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.
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 practice can lead 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 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 ill animal. That isn’t permitted under the definitions for organic and the USDA verified label for meat raised without antibiotics.
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.
Shapiro, of the Humane Society said this could entail a door that is open for less than one day a week.
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 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.
But most chickens raised for eggs are kept in cages, often in such a way that “they can’t even spread their wings,” Shapiro said.