By Lindsay Chichester, UNL Extension Educator
This is Part 3 of a three part series that will provide information on meat labeling terms. Part 1 covered Grass-fed and Grain-fed (http://go.unl.edu/8kk4) and Part 2 covered Organic, All-natural, and Naturally Raised (http://go.unl.edu/sksb).
Meat is a nutrient dense food product. Specifically, beef is a good source of protein, zinc, B vitamins, iron, and other essential nutrients! (Beef Nutrition, 2007).
How many times have you been grocery shopping or watching your favorite television program and you see and/or hear that no-added hormones is better? Or that you should be consuming "no antibiotics" meat? It can be confusing, overwhelming, and frustrating – who do you trust? Below I will provide you with the facts and truth, as well as resources to do some homework of your own.
All cellular organisms contain hormones, they are naturally occurring – there is no such thing as hormone free! When something is labeled “hormone free” or “no hormones”, it is a misnomer (as they are naturally occurring). The correct wording should be “no-added hormones”, “raised without added hormones”, “no hormones administered”, or “no synthetic hormones” (Labels that tell you a little, n.d.).
Hormones are NOT allowed in hog, poultry, or bison production. The statement “no hormones added” CANNOT be used on any packaging for pork and/or poultry items, unless it is followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry/pork” (Meat and poultry labeling terms, 2011; Labels that tell you a little, n.d.), so as not to mislead consumers into believing that these meat protein products were grown with additional hormones.
For other meat production animals, the term “no hormones administered” may be approved for use on the label if there is sufficient documentation indicating the producer has raised the animal without additional hormones (Meat and poultry labeling terms, 2011).
Labels indicating that no additional hormones were used can be used in any of the previously mentioned systems – organic, all-natural, naturally raised, grass-fed, grain-fed (organic and naturally raised are the only systems that do not allow for the use of additional hormones). These labels do not account for the diet of the animal, access to pasture, or how the meat was processed.
Is also referred to as “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics administered”. The term “no antibiotics added” may be used on labels for meat and/or poultry products if the producer can provide sufficient documentation indicating the animal was raised without antibiotics (Meat and poultry labeling terms, 2011; Labels that tell you a little, n.d.). This indicates that no antibiotics were used on the animal in its lifetime. Antibiotics are used to prevent and treat disease in animals – just like in humans. If an animal does have to be treated with an antibiotic for illness, the meat, milk, and/or eggs cannot be sold in an organic or naturally raised system and cannot have a label with the wording “raised without antibiotics” (Meat and poultry labeling terms, 2011).
Labels indicating that no antibiotics were used can be used in any of the previously mentioned systems – organic, all-natural, naturally raised, grass-fed, grain-fed (organic and naturally raised are the only systems that do not allow for the use of additional hormones). The no antibiotic labels do not account for the diet of the animal, access to pasture, or how the meat was processed.
When trying to decide which meat option is best for you, it is important to purchase meats that support your values and beliefs, as well as meats that fit into your budget. Shopping around is always advisable too. You have many options when it comes to purchasing meat, you may be able to purchase meat directly from a producer, a small or local butcher shop, your local retailer, or a bulk retailer. Finally, you may decide you prefer the taste of one of the meat types over another, and purchase based on taste and your family preference.
It can be difficult finding a clear and accurate definition of “humanely raised”. A list of possible criterion that a livestock producer would need to provide to his/her livestock to be considered “humanely raised” has been generated below from several sources.
Humanely raised can be:
- Produced in an ethical and humane fashion
- Raised with minimal stress
- Access to ample feed and water
- No antibiotics
- No additional hormones
- Are not fed animal products/byproducts
- Anything that doesn’t come from a factory farm
- Animals raised on pastures
- Animals allowed to act naturally
- Product traceability back to the farmer
- Certified by a trustworthy, independent organization
- Processed in a conscience manner
First, the humane label varies in its definition from program to program. These labels are not regulated under any USDA programs (USDA, 2012). This means that humane certification programs are provided through third-party, independent verifications – and the standards of each of these programs vary and are frequently arbitrary. The established standards for each of these programs are generally created, reviewed, and updated by an advisory committee. The members of this advisory committee are persons who may or may not be “experts” in food production, animal health, animal behavior, and/or animal care. Again, this advisory committee is chosen at the discretion of each humane certification program. Each of the humane certification programs should list and provide more information on the scientific advisory committee members; it is always advisable to investigate members and what organizations they represent. Are they from a university (in which they should be providing research based, unbiased information) or are they from an industry group? Some of the humane certification programs have used the “Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare” (Farm Animal Welfare Council, 2009) to guide their standards.
To be enrolled in a voluntary humane labeling program the livestock producer will pay a fee for the humane certification program organization to come out and conduct audits/site visits on his/her farm. The humane labeling program may provide feedback and guidance to the producer on ways they can better meet the standards. A follow-up audit or visit may be necessary before the livestock producer receives official “humane labeling” capabilities. Additionally, the producer may have audits/farm visits at regular intervals to ensure he/she is staying in compliance to the program standards.
The programs are so numerous I won’t explore all of the possible programs, their standards, fees, and criterion here as there are many of them. But I do want to highlight a couple of the ones I thought provided interesting or useful information.
The American Humane Association (American Humane Association, 2013) claims to be the first welfare certification program in the U.S. to ensure the humane treatment of farm animals, with history dating back to 1877! Not only do they protect farm animals from abuse and neglect, they also protect children and pets.
Certified Humane has actually done a pretty good job of comparing some of the standards for chicken beef, and pigs in comparison to other organizations (Humane Farm Animal Care Standards: Chickens, Beef Cattle, and Pigs, 2013). They have also provided one that is unique to just laying hens (Humane Farm Animal Care Standards: Laying Hens, 2013). These can be handy tools as there can be a large number of organizations offering humanely labeled certifications, making it a daunting task to compare and contrast the benefits of each.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), is responsible for verifying the humane treatment of livestock in harvest (slaughter) facilities. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) was originally passed in 1958; in 1978 the USDA’s FSIS passed the Humane Slaughter Act. This Act requires the proper treatment and humane handling of all food animals harvested in USDA inspected slaughter plants. However, it does not apply to chickens or other birds (https://awic.nal.usda.gov/government-and-professional-resources/federal-laws/humane-methods-slaughter-act).
You may be thinking why don’t all livestock producers enroll in a humane certification program? Some livestock producers choose to enroll in a voluntary, fee-based humane certification program to be able to offer a choice to consumers at the meat counter. As with most other special labeling claims, there is usually a price difference in meat products with the humane label versus meat products without the humane label. If “humanely raised” is important to you, you have the choice to purchase that product.
The important thing you should know is that farmers and ranchers do their very best to provide humane care to their animals. Unfortunately, there are rare occasions when a producer is not humane to the animals he/she is raising. That is not ok and not acceptable!
American Humane Association: Farm Animal Welfare (2013). Found online at:
Farm Animal Welfare Council (2009). Found online at: http://www.fawc.org.uk/freedoms.htm
Humane Farm Animal Care Standards: Chickens, Beef Cattle, and Pigs (2013). Found online at:
Humane Farm Animal Care Standards: Laying Hens (2013). Found online at:
Labels that tell you a little (n.d.). Food and water watch. Found online at:
Meat and poultry labeling terms – FSIS USDA. (2011). Found online at:
USDA (2012). Found online at:
By Lindsay Chichester, UNL Extension Educator