Checking labels on meat packages can provide you with a surprising amount of information about the steak or chicken breast you’re about to buy. There’s calories, fat, and best-by date, of course, but you can also find out whether the meat is organic, the animal was raised without antibiotics or synthetic hormones, and more.  

For many consumers, the information on meat packages sways their purchasing decisions. For example, you might be willing to pay more for meat or poultry with a particular label.

The trouble is, many consumers don't know what the various terms mean and how they are regulated, according a new nationally representative survey of 1,000 Americans from the Consumer Reports National Research Center. To help you make sure you’re buying what you think you’re buying, here we explain some of the most common terms on meat packages.

Grass Fed

What consumers think: About two-thirds of the people in our survey correctly believe that this claim should mean that the animal was exclusively fed grass or hay—no grain—for its entire life. Fifty-eight percent believe that grass fed animals are not given antibiotics or hormones. Six out of 10 consumers think that meat producers should be allowed to make a partial grass-fed claim if the animal’s diet was less than 100 percent grass.

What it really means: The Food Safety and Inspection Service division of the Department of Agriculture has a decent definition of grass-fed: the meat must come from animals that have never been given grain and have access to pasture during the grazing season, although the farms are not required to be inspected by the agency. And under FSIS rules, the animal can still be raised with antibiotics or hormones.

Partial grass-fed claims, such as 85 percent grass-fed, on beef are permitted, but they are meaningless. All cattle spend the first part of their lives eating grass or hay; some are fed grain to make them grow faster and larger before slaughter. So there’s little difference between a partially grass fed animal and a conventionally fed one. In addition, these animals may not have continuous access to pasture and spend a portion of their lives confined to a feedlot.

The American Grassfed Association and Animal Welfare Approved Grassfed labels have stricter standards than the USDA “grass fed” definition. Those seals indicate that the cattle are fed only grass or forage from weaning to slaughter, graze on pasture, are not confined to feedlots, and are not given any drugs routinely, including antibiotics and hormones. (AGA standards also require that animals be born and raised in the United States.) An independent third party inspects the farms to verify that the AGA’s standards are being met.  

Humanely Raised

What consumers think: Over 80 percent of our survey participants said they believed that meat with this label comes from farms that are inspected to verify the claim, and many thought it means the animals have adequate living space (77, percent), have access to the outdoors (68 percent), and were slaughtered humanely (71 percent).

What it really means: This term has no official definition and it is not verified either by USDA or any independent organization. To be certain the meat you buy comes from animals that are humanely raised, look for the Animal Welfare Approved seal, a GAP 1-5+ label, or the Certified Humane seal. The USDA Organic seal has some animal welfare standards, such as adequate space, but not to the same degree as other animal welfare labels. 

No Growth Hormones/No Added Hormones/No Hormones or Steroids Added

What consumers think: The majority of consumers believe that animals should not be given hormones or any growth promoting drugs.

What it really means: This label is truthful, but can be misleading. Cattle can be raised with hormones, so a no hormone claim on beef is meaningful. But the USDA does not allow hormones or steroids to be used in poultry or pork. Producers making this claim must follow it directly with a line saying this, but that information is almost always in smaller print and may be hard to spot. But with any type of animal, a “no hormone” claim doesn’t mean the animal was not given antibiotics, or that hogs were not given ractopamine, a drug that promotes growth that is neither a hormone nor an antibiotic.

No Nitrates/No Nitrates or Nitrites Added

What consumers think: Nearly two thirds of consumers in our survey believe this means no nitrates at all, whether from artificial or natural sources.

What it really means: The meat may not have been cured with synthetic nitrates or nitrites, but probably was cured using concentrated nitrates from vegetables like celery or onion. The curing chemistry is the same no matter where the nitrate comes from. The World Health Organization classifies nitrates and nitrites as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” While the USDA has limits as to how much synthetic nitrates/nitrites a food can contain, there are no restrictions for natural ones. Check ingredients lists for celery juice or celery powder, which act as nitrates and carry the same risks as artificial nitrates.

Organic

What consumers think: More consumers said they bought natural (73 percent) versus organic food (58 percent). Over two-thirds think organic food is more expensive than natural food. In a previous Consumer Reports survey, about two-thirds of people thought that the natural label on meat and poultry meant no artificial ingredients or colors were added, and no artificial growth hormones were used. More than half mistakenly thought that it means no artificial ingredients in the animal's feed, no GMOs in the feed and no antibiotics or drugs were given to the animal. Upwards of 60 percent of consumers believed organic foods had these attributes.

What it really means: Organic is a term consumers can rely on. Natural is not. On meat labels, the USDA organic seal indicates that the animal was given only organic feed. The animals can’t be given antibiotics or growth hormones. Even sick animals treated with antibiotics can’t be labeled organic. The exception is chickens: They can be given antibiotics in the egg or on the day they hatch but not afterward.

Natural on meat and poultry labels does mean no artificial ingredients added to the cut of meat and that the meat is minimally processed, but natural meat and poultry can be raised with antibiotics and natural beef can be raised with synthetic hormones.

Raised Without Antibiotics/No Antibiotics Administered

What consumers think: Half of the people in our recent survey said this claim means the animal did not receive any antibiotics. A quarter of them said that it means no antibiotics or any other drugs were used.

What it really means: Antibiotic use in healthy farm animals, either to promote growth or prevent disease, is rampant and it is contributing to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria. It is harder to treat someone with an infection caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria, because the bacteria have become immune to the drugs normally used to combat them.

A “no antibiotic” or “raised without antibiotic” claim should be reliable but verification isn’t required. The meat producer can submit an affidavit to the USDA, but the agency does not inspect the farms. However, the label does not mean that hormones are other drugs were not used.

However, if you see the claim “no growth promoting antibiotics,” it is arguably an attempt to put one over on consumers. The FDA has asked drug companies to change the labels on antibiotics used in animals to indicate that they are not for growth promotion. But they can still be used to “ensure animal health,” or to prevent or control disease. That means the practice of giving animals low doses of antibiotics throughout their lives can continue, just under another name, doing little if anything to help control the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

While it may be true that no growth promoting antibiotics were used, antibiotics could have been used for disease prevention. While Consumer Reports believes sick animals should be treated with antibiotics, the low doses that are given to animals regularly to prevent disease destroy only some bacteria. Those few hardy survivors are excreted in manure, where they multiply, eventually leading to colonies of more and more indestructible superbugs