If you scrutinize food labels because you're concerned about animal welfare or food quality, you'll want to check out this guide to common meat and poultry terms. By Mayo Clinic Staff


"Free range," "natural" and "antibiotic-free" are among the common terms on meat, poultry and egg packages today. Do these terms guide your purchases either because of concerns about food quality or animal welfare? Then you should know that terms such as free range, antibiotic-free, natural and others may not actually mean what you think they do. In some cases, terms you find on packages are regulated under federal organic rules, while others are standard regardless of organic status. Other terms aren't regulated at all, and some may have no relevance to animal welfare even if they sound like they do. Take a closer look.


Under U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, meat and poultry products can be labeled as "no antibiotics added" if documentation is provided showing that the animals were raised without antibiotics. Similar allowable terms according to the USDA are "no antibiotics ever," "no added antibiotics" and "raised without the use of antibiotics." However, the term "antibiotic-free" isn't USDA approved.

If animals are given antibiotics to prevent or treat disease, an antibiotic-withdrawal period — usually several days — is generally required before animals can be slaughtered so that there are no antibiotic residues in meat or poultry.


Under U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, this means that laying hens live uncaged, typically within a barn, warehouse, building or other enclosed area. They must have unlimited access to food and water and the freedom to roam within the enclosed area during their egg-production cycle. Cage-free doesn't mean the hens have access to the outdoors. Cage-free birds can engage in some natural behaviors, such as nesting and spreading their wings. However, practices such as beak cutting are allowed. Poultry raised for their meat are rarely caged.

Certified humane

This is a voluntary certification and labeling program administered by Humane Farm Animal Care to ensure humane treatment of farm animals from birth through slaughter. This term is not regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Certified producers must meet species standards for such things as space, shelter, handling, fresh water, and a diet free of added hormones and antibiotics. Cages, crates and tie stalls are prohibited. Animals must be able to engage in natural behaviors. For instance, chickens must be able to spread their wings and dust bathe, while pigs must have space to move around and root. Other organizations also offer certification and labeling programs.


Under U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, this term isn't allowed on meat or poultry labels, so if you see it, be cautious about its meaning. Similarly federal regulations don't allow the terms "residue-free," "residue tested," "naturally raised," "naturally grown" or "drug-free."

Free range or free roaming

Under U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, this term applies only to poultry raised for meat. The USDA free-range designation means that poultry have been allowed some access to the outdoors. However, there are no USDA requirements for how much time the poultry spend outdoors or the quality or size of the outdoor area.

There are no USDA standards regarding the use of the term "free range" for egg-producing hens, although you might see that term on egg cartons. Free-range hens for egg production typically are uncaged in barns or warehouses with some outdoor access. Free-range hens can engage in some natural behaviors, such as nesting and foraging. There are no USDA restrictions on what they're fed, and beak cutting and forced moulting is allowed.

The USDA doesn't define free range in terms of beef, pork or other nonpoultry animals. So if you see this term on these products, keep in mind that it has no standard meaning.

Grain fed

This term is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) only as far as what products actually count as grain for feed. Under USDA regulations, a grain-fed diet for livestock defines these as grains: barley, canola, corn, flaxseed, mixed grain, oats, rye, sorghum, soybeans, sunflower seed, triticale, and wheat, and any other food grains, feed grains, and oilseeds for which standards are established. Other feed that may be considered acceptable under grain-fed diet guidelines are rice, millet, amaranth, buckwheat and distiller's grain. Other grain products may be considered acceptable on a case-by-case basis.

Grass fed

Under U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, grass fed means that grass and forage are the feed source for ruminant animals (such as cattle, sheep, bison and llamas) for the duration of their life after weaning. Animals can't be fed grain or grain byproducts. They must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, silage, crop residue without grain, cereal grain crops in the pregrain stage and other roughage sources are acceptable feed.


Under U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, this term isn't allowed on meat products. Beef may be labeled as "no hormones administered" if producers document that the animals were raised without hormones.

Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in the raising of poultry, hogs, veal calves or exotic animals not subject to USDA inspection, such as bison. Therefore, claims of "no hormones added" can't be used on labels for these products unless the label also states, "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."


Under U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, this term may be used on labeling for meat and poultry products if the product doesn't contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, or chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and if the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed. The product label must explain what is meant by natural, such as whether a food contains no added colorings. The term has no relevance to animal feeding or welfare.

Naturally raised

This is a voluntary marketing claim that manufacturers can choose to use on labels of meat and meat products. This term means that livestock have been raised entirely without growth promotants and antibiotics (except for parasite control), and that they have never been fed animal or aquatic byproducts derived from the slaughter or harvest processes. If a manufacturer chooses to use this term, it must be able to provide evidence to support the claim. The term has no relevance to animal welfare.

Pasture raised

This term, sometimes referred to as "access to pasture," is regulated as part of the National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Manufacturers who use this label must meet certain requirements, such as providing year-round access to the outdoors for all ruminant animals, providing them with pasture throughout the grazing season in their area and ensuring that the animals get at least 30 percent of their dry-feed intake from pasture grazing over the course of grazing season.

Vegetarian fed

This term isn't regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It is generally meant to suggest that an animal is fed a healthier diet and is raised without being fed animal byproducts or dairy products. According to the USDA, manufacturers that use this term on package labels must be able to provide evidence to support the claim.

Nov. 10, 2010