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Decoding Supermarket Beef Labels

I buy my beef in bulk directly from a local rancher. But I remember the days before I lucked into my current freezer, the days when I had to buy beef at the supermarket.  Reading and understanding the labels drove me batty.

Labels can make all sorts of vague claims — even claims that don’t seem vague. For nearly an entire year I periodically bought an “all-natural beef” that promised “no antibiotics EVER*” and “no growth hormones EVER*.”  Then one day I got curious about those asterisks. I looked on the rest of the packaging to see what the asterisk referred to, but couldn’t find anything. So I asked the guy behind the butcher counter, and he found a pamphlet that comes with the pre-packaged beef. It turns out they were claiming they didn’t use antibiotics or hormones in the processing of the meat. You know, the process of butchering, cutting up, and packaging the meat for retail. What???!!!

I would have killed for a beef label decoder. That’s why I’m presenting you all with this one.

Thanks to the good folks at National Geographic’s Green Guide for doing the research and Mark’s Daily Apple for the link, I can now share one of the most useful interactive tools I’ve seen online — a Beef Label Decoder.

The Beef Label Decoder analyzes 6 competing certifications across 5 categories.

The categories are:

  • Feed Allowed – Of course, we all know grass is best. Conventional cattle usually starts their life on a farm among rolling pastures. Then, towards the end of their life, the cattle are moved to a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) and are fattened up on an unnatural diet of corn, other grains, and silage. This radical diet causes all sorts of health problems in the animals, has a devastating impact on the environment, and dramatically changes the nutrient profile of the resulting meats.
  • Access To Pasture – Some labels don’t clearly define “access.”  An animal that has severely limited access to range, or (in some extreme cases) never leaves its stall, can still claim “access to pasture.” So, be sure to pick a label that clearly defines what access to pasture means.
  • Antibiotics — Conventional cattle are fed a steady stream of antibiotics as a matter of course, even when they’re “healthy.” This has been shown to contribute to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Some labels allow antibiotics to be used if the cattle is sick. Others require that an animal treated with antibiotics be removed from the certification program.
  • Growth Hormones — 66% of the cattle raised in the U.S. receive treatment with growth hormones. These not only show up in animal products, but also have a detrimental effect on the environment via pollution of waterways, etc.
  • Animal Welfare — Some labels have vague standards regarding animal welfare, while others have very stringent standards.

And the certification labels analyzed are:

  • USDA Certified Organic — 100% organic grass, corn, grain; “access” to pasture required, but not defined; antibiotics only given to sick animals, which are then removed from the program; growth-hormones prohibited; animal welfare criteria vague.
  • American Grassfed Association – Grass only; access to pasture required, animals spend the majority of their lives on pasture; antibiotics only given to sick animals, which are then removed from the program; growth-hormones prohibited; animal welfare criteria vague.
  • USDA Certified Grassfed – Grass, if an animal consumes something other than grass it must be documented, but it can still bear the label; “access” to pasture required, but not defined; antibiotics allowed; growth hormones allowed; animal welfare not addressed.
  • Certified Humane Raised & Handled – Grass, corn, grain allowed; access to pasture not required; antibiotics only given to sick animals; growth hormones prohibited; animal welfare requirements quite specific addressing health, shelter, and handling.
  • Food Alliance Certified – Grass, corn, grain allowed; access to pasture required, animals spend the majority of their lives on pasture; antibiotics only given to sick animals; growth hormones prohibited; animal welfare requirements quite specific addressing health, shelter, and handling.
  • Animal Welfare Approved — Grass, corn, grain allowed; access to pasture required, animals spend the majority of their lives on pasture; antibiotics only given to sick animals; growth hormones prohibited; animal welfare requirements quite specific addressing health, shelter, and handling.

If you’d like to check out the full interactive Beef Label Decoder, you can do so at the National Geographic’s Green Guide here.

(photo by This Year’s Love)

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.

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30 Responses to Decoding Supermarket Beef Labels
  1. FoodRenegade
    January 11, 2010 | 1:43 pm

    What exactly do certified “organic,” “humane,” “grass-fed,” etc mean? Now you can decode beef labels! http://su.pr/1xjXDA

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  2. GANaturalMom
    January 11, 2010 | 2:13 pm

    Reading @foodrenegade Decoding Supermarket Beef Labels http://tinyurl.com/ygfnuqn

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  3. Michaela
    January 11, 2010 | 3:22 pm

    This is a great post & I thank you for it. Beef is the next item on my list, but like so many others, budget constraints are the only reason we haven’t made the switch yet.
    .-= Michaela´s last blog post …Monday, February 1st, 2010 =-.

    • KristenM
      January 11, 2010 | 7:22 pm

      Michaela — Buying in bulk annually has saved us a ton of money. We got a FREE freezer when we bought this house (it came with the garage!), so we weren’t able to buy in bulk until about 3 years ago. I can’t believe I waited so long. Now I tell everyone to buy in bulk even if they don’t have the freezer space. Somebody they know does, and you can take out a one month supply of meat from your friend’s freezer and transfer it to your refrigerator freezer every so often. Even I do that, and my freezer’s just outside my kitchen door in the garage!

      Nevertheless, I know it can be a challenge to save up for that initial bulk purchase. But it’s so worth it!

  4. Walter Jeffries
    January 11, 2010 | 5:28 pm

    To your list I would add:

    Certified Naturally Raised
    http://www.naturallygrown.org/

    It is a growing alternative label that encompasses a lot of the organic standards with the addition of pasture raising and humane handling.

    Cheers

    -Walter
    Sugar Mountain Farm
    in the mountains of Vermont
    Save 30% off Pastured Pork with free processing: http://SugarMtnFarm.com/csa
    Read about our on-farm butcher shop project: http://SugarMtnFarm.com/butchershop

    • KristenM
      January 11, 2010 | 7:24 pm

      Walter — Thanks for the info! I wonder if the reason that certification wasn’t on the list is because it appears to be for farmers who sell directly to market, rather than through distribution chains? Or perhaps the folks at National Geographic just picked the 6 most popular alternative beef labels and let all the smaller ones fall by the wayside?

      • Walter Jeffries
        January 12, 2010 | 2:23 pm

        My guess is that CNG (Certified Naturally Grown) is smaller and they were limiting how many they listed. It is a growing program and worth knowing about both for consumers and farmers. We sell both directly to individuals as well as through local stores and restaurants. One of the things that CNG does emphasize is selling locally and being small as an anti-dote to the way that CO has been taken over by big business.

  5. Elizabeth @ The Nourished Life
    January 11, 2010 | 5:39 pm

    This post reminds me to be so thankful that we have access to affordable grassfed beef. There are many changes I haven’t made yet, but I have been able to do local grassfed beef from a farmer who really believes in raising healthy, pastured animals. Those labels are so deceptive! It’s really a shame that every industry seems to find these loopholes they can use to trick consumers.
    .-= Elizabeth @ The Nourished Life´s last blog post …Frightening Food: Scary Soy Stories =-.

    • KristenM
      January 11, 2010 | 7:25 pm

      No kidding! It makes me mad every time I think about it, and it’s a large reason why I blog about this sort of stuff. We need informed consumers!

  6. Betsy
    January 11, 2010 | 7:49 pm

    I think the USDA Certified Grassfed label gets my goat (cow?) the most. If I were shopping for meat in the grocery store, I would think that was a wonderful find. But not with hormones and antibiotics, thank you.

    Thank goodness for ranchers who raise good meat and truck it around the state every couple of months. I love having a full freezer.

    • KristenM
      January 11, 2010 | 8:37 pm

      I know! What really gets me is that it can still bear the label as “certified grassfed” even if the cow eats something OTHER than grass. How can they allow that with any conscience?

  7. Pamela @ Seeds of Nutrition
    January 11, 2010 | 8:12 pm

    Being the avid label reader that I am ……thank you Kristen for this posting. One never really thinks to dig into the hidden info lurking on the labels when it comes to meat. We’re always more concerned with pkg. and canned foods as to what their labeling means. So glad you found this all out. A valuable resource for sure.
    .-= Pamela @ Seeds of Nutrition´s last blog post …Bald Eagle and Nest: =-.

  8. AndRam
    January 11, 2010 | 11:28 pm

    Reading @foodrenegade Decoding Supermarket Beef Labels http://tinyurl.com/ygfnuqn

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  9. mackbrook
    January 12, 2010 | 6:52 am

    We are AGA & AWA approved RT@FoodRenegade Now you can decode beef labels! http://su.pr/1xjXDA

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  10. Amy
    January 12, 2010 | 11:29 am

    This was very enlightening — excellent post. We already buy a half cow each year, and about 40 chickens per year straight from a local farm (so fresh they were slaughtered that morning). But I have not started buying pork in bulk yet. This morning I opened a package of Wellshire Farms All Natural Uncured Bacon only to notice an asterisk after “all natural.” The label gave NO indication about what that meant. It just said “raised naturally” over and over. UGH. I have a sick feeling that I don’t want to know, but will probably be contacting the company later today to find out. Thank you for raising our level of awareness. This is such an important topic. People need to realize that you just cannot trust the FDA and the USDA to make your decisions for you.

  11. Raine Saunders
    January 12, 2010 | 12:38 pm

    Very eye-opening post Kristen! And this reiterates the importance of knowing where your meat comes from. Nine times out of ten, you really may not know what happens to the animals’ meat you are buying from the store, unless you already personally know something about the farm itself. That’s why the best bet simply is, buy your meat directly from the source after you have researched it. I just posted an article today about prescription drugs, healing, and the almighty dollar, with a special section on antibiotics used in meat.
    .-= Raine Saunders´s last blog post …Prescription Drugs, Healing, And The Almighty Dollar =-.

  12. CEOS_champion
    January 12, 2010 | 1:02 pm

    must read if you consume beef and care about what you are feeding yourself and your family http://bit.ly/5pEuhf Thank you @FoodRenegade!

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  13. Linda
    January 13, 2010 | 4:12 am

    Ugh.. I wish someone would make a list like this for beef that’s selling in the Netherlands.. it’s probably even more confusing around here. And we have way fewer options too.. it’s either ‘supermarket beef’, ‘sort-of-free-range-beef’ or ‘organic beef’ and no-one ever explains anything….

    I’m just buying some fish again today.. *lol*

    Greetings from the netherlands ;)
    .-= Linda´s last blog post …When time is scarce…. =-.

  14. SurreyActivist
    January 14, 2010 | 12:48 am

    Reading @foodrenegade Decoding Supermarket Beef Labels http://tinyurl.com/ygfnuqn

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  15. Alisa - Frugal Foodie
    January 14, 2010 | 11:58 am

    Awesome, thanks so much for this Kristen! It is very helpful.
    .-= Alisa – Frugal Foodie´s last blog post …Who Knew $3 Could Buy You This Much Health? =-.

  16. Alex
    January 17, 2010 | 2:30 am

    Great post! Very interesting. Thanks for doing the research.

    I get my meat these days from people, not stores, so I can ask them how they raised it. That beats labels. But I know that this is not an option, or not an easy option, for a lot of people.
    .-= Alex´s last blog post …Greater Boston Kimchi Festival IN THE NEWS =-.

  17. bfrg
    September 9, 2011 | 6:57 pm

    I’m so glad you pulled the information you did and put it in your post, since the link to NG’s Green Guide is no longer valid! Thanks!

  18. Judee
    February 29, 2012 | 2:03 am

    The links to the National Geo Green Guide has been removed as is the link to the Beef Label Decoder… any other links that I can check out?

  19. Christie Blunted Viewz via Facebook
    May 13, 2014 | 7:02 pm

    Switch to no meat and you won’t have to worry!

  20. Andy Hikes via Facebook
    May 13, 2014 | 7:06 pm

    Veganism is a mental illness

  21. Elvia Terrazas Rascon via Facebook
    May 13, 2014 | 7:51 pm

    I but when I go out of town and bring it home. Bit as lucky to have a rancher close by.

  22. Deborah Gallett via Facebook
    May 13, 2014 | 7:59 pm

    I thank God we have enough land to raise our own beef.

  23. Merri MerriBlue via Facebook
    May 13, 2014 | 10:57 pm

    Meat rocks!!!

  24. Merri MerriBlue via Facebook
    May 13, 2014 | 10:58 pm

    Is there a thumbs down link? lol

  25. Anita
    May 16, 2014 | 1:12 am

    You are so lucky that the labels actually state so much info. Here in South Africa, it just states (98% of the time) the type of animal and the cut. Like: beef shin. No indication if it is grass or grain fed, given hormones or antibiotics etc. (Although, some shops seems to think that grain fed is superior – and have a huge poster in the front of the shop: We only sell grain fed beef!) And if you ask in other shops, the people behind the meat counter give you a very blank look. Venison (in winter) and sheep/lamb is the only meat that one can safely assume is okay. The rest is a bit dodgy.

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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