This ambiguous term says nothing about how the animal was raised, but rather what happens to the meat after the animal is slaughtered. This means a cow can be given antibiotics or growth enhancers, but raw cuts of beef can still be labeled “natural.” In the U.S., the label allows for minimal processing, which means poultry can be pumped with salt water.
“Free-Range” or “Cage-Free”
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn’t define “free-range” for any meat except poultry. “Free-range” has very little meaning and can just indicate the animal had open-air access for a minimum of 5 minutes a day, although this can mean a dirt area instead of a pasture.
Just because an animal is cage-free doesn’t mean it can venture outside – or hasn’t been standing in poor hygienic conditions, such as feces. It means birds have some room to move around naturally, but practices like beak cutting are permissible.
For more on buying chicken, read Dr. Oz’s poultry label decoder.
“Animal Welfare Approved”
Look for this label, which means the company fulfilled the required hygiene practices for the animals. The Animal Welfare Approved program certifies that family farms are using humane conditions to raise animals outdoors on a pasture or range from birth to death.
“100% Grass-Fed” or “Organic”
Look for labels from the American Grassfed Association. Grass is the natural diet for these animals, but sometimes the food will be labeled grass-fed even if they haven’t eaten grass for the duration of their life after weaning. That’s why it’s important to locate that “100%."
Organic doesn’t necessarily mean the animals ate grass, but it does mean that the livestock was allowed outside and fed 100% organic feed with no antibiotics, pesticides or growth hormones. Their living conditions must also allow them to move naturally.