photo of cows eating grass
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Grass Fed

This means cattle eat grasses, other greens, beans, and young grains. And they have constant access to grazing pasture in the growing season, though it’s unclear when or how long that is. But farmers are free to use antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) has a Process Verified Program to ensure facilities meet labeling requirements. Other labels to look for include American Grassfed, PCO Certified, and AGW Certified.

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photo of cows in pasture
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Pasture Raised

In general, it means the animal was allowed outside to roam and graze. It doesn’t mean much on dairy and egg packages because there are no standards for the outdoor area, how long the animal is there, and no system to check it. The standard is slightly higher for meat and poultry producers. The USDA requires companies that make these claims to define the term on the label, but it hasn’t created a labeling policy for these products.  

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photo of chicken in yard
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Free Range

This means chickens raised for meat or eggs may live in a shelter or building, but they have free outdoor access and unlimited food and fresh water. Critics say that means farms can pack the birds close together so long as the room they’re in has a door that’s open for a few minutes a day. And the outside space doesn’t have to be a particular size. The USDA requires companies that make “free range” claims to define the term on the label.

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photo of organic beef package
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This USDA Organic label really has some teeth. It means the animal your meat or dairy came from wasn’t given growth hormones or antibiotics, and there were no pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, or even genetically modified seeds in its food. Milking cows and other livestock must also graze on pasture for 4 months of the year or more. And it’s all checked by a USDA-certified agency.

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photo of cage free chickens
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Cage-free poultry are able to roam freely in a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to fresh water. But birds raised for meat have always been cage-free.  Some producers use the term for animals raised in large grow houses, which hold thousands of birds in close quarters. Companies that make these claims have to define the term on the label, according to USDA rules.

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photo of all natural chicken
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All Natural

It means the product is processed as little as possible and has no artificial ingredients. That being said, it only applies to how meat and egg products are processed. There are no standards regarding farm practices or for labeling natural food products that don’t contain meat or eggs.

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photo of certified naturally grown mark
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Certified Naturally Grown

You might see the CNG seal from farmers who sell products direct to people in their area. Animals must meet the organization’s Livestock Certification, which has much the same meaning as USDA Organic: No synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, or GMOs. It’s a bit easier to get certified, though. A fellow farmer or a group of three customers can do the inspection, which works better for some smaller operators.

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photo of vet with antibiotics
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No Added Hormones

It means farmers don’t give the animals hormones to fatten them up or make them produce more milk. This makes a difference for beef and lamb, but not for pork, chicken, and turkey, because the USDA doesn’t allow hormones for those animals. In addition, pork, beef, and sheep farmers can legally use hormones on birthing animals that may end up in the meat.

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photo of cows being mechanically milked
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No Artificial Hormones

This applies mostly to dairy products. It means the farmer didn’t use a manmade growth hormone that was FDA-approved in the 1990s. The hormone can make cows lame and cause inflamed udders. It was shown to be unhealthy to rats, but not tested on people. The term means more when there’s a third-party verified seal like USDA Organic, Certified Humane, or American Grassfed.

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photo of calf drinking from bottle
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Raised Without Antibiotics

For meat and poultry, it means a producer didn’t put these drugs into the animal’s food or water or inject them directly. The USDA checks paperwork but doesn’t visit farms to verify this claim. On eggs and dairy, the label means very little. That’s because there’s no clear, agreed-upon definition and no system to check if it’s true. More stringent labels for antibiotics include USDA Organic or Certified Naturally Grown.

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photo of vet caring for cow
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Humanely Raised

The USDA doesn’t have a clear definition of “humane” for farm animals. It requires producers that use the term to say what it means on the label. Other organizations that do define the term include Animal Welfare Approved, which sets standards for nutrition, cleanliness, and space, and verifies them with on-site visits. Other reputable labels are Humane Farm Animal Care’s (HFAC) Certified Humane and American Humane Certified.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 01/07/2019 Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on January 07, 2019


1) Ahavelaar / Thinkstock Photos

2) Simon Lehmann / Thinkstock Photos

3) Fotokon / Thinkstock Photos

4) sergeyryzhov / Thinkstock Photos

5) Bariskaradeniz / Thinkstock Photos

6) Sergeyryzhov / Thinkstock Photos

7) Creative Commons – Wikipedia

8) shironosov  / Thinkstock Photos

9) Lucop / Thinkstock Photos

10) Artfully79 / Thinkstock Photos

11) Monkey Business Images / Thinkstock Photos



CUESA: “Getting to Know Your Meat Labels.”

Consumer Reports Greener Choices: “American Humane Certified,” “Animal Welfare Approved,” “Antibiotic Free,” “Cage Free,” “Certified Humane,” “Certified Naturally Grown,” “Free Range,” “Humanely Raised,” “Natural,” “No Added Hormones,” “No Artificial Hormones (dairy),” “Organic,” “Pasture Raised,” “PCO Certified 100% Grassfed,” “Raised Without Antibiotics,” “Vegetarian Fed.”

United Poultry Concerns: “ ‘Free-Range’ Poultry and Eggs.”

American Meat Science Association: “Misleading Claims of ‘Hormone Free’ or ‘Antibiotic Free.’ ”

U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Food Safety and Inspection Service Labeling Guideline on Documentation Needed to Substantiate Animal Raising Claims for Label Submissions,” “Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms,” “Official Listing of Approved USDA Process Verified Programs for Service Providers,” “What is Organic?”

Certified Naturally Grown: “Livestock Certification.”

Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on January 07, 2019

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.