Behind the labels

Figuring out meat labels is like trying to decipher your IRS tax form, a map of Los Angeles, or some other complex system. This is because meat labels are issued and monitored by different non-profits and government agencies. We try to simplify them here, but always ask your farmer or food company how they interpret a label.

Grass-fed

  • To use this label, farms and food companies of a certain size must have their farm practices verified by the USDA. They send the USDA a written description of their animal production practices, and the agency determines whether a grass-fed label can be used (there are no farm visits). Animals must be 100% grass-fed and graze live pasture during the growing season.
  • Many farmers use the grass-fed label without registering their label with the USDA. You have to trust your farmer or visit their farm to determine if they truly have a grass-fed operation.
  • Farms can become certified grass-fed through the USDA or the American Grass Fed Association. Both programs make annual farm visits and require animals to graze live pasture during the growing season, though the American Grass Fed Association has more detailed criteria than the USDA, as well as its own label.

Pasture-raised

  • To use this label, farms and food companies must have their farm practices verified by the USDA. They send the USDA a written description of their animal production practices, and the agency determines whether a pasture-raised label can be used (there are no farm visits). Animals must be raised outdoors for a ‘significant’ portion of their lives and must never be confined in a feedlot.
  • There is no regulated description of what “pasture” looks like or how much vegetation should be growing.
  • Many farmers use the pasture-raised label without registering their label with the USDA. You have to trust your farmer or visit their farm to determine if they truly have a pasture-based operation.

Organic

  • The USDA has federal organic standards in place that farmers must follow if they want to be certified organic. (Remember, some organic farmers choose not to be certified, because of the cost of certification.)
  • To become certified organic, a farm must be visited at least annually by a representative of a local organization or governmental agency that has been authorized by the USDA to audit farms to make sure they’re following the federal organic standards.
  • Organic meats are verified to derive from cattle that are fed 100% organic feed, not administered antibiotics or hormones, and
    given year-round access to the outdoors. Specifically, they must graze on pasture for 120 days of the grazing season and receive 30% of their dry matter intake from grazed organic pasture.

Free-Range

  • To use this label, farms and food companies of a certain size must have their farm practices verified by the USDA. They send the USDA a written description of their farm, and the agency determines whether a free-range label can be used (there are no farm visits). Animals must have continuous access to the outdoors for more than 51% of their lives. The label cannot be used if animals are continually confined indoors during colder months.
  • The outdoor area that the animals must have access to isn’t required to be vegetated, and the sizes may vary.
  • Many farmers use a free-range label without registering their label with the USDA. You have to trust your farmer or visit their farm to determine if they truly have free-range animals.

Local

  • There is currently no nationwide organization or governmental entity that oversees or verifies the use of the “local” label on meat products. Some states have their own definition of “local” as being within their state or within a certain mileage of their state.

Humanely raised

  • There is currently no organization or governmental entity that verifies the use of a “humanely raised” label on meat products. Because of this, Humaneitarian.org will continue to monitor the use of this claim by farms and food companies, though we’re not able to visit farms to check on them.

Humane certified

  • As noted on the humane certifiers page, if a farm wants to use a humane label issued by a certifying organization, it must agree to be audited at least once a year by that organization. Sometimes the organization will make additional visits to check on things, or be available year-round to answer a farmer’s questions.
  • The standards of the four major humane certifiers in the U.S. are all posted on their websites.
  • There are farmers who deem their practices to be humane choose not to be certified, because of the cost of certification. Animal Welfare Approved is the only humane certifier that doesn’t charge for certification.

[Sources for this page: USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service, Animal Welfare Approved, Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association of Vt.]