The Beef With Beef Labels: Do You Know What They Mean?

Here’s how to make sure you’re buying beef that was raised the way you think it was.

(Illustration by Marc Fusco)

Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

The catchphrase was “Where’s the beef?” It was first used in a hugely successful 1984 ad campaign for Wendy’s, the fast-food chain, and it tickled the nation’s collective funny bone. Thirty years later, consumers are far more likely to ask, “Where’s the beef from?” According to a recent Consumer Reports survey on food labels, 88 percent believe, for example, that a humanely raised claim on meat packaging means the animals were humanely slaughtered—the reality is far more complicated. The survey found that more than a third of consumers look for certified humane labeling at the grocery store, and 80 percent believe that good living conditions for animals is crucial when they consider what meat they’re going to buy.

But sorting out the various labels at the butcher counter and the supermarket meat case is no laughing matter—and there are a lot of differences among the labels and claims you’ll come across. In a perfect world, your beef comes from cattle raised in an idyllic setting where they have ample grass and space, aren’t subjected to unnecessary physical alterations from drug treatments, and are slaughtered in a manner that is as humane as possible. But by no means do all the labels out there assure that each of these requirements is being attended to.

Below is a buying guide that will help you get the most value and also what you think you’re paying for.

American Humane Certified Standards from this third-party welfare certification program, administered by the American Humane Association, aren’t as comprehensive as "Animal Welfare Approved" and "Certified Humane"—access to pasture or grass feeding isn’t required—but they do include standards for living conditions, treatment of breeding animals, handling of animals during transport, and some for animals at slaughter. AHC also has standards for dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, veal, bison, lamb, goat, and pork. Consumer Reports rating: somewhat meaningful

Animal Welfare Approved The label of this third-party certification program of the Animal Welfare Institute is only issued to meat from independent family farms that adhere to the highest welfare standards on range or pasture. Standards include the treatment of breeding animals, animals during transport, and animals at slaughter. AWA publishes Food Labeling for Dummies as well as the handy Food Labels Exposed smartphone app. AWI also has standards for dairy, eggs, chicken, goose, duck, turkey, bison, lamb, goat, pork, and rabbit. Consumer Reports rating: highly meaningful

Certified Organic USDA certification for organic beef requires 100 percent organic feed (whether pasture or grain), thus no genetically modified feed, animal byproducts (such as poultry litter and manure), plastic pellets for roughage, growth hormones, or antibiotics—all allowable in conventional beef production. Ranchers and handlers must keep extensive records to be certified organic, so there’s traceability of the animal from birth to market. Only a small percentage of organic beef is "finished," or fattened up, on pasture; most of it still goes to a feedlot, where it gets organic feed. Specific animal welfare standards lag behind those of many other labels. Consumer Reports rating: meaningful

Certified Humane This third-party certification program, administered by Humane Farm Animal Care, defines space requirements and is known for its strict protocols and auditing, including treatment of breeding animals. Continuous access to pasture is not required. Feedlots are permitted for beef cattle. HFAC also has standards for dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, veal, lamb, goat, and pork. Consumer Reports rating: meaningful

Food Alliance Certified Optional Grass-Fed Certification This sustainable agriculture certification program supports “healthy and humane animal treatment with no added growth promotants or subtherapeutic antibiotics; soil and water conservation; integrated pest, disease, and weed management; pesticide risk reduction; wildlife habitat and biodiversity conservation; and safe and fair working conditions.” The program’s audit criteria allow a farm to be approved based on an average score for some areas instead of requiring that every standard be met. Only meat with the Food Alliance grass-fed label comes from animals required to have continuous access to pasture, however, and the cattle can still be finished in a feedlot. F.A. also has standards for dairy, eggs, chicken, lamb, and pork. Consumer Reports rating: meaningful

General Grass-Fed Claim The term grass-fed is confusing because even conventionally raised beef cattle graze on pasture for the first six to 12 months, before they’re shipped to a feedlot and finished on grain. Uncertified “grass-fed” claims could mean the animal was finished on grain, negating any of the omega-3 benefits of a purely grass-fed (and -finished) beef product.

These days, three organizations offer certification for all grass-fed meat in the United States: the American Grassfed Association, the Food Alliance grass-fed program—the F.A. label alone does not mean the beef is grass-fed—and the USDA.

The certification standards of the AGA and the F.A. grass-fed program are more stringent than those of the USDA, which don’t address antibiotics, hormones, or confinement; meat can qualify for the USDA shield even if the animals are penned up, given antibiotics and growth hormones, and fed hay for much of the year. Noncertified grass-fed beef is also an option, but it’s best to purchase from someone you know and trust.

While the USDA has a definition for grass-fed, producers who choose to make their own "grass-fed" claims are not required to follow those standards or be verified. Only the "USDA Process Verified"-grass-fed claim meets the 99 percent grass standard, and pasture is required during the growing season. But animals can still receive antibiotics, and no other animal welfare standards are required.

Grass-fed beef may or may not be USDA-certified organic, but in either case, purely grass-fed meat is lower in saturated fats and higher in omega-3 fatty acids. It’s also the natural diet of ruminant animals, unlike corn. Consumer Reports rating: somewhat to not necessarily meaningful

Shopping tip: In mainstream supermarkets, you may find grass-fed beef from Australia, where it’s considered mainstream—and big business. Climate and plentiful grasslands have much to do with it, and NPR has the scoop

Global Animal Partnership In this animal welfare rating program, producers are certified on a scale from Step 1 to Step 5+. Each step has its own requirements that must be met before a producer is certified and each standard has its own label. Among the standards for Step 1, for instance, are animal density requirements, no antibiotics or hormone use, lameness levels, and transport duration of animals (including breeding animals). GAP also has standards for chicken, turkey, and pork. Consumer Reports rating: meaningful

Humanely Raised and Handled Even if the product is "USDA Process Verified," there are no standards for this term. Companies decide their own standards, which can be verified by the USDA (if the company elects for that service) but do not have to be. Consumer Reports rating: not meaningful

Pasture-Raised Unless the claim is made along with a certification, it can be misleading if the animal was finished on grain in a feedlot. There are no requirements for "pasture-raised," and the USDA has not defined the term. Consumer Reports rating: somewhat to not meaningful

Natural/All Natural These are perhaps the most misleading labels found on beef (as well as any other foods). The USDA defines “natural” meat as having been minimally processed and containing no preservatives or artificial ingredients. Because this is true of all fresh meat, these terms mean nothing. They also don’t refer in any way to how an animal was raised. Essentially, the worst of factory-farmed meat can be labeled “natural,” when the confinement, drug use, corn-based feed, and lack of animal welfare standards are anything but. No third-party verification. Consumer Reports rating: not meaningful

Never Ever 3 This USDA voluntary standard indicates the meat came from animals that were fed no animal byproducts and did not receive antibiotics or hormones. It doesn’t address specific husbandry practices or access to pasture. Consumer Reports rating: somewhat meaningful

No Hormones Administered/No Antibiotics Added According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, these terms may be approved for use on the labels of beef products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer showing no hormones or antibiotics have been used in raising the animals. No third-party verification. However, it does not mean that the animals were not given other types of drugs to promote growth, such as ractopamine. Consumer Reports rating: somewhat meaningful

Shopping tip: “Hormone Free” is not an official marketing claim, because all animal products contain naturally occurring hormones. 

A Few More Terms Every Beef Shopper Should Know

Certified Angus Black Angus (as opposed to Red Angus, a separate breed in the U.S.) is the most common breed of beef cattle in the U.S. The American Angus Association has registered a definition of “Certified Angus Beef” with the USDA that requires the animal to have 50 percent Angus genetics or a predominantly (51 percent) black coat. There are additional meat quality requirements but none specifying how the animals are raised or what they’re fed.

Shopping tip: “Angus Beef” and “Black Angus Beef” are different, unregulated terms.

Country of Origin Labeling Since November 2013, the federal government has required that if meat sold in U.S. supermarkets came from an animal born, raised, and slaughtered in this country, the label should say so. If that animal was raised in Canada or Mexico, say, and then brought to the U.S. for slaughter, the label should say that too. All that makes perfect sense and predictably started a ruckus between pro-label U.S. cattlemen and anti-label feedlots and meatpackers.

Dry Aged Before refrigeration was invented, dry aging was used as a way to preserve meat. These days, with the pressure to bring cattle to market sooner, modern freezing techniques, and demand for cheap, convenient beef, dry aging is almost a lost art; it takes time and is an expensive, labor-intensive process. Beef primals (large muscle groups of a steer carcass) or subprimals are held in coolers or meat lockers under tight temperature, air-circulation, and humidity controls. During this time, the natural action of enzymes in the meat break down connective tissue, turning the beef fork-tender and deeply flavorful. During dry aging, beef, which develops a crust that seals the meat and protects it from deterioration, can lose from 25 percent to 30 percent of its overall weight to dehydration. That’s why a dry-aged piece of beef will be smaller than a piece of beef that hasn’t been aged or one that has been wet aged (which involves sealing meat in Cryovac bags)—and it’s also why the flavor of both meat and juices is so concentrated and delicious.

Shopping tip: The length of dry aging is important to find out. The longer beef has been dry aged (up to six weeks), the more tender and deep-flavored it is.

Prime, Choice, Select These USDA grades of beef indicate the amount, regularity, and quality of marbling (the fat interspersed in the meat), which affects tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Marbling is not the only or most important determinant of eating quality. Talk to Bill Niman of BN Ranch, and he’ll tell you other important factors include the way the live animal was handled, the species and growth stage of grasses grazed, and the animal’s age, breed, and temperament. That aside, you should know that Prime is the most abundantly marbled beef, but it’s rarely available at supermarkets because restaurants buy most of it wholesale. Choice beef is also high quality but has less marbling than Prime. Select is leaner; though it’s still fairly tender, it may lack the flavor and juiciness of more premium grades.

Shopping tip: Unless otherwise labeled Choice or Select, store-brand beef is often Standard or Commercial grades, which are even leaner than Select.

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