Browsing the meat section at the supermarket, labels abound for organic meat, kosher 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. It may be that you wouldn’t pay extra if you knew what the terms signified.
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,” “kosher,” “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 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. For example, cattle have to be raised on pastures, rather than in a confined area.
People sometimes assume that kosher meat is healthier than conventional varieties. In fact, what the label means is that a rabbi was on site to ensure certain guidelines were followed in the animal’s slaughter. It’s not an indicator of how the animal was raised.
In other words, meat doesn’t have to be organic or free of antibiotics and hormones to be labeled kosher.
For those interested in humane methods of slaughter, note that a federal regulation requires certain farm animals, such as cows and pigs, to be rendered insensible to pain before they’re killed, whether by a single blow, gunshot or other “rapid and effective” method.
But the law states that slaughtering in accordance with religious requirements, such as for kosher and halal meat, is considered humane as well.
Because kosher guidelines require an animal to be fully conscious when it’s slaughtered, this may be problematic for those interested in humane methods of slaughter, said Paul Shapiro, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.
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 whether meat has been injected with a solution or tenderized with an ingredient, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service.