Smart Spending: Navigating supermarket meat labels
New York • Browsing the meat section at the supermarket, labels abound for organic meat and meat raised without antibiotics or hormones.
They're almost guaranteed to carry a higher price tag, but it's not always obvious what the labels even mean. The Food Safety and Inspection Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is responsible for ensuring that labels for meat and poultry products are truthful. Catherine Cochran, a spokeswoman for the division, says that any label on a meat product has to be approved.
Still, terms such as "antibiotic-free," "natural" and "organic" blur together in many shoppers' minds, even though they mean very different things.
To help you decide whether to pay more, here's a look at what some common meat labels mean.
Organic • Organic meat comes from animals that weren't given any antibiotics, hormones or genetically modified feed.
Synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals also can't be used on the pastures for the animals or the land where their feed is grown, says Mark Kastel, founder of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based group that advocates for organic farming. Put more simply, the animal itself was raised on an organic diet.
Organic labeling, which is overseen by the USDA's National Organic Program, also dictates certain living conditions for the animal that promote "natural, instinctive behaviors," Kastel said.
Natural • According to the USDA, meat labeled as "natural" must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients or added color. In essence, the definition is focused on the final packaging of the meat, rather than the methods used to raise the animal.
Meat labeled as natural doesn't have to be organic and may have come from an animal given antibiotics and hormones.
An example of meat that isn't natural is beef injected with certain ingredients that are considered artificial, such as sodium phosphate. But the labels should note if meat has been injected with a solution or tenderized with an ingredient, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
There are some exceptions. Uncooked corned beef brisket, for example, can contain solutions to cure the meat up to a certain point without saying so on the label.
Antibiotic-Free • The widespread use of antibiotics has become a concern, with farmers feeding them to animals to fatten them up or prevent diseases in crowded feedlots. The problem is that the practice leads to the growth of antibiotic-resistant germs.
Organic meat by definition should have been raised without antibiotics and the USDA also offers a verified "No Antibiotics Administered" label. But keep in mind that the antibiotic label doesn't automatically carry other benefits.
A good illustration of this is Chipotle, which touts the fact that its meat is "responsibly raised." A spokesman for the chain, Chris Arnold, says this means the meat wasn't treated with antibiotics or hormones. But the meat Chipotle uses isn't organic.
The Denver-based company also created a minor backlash last month when it said it was considering allowing the use of antibiotics in select circumstances to treat an animal for an illness. That isn't permitted under the definitions for organic and the USDA verified label for meat raised without antibiotics.
Free-range • The USDA says companies have to demonstrate that free-range poultry was given access to the outdoors. But there are no specifications on what exactly that entails, and there could be a lot of variance in what it means.
"There's a lot of perversion of the spirit of the rule," said Shapiro of the Humane Society.
For example, Shapiro said this could entail a door that is open for less than one day a week, with the door leading out to a concrete patio.
Although there are no regulations around the term, the Food Safety Inspection Service says a company's description of the poultry's housing conditions in the application for label approval is reviewed to ensure that birds have continuous, free access to the outdoors for more than half their lives.
The cage-free label, meanwhile, is meaningful when applied to eggs, not chicken. Chickens raised for meat may be kept in crowded conditions, but most aren't kept in cages anyway.
By contrast, most chickens raised for eggs are kept in cages, often is such a way that "they can't even spread their wings," Shapiro said.