July 20, 2018
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Supermarket Buying Guide: Meat & Poultry

What's in a Meat Label?

by Edward R. Blonz, Ph.D.  

Special labels on meat and poultry packages can be confusing. Here are some definitions. Keep in mind that these labels are no indication that a product is more nutritious or safer from contamination than one without the labels. They only mean what they say—and sometimes even that is open to interpretation.

  • Air-chilled. After slaughtering, poultry is hung to cool instead of entering an icy chlorinated water bath, as is the more common practice in the U.S. There is little evidence of any difference in bacterial contamination, and yet this poultry can cost twice as much.
  • Certified organic. Meat and poultry meet specific requirements, including no use of antibiotics, hormones, pesticides or biotechnology. According to a 2010 ruling, organically raised cattle must be allowed to pasture-graze at least one-third of the year. There is no assurance that organic meat or poultry is any more nutritious or safer from contamination than non-organic—and there is no requirement that animals be slaughtered more humanely. But less use of antibiotics cuts down on the risk of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria (“superbugs”) emerging, and meat raised in this manner supports more sustainable methods of food production.
  • Free-range. Chickens must be given some access to an outside area, but the amount of time and space—or even whether the birds actually go outside—is not regulated. There is no definition for cattle or other animals, so this claim on beef or pork is meaningless and without verification.
  • Grass-fed. Animals must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season—with hay and silage, etc., allowed at other times, but no grain. The “USDA Process Verified” shield ensures that the meat meets standards for “grass-fed” and that the animals were not grain-finished. They may, however, be given antibiotics and hormones.
  • Mechanically separated. Meat or poultry that has had the bone separated from the meat by a machine that forces it through a sieve under high pressure. Mechanically separated pork and poultry are allowed to be sold for human consumption. But beef treated this way is not, because of BSE (“mad cow disease”) restrictions; instead, it can be used only for animal feed.
  • Kosher or Halal. Products, including meat and poultry, are prepared under religious supervision or according to specific religious laws. The label does not mean that the foods are more flavorful, more nutritious or safer than non-kosher products, though many people think they are.
  • Natural. Products contain no artificial ingredients or added color and are minimally processed. This designation does not address how an animal was raised, however.
  • No antibiotics. This label is allowed on meat and poultry if the producer can provide documentation to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that no antibiotics were used in raising the animals.
  • No hormones. Allowed on beef if the producer can provide documentation to the USDA that no hormones were used in raising the animals. It is allowed on poultry or pork only if the label also states that regulations do not allow hormone use in chickens, turkey or hogs anyway.

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