Just in time for cookout season, Larry Olmsted, author of Real Food Fake Food, helps decipher all those confusing meat labels.

Meat Labels Illustration
Illustration by Sarah Beth Hulver
| Credit: Illustration by Sarah Beth Hulver

Means What It Says:


The USDA organiclabel program has clear guidelines, and the agency makes sure they're followed. Animals must be raised without antibiotics or hormones in a way that accommodates their "natural behavior" (cattle can graze, for instance). If you're willing to pay a premium, this is the one to buy. 

Take a Closer Look:


There are rules about what this claim means, but the USDA doesn't visit farms to check unless companies pay for an audit. Those products will have the "USDA Process Verified" logo on the package. 


To ensure you're getting the benefits of grassfed (more omega-3s, less fat), make sure the label on your beef includes the American Grassfed Association's seal.


This label doesn't mean much when you see it on poultry or pork—the USDA doesn't allow producers to use hormones with chicken and pigs. It does allow hormones to be used on cattle, so your best bet is to go organic for beef. 

Humanely raised

The government doesn't have standards for this designation, but some nonprofits do—they judge producers on the quality of the animals' lives and how they're slaughtered. For the most stringent standards, look for these logos: Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane or Global Animal Partnership (Step 4 and up). 

Don't Even Bother:


According to the USDA, this means your meat contains no artificial ingredients, like colorings. However, all unprocessed meat sold in America fits in this bucket, so the label is meaningless. 


This term sounds great, but it's "kind of a scam," Olmsted says. "It usually means a dog door where chickens can theoretically go outside but, in practice, they don't." Instead, follow the guidelines under "humanely raised."