are raised or what they’re fed need to be cleared by the FSIS.
Understanding the difference between these complicated labels will help you shop with confidence the next time you’re scanning the meat case. Here are seven terms to know:
No Antibiotics Ever, No Antibiotics Administered, Raised Without Antibiotics: These phrases can appear on meat labels only if a producer has certifiably proved that their animals were never given antibiotics, whether through food or by injection.
USDA Process Verified: This term means a USDA auditor has made an in-person visit to a producer’s farm or facility to confirm that its claims are true. Such claims may include “No Antibiotics Ever,” “100% Vegetable Diet,” “Gestation-Crate-Free” or “Raised Without Growth Promotants.”
Fed a Vegetarian Diet: This means animals have been raised on a vegetarian diet free of any animal byproducts. Companies that use labels with animal-raising claims like Fed a Vegetarian Diet, Grass-Fed, etc., are required to back up those claims with proper documentation.
Animal Welfare: Third-party animal-welfare programs include “Animal Welfare Approved,” “Global Animal Partnership (GAP),” “Certified Humane,” and “American Humane Association Certified.” Some meat companies have their own internal certification standards, meanwhile. Some labels also carry second-party humane certificates or are certified by USDA (sometimes called self-certification). Each program has its own standards for how animals are housed, weaned and cared for, and you can generally locate more information about standards on a company’s website or through their certification. Animal-welfare claims like Group Housed and Gestation Crate Free, for example, require documentation in order to receive the USDA stamp of approval.
No Hormones Added, No Steroids Added: Legally, farmers can’t give hormones to pigs, so the USDA requires that pork label claims like “No Hormones or Steroids Added” be followed with this disclaimer: “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry (or pork or veal).” The use of the claim “Raised Without Growth Promotants” requires the disclaimer “Ractopamine-Free Diet” since the use of the feed additive ractopamine is still permitted in the United States.
Meanwhile, livestock such as cattle and sheep are legally allowed to receive hormones, so in order to use these terms for these products, the USDA requires farmers to provide proof that no hormones were used while raising them.
All Natural: Many consumers assume that the term “All Natural” doesn’t mean anything. But it actually refers to meat that was minimally processed without artificial ingredients, chemical preservatives or colors. (You may also see the term “minimal processing,” which refers to a meat product that wasn’t radically altered during processing). Bottom line: Whenever you see a meat product package labeled “All Natural,” there should be a statement (such as “no artificial ingredients” or “minimally processed”) backing up its claims.
Uncured: If you see the term “Uncured” on meat products such as bacon, ham or hot dogs, it means that no chemical (or artificial) nitrites or nitrates have been added. (Curing agents give these meats their characteristic flavor and pink color.) Instead, uncured meats contain nitrites derived from celery or other produce that is naturally high in nitrates (which converts into nitrites). Processed meat products that are labeled “All Natural” must be Uncured; however, products labeled Uncured aren’t necessarily All Natural—unless every single ingredient is also natural. (Note: The USDA is currently undergoing a potential change the “Uncured” label to “Naturally Cured” to help clarify this statement.)
While the seven terms defined here are the most common labeling claims, inevitably you might run into others. When in doubt, grab your phone and search the label term, plus “USDA,” to discover whether it’s regulated by the government or a third party.