Decoding Food Labeling.

Confused by food labeling?
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American Humane Certified

The oldest animal welfare certification program in the U.S. uses standards developed by the American Humane Association. An independent third party audits producers. Its standards allow for de-beaking poultry in certain cases and for animals to be housed in cages big enough to allow natural behaviors like perching, nesting and scratching. Antibiotic use is allowed for treating sick animals and in conformance with Food and Drug Administration guidelines, which urge that producers stop using antibiotics to speed animals’ growth but do allow for the use of antibiotics to prevent diseases associated with crowded or unsanitary conditions. This certification is not granted to producers who use growth hormones.

Animal Welfare Approved

The non-profit Animal Welfare Institute grants its certification to independently-owned family farms that raise their animals outdoors on pasture or range and in a way that allows the animals to perform instinctive behaviors (as defined by standards developed by veterinarians and farmers). Antibiotic use is allowed only for sickness if recommended by a veterinarian. Sick animals must be treated and can later be sold as “Animal Welfare Approved” as long as slaughter occurs after the drug has cleared from the animal’s system. The standard mandates twice the legally-required drug withdrawal time. This certification is not granted to producers who use growth hormones. It requires that animals be rendered insensible to pain prior to slaughter.

Antibiotic Use Label Claims

— Producer-specific labelsVariations of Raised without antibiotics, No antibiotics ever, No antibiotics administered, No antibiotics, No antibiotics added

While these terms on labels may mean what they say, without a uniform standard or definition, consumers can’t be sure what they actually mean. Practices can vary widely from producer to producer. Some producers use the claims above on meat produced under other meat certifications like Global Animal Partnership, in which consumers can have confidence. When in doubt, call the company, or learn more on the company’s website.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service approves labels that each producer proposes to affix to meat. Producers are free to develop their own antibiotics standards and terminology and present them to the agency, since it does not publish clear standard definitions or transparent guidelines.

Producers who want to publish an antibiotic claim must submit a detailed written protocol describing how the animal was raised from birth to slaughter, along with a copy of the feed tags or record of feed formulation. The protocol must be accompanied by a signed affidavit declaring that claims that the animal was raised without any antibiotics are not false or misleading. The agency reviews the accompanying paperwork and approves or denies the label claim.

The agency says that it conducts on-site audits to verify producers’ claims but declines to say how many audits it conducts.

— USDA “Process Verified” antibiotic claimsThrough the Process Verified Program, producers can pay the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to verify that they are following their own animal production protocols, such as abstaining from antibiotic use. Once approved, producers can place their own version of the “USDA Process Verified” shield, or logo, next to an antibiotic claim on their meat.

An antibiotic claim accompanied by a “USDA Process Verified” logo usually has been vetted more rigorously than producers’ label claims without the logo. This can include on-site audits of processing and production facilities, though neither USDA nor companies using the logo tell the public what practices have been inspected. Since the agency sets no standards for producers to follow, it is in effect verifying that each producer has met its own standards. Because there are no uniform standards, these practices vary widely. Even the actual “USDA Process Verified” logos differ by company.

The “USDA Process Verified” shield, by itself, on a meat label does not indicate anything about antibiotic usage; producers use this phrase to make other claims, such as “cage free.” So consumers must look for both the antibiotic claim and “USDA Process Verified” to be sure that they are buying meat that was raised without the unnecessary use of antibiotics.

— Unapproved antibiotic claimsNo Antibiotic Residues, Antibiotic Free, Drug Free, Chemical Free, No Antibiotic Growth Promotants

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has declared that these phrases are not allowed on meat labels. If they are found on a package, they indicate that the producer is not following good labeling practices, may not have a good understanding of the law or may be trying to confuse the issue.


The term refers to hens that are not raised in cages, but it does not necessarily mean they have access to the outdoors. There is no standard definition of “cage-free,” but it generally implies that the birds are free to perform natural behaviors. Many cage-free claims are not certified, though some cage-free eggs are certified by American Humane Certified label.

Certified Humane

This label was set up by Humane Farm Animal Care, a non-profit, with endorsements from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and other humane organizations. It certifies that animals were never confined in cages or crates, that poultry were not subjected to de-beaking and that animals were slaughtered according to specific requirements designed to minimize suffering. This certification is not granted to producers who use growth hormones. Antibiotics can be used only to treat sick animals as directed by a veterinarian. The label does not require that the animals have access to pasture or range. Unlike “Animal Welfare Approved,” “Certified Humane” is available to corporate farms.

Farmed Fish

This refers to the rapidly growing industry that raises and feeds fish for human consumption in tanks or large wire pens anchored in coastal areas or other large bodies of water. Also called aquaculture, fish farming is expanding to offset the global decline in the wild fish catch. Fifty percent of seafood sold in the U.S. is now farmed. Ironically, feeding carnivorous farmed fish such as salmon requires harvesting millions of tons of smaller wild fish, such as anchovies and sardines, to produce fishmeal and fish oil. Catfish and other farmed fish are fed mostly soybeans and corn, while farmed tilapia eats a variety of algae, seaweeds and other aquatic plants. The use of open ponds and net pens or cages allows ocean water to flow freely through them. These enclosures pollute local waters with fish waste, excess feed and antibiotics and spread disease and parasites to sensitive wild marine species. The rapid growth of farmed shrimp ponds has led to deliberate destruction of thousands of coastal acres of mangrove forests that serve as fish nurseries, protect against storms and provide local economic livelihood.


In the United States, this term applies only to poultry and is regulated by the US Department of Agriculture. It indicates simply that the animals have been “allowed access to the outside.” The USDA does not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside.


This term technically refers only to animals fed a diet of natural grass and other forage, not grain, but it often includes other healthier farm practices not associated with industrially produced meat, such as local butchering, more range time for livestock and less crowded conditions. The three leading “grass-fed” labels, certified by the Food Alliance, the American Grassfed Association or the USDA, require that animals eat a diet exclusively of forage. Some companies that market their meat as “naturally raised” or grass-fed actually feed their animals grain for significant periods. USDA’s grass-fed marketing standard requires only that animals “must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” It does not necessarily mean that the animals spent their entire lives in pastures or on rangeland. Some cattle marketed as USDA grass-fed actually spend part of their lives in confined pens or feedlots.

Global Animal Partnership Animal Welfare Rating

The “5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program” offers a range of welfare standards, based on research done by Whole Foods Market and developed into a larger non-profit undertaking. Step 1 prohibits cages and crates. Step 2 requires “environmental enrichment” for animals kept indoors. Step 3 indicates that the animals have access to the outdoors. Step 4 means a “pasture-based” system. Step 5, signifies an “animal-centered approach with all physical alterations prohibited.” Step 5+, the highest level, means that the animal spends its whole life on the same farm with access to pasture. All steps prohibit the use of antibiotics in beef cattle and pigs; antibiotics may be used to treat sick chickens and turkeys as prescribed by a veterinarian. Growth hormones are prohibited in all steps. Third-party certification companies audit and issue the ratings.


Halal refers to foods acceptable for those of the Muslim faith who observe dietary laws prescribed in the Quran. For meat, a halal label indicates that the animal was slaughtered in a specific manner. A halal label does not specify how the animal was raised or whether or not antibiotics were used prudently in the animal.

Hormone-free/No added hormones

This means that the animals were never given hormone treatments. To boost profits, some farmers give hormones to beef cattle and sheep to speed their growth and to dairy cows to increase milk production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not allow hormones to be used in chickens, turkeys or hogs. The European Union does not allow hormones in any meat. The extensive use of hormones (see rBHG–free below) in meat and dairy may increase the risk of cancer in humans and result in higher rates of infection in animals. Products labeled “organic” cannot come from rGBH–treated cows. There is no specific hormone–free certification, though organic and grass–fed labels as well as many humane certifications do not allow hormone use. The label does not indicate whether antibiotics were used appropriately in animals.


Kosher refers to foods acceptable for those of the Jewish faith who observe dietary laws prescribed in the Torah. For meat, a kosher label indicates that a trained professional called a “shochet” slaughtered the animal in a specific manner. Kosher guidelines do not restrict growth hormones, pesticides in feed or antibiotics.

Lean/Extra Lean

These are USDA-defined terms. To qualify as “lean,” 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of beef must have fewer than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol. To be labeled “extra lean,” 100 grams of beef must have fewer than 5 grams of fat, fewer than 2 grams of saturated fat and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.


The USDA defines a natural product as one that contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” Processing must not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a specific explanation such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed.” All fresh meat qualifies as natural. This term does not require that animals be raised in sufficient open space or indicate that antibiotics have been used prudently. It does not bar growth hormones. It does not mean organic. The term can mislead consumers to believe that the product is healthier and more humane than it is.


Processed meats such as ham, bacon, lunch meats and hot dogs often contain nitrates or nitrites–often in the form of sodium nitrate–added to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, to enhance color or add a smoky flavor. Eating meat treated with nitrates may increase the risk of cancer and other health problems through the formation of nitrosamines.


Food labeled organic must be third-party certified to meet USDA’s criteria. Organic foods cannot be irradiated, genetically modified or grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals or sewage sludge. Organic meat and poultry cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics (sick animals must be treated but cannot be sold as organic) and must be fed only organically grown feed (with no animal byproducts). Organic meat animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants must have access to pasture. There are two ways to identify organic fruits and vegetables: by the “100% organic” or “organic” label and by the unique Price Look-Up (PLU) code sticker. Instead of a 4-digit number beginning with a “4,” organic produce has a 5-digit number that begins with a “9.”


Animals raised in a pasture can roam freely in their natural environment, where they are able to eat nutritious grasses and other plants that their bodies are adapted to digest. Products with an Animal Welfare Approved label must be raised on pasture or range. Certified organic meat must also come from animals that have continuous access to pasture.


These products are from animals not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). rGBH is a genetically engineered hormone approved by the FDA in 1993 that when injected into cows artificially increases milk production by 10 to 15 percent. There are health concerns for both cows and humans exposed to the drug. Buying organic dairy products is another way to avoid rGBH since its use does not meet the organic criteria.

Wild-caught/Wild Fish

The “wild fish” label indicates that the fish was spawned in the wild, lived in the wild and was caught in the wild. “Wild-caught fish” may have been spawned or lived some part of their lives in a fish farm before being returned to the wild and eventually caught. For sustainable fish, consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s list of the most sustainable seafood choices, or look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label.

See Sustainable Table’s excellent, extensive glossary to learn more: