Day 89 – Meat Labels Explained

“I cook with wine. Sometimes I even add it to the food.”


189.7 lbs

19 days ago I wrote about nutrition labels and my modest proposal for making them easier for the average consumer to understand – specifically highlighting ingredients that, based on the calories in that food, were higher than they should be. That way we wouldn’t need to memorize our recommended daily intake of all sorts of vitamins, minerals, and food components.

Some of you wrote in asking about other kinds of labeling, like the ones on meat. What is the difference between certified organic and naturally raised? What is ‘better’, prime or AAA?

It’s a bit of a tangle, but I’ll try to clear up a few for you.


In Canada there are two government agencies which regulate meat grading and qualifications: The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the Canadian Beef Grading Agency. The provincial governments also have meat grading regulations, but the main grading is done according to federal standards.

Prime – Canadian Top Quality meat either for domestic use but more likely for export. Canada PRIME is meat that has the world over a very good reputation despite the fact that Canada is not a major meat producer compared to such countries as the USA or Brazil. These gradings are either printed on to the label in simple letters or inside the maple leaf.

A, AA, and AAA – these are all top quality meats, with A being good, AA better, and AAA the best. The average person usually can’t tell the difference between these three grades of meat.

Below A they go to B, B1, B2, and so on.The B quality category is usually what goes into hamburger, sausage, etc.

In the US, beef is graded into Prime, Choice, Select, and Standard categories (each having 2 or 3 subcategories signified by + or -) based on the meat’s marbling (fat in the muscle).  The more fat in the muscle, the higher the rating.

The letter grade given to US beef is based on the “maturity” of the animal at slaughter. Because they don’t celebrate each cow’s birthday on cattle farms and they can’t watch to see which cows shoot spit wads or make fart noises with their armpits, they have no idea of its actual maturity. 

Instead the USDA goes by physiological maturity based on bone characteristics, ossification of cartilage, color and texture of ribeye muscle. A = 9-30 months, B = 30 – 42 months, C = 42-72 months, and so on.

Free Range Chickens

The animals have “access” to the outdoors, at least part of the day. That doesn’t necessarily mean they ever get outside. A chicken crowded in a pen might never reach the door before its closed.

Free Run Chickens

These are chickens that don’t have access to the outdoors, but are free to run around the inside of the barn instead of being kept in what are called battery cages.

According to the British Columbia SPCA, “free-Run housing that provides deep bedded sawdust (or other fibrous bedding material) is often referred to as a Deep-Litter System. Free-run housing doesn’t necessarily provide more space per hen than conventional battery cages, and is not required to provide resources such as nest boxes, perches, or a substrate for dust-bathing.

“While free run hens have no access to the outdoors, the barns may be designed to allow natural light to enter and the birds are better protected from external threats, such as predators.

“Note: The ‘free run’ label that may be seen on some broiler (meat) chicken can mislead consumers by suggesting that meat chickens are raised in cages. In fact, no meat chickens are raised in cages; they are either free run or free range.

Certified Organic

Soylent Green is people! Um... but this is beef. So... nevermind.

At least in the US, this means that the USDA has confirmed that the animal was given pesticide free and chemical fertilizer free food, and not given hormones or antibiotics. If an animal is treated with antibiotics for illness – or any other reason – its meat can’t be sold as certified organic even if the animal gets better before slaughter. The organic meat has to be killed and butchered in a Certified Organic facility (a facility with CO certification – not that the facility itself is made of certified organic stuff. That would just be silly.)

In Canada there is no federal logo for Certified Organic, but many provinces have their own.

Naturally Raised

This is very similar to Certified Organic.

According to the CFIA, Naturally Raised should mean mean the animal was raised without human intervention (i.e. vaccines, hormones or antibiotics). Some health stores use the term on their meat to mean hormone-, antibiotic-, GMO- and animal-by-product-free, as well as free-range. But the feed isn’t organic

The USDA guidelines don’t allow meat labeled “Naturally raised” to have growth promotants (including growth hormones), no animal byproducts in the feed (which are implicated in causing mad cow disease), and no antibiotics – but they do allow things called ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control.

A “natural” label (not to be confused with “naturally raised”) means, according to the USDA, meat containing “no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed.” If the chick went through a dyed hair phase, they probably don’t qualify.

Hormone Free

This one is a bit slippery – there’s no such thing as hormone free meat.All animals, like people, naturally have hormones. This label means the animal hasn’t been given synthetic hormones to promote growth. Both the USDA and CFIA have regulations against treating pigs and poultry with hormones, so don’t shell out more for chicken or pork labeled “hormone free”. That would be like buying “low cholesterol” lettuce. Both agencies allow growth hormones to be used on cattle though.

Antibiotic Free

The CFIA says even conventional birds shouldn’t be shipped to the slaughterhouse until they test clean for drugs. If the product is federally registered, this label will be pre-approved for accuracy. If it’s provincially registered, it’s open to spot checks or complaint-driven inspections.

The USDA has similar if subtly different rules. “Antibiotics may be given to prevent disease and increase feed efficiency. A ‘withdrawal’ period is required from the time antibiotics are administered before the bird can be slaughtered. This ensures that no residues are present in the bird’s system. FSIS randomly samples poultry at slaughter and tests for residues. Data from this monitoring program have shown a very low percentage of residue violations.” In the U.S., animals raised in crowded conditions are often treated with antibiotics to prevent illness and to help promote rapid growth.

Grass Fed / Grass Finished Beef

This can mean anything from cattle fed exclusively on grass to cattle raised on corn and then fed grass during the last few weeks before slaughter. The American Grassfed Association (AGA) has a stricter label that means the cattle are not confined or treated with hormones or antibiotics.

The USDA doesn’t have an official definition of Grass Fed Beef. Grass Fed and Grass Finished are used so interchangeably that it can be confusing.

The definition of Grass Fed Beef generally means beef from cattle that have eaten only grass and forage plants (like hay) for their lifetime once they are weaned; however some producers do call their beef grass fed but then actually finish the animals on grain for the last 90 to 160 days before slaughter.

A more specific definition is Grass Finished Beef. Finishing is just another word for the time that cattle are normally fattened for the last few months before processing. Typically, feed lots finish cattle for 90 to 160 days on grain, usually corn, whereas grass finished cattle are fattened on grass only, until the day that they are processed.

Pasture Raised

This usually means that the animal spent most of its life feeding in an open pasture rather than in a feed lot. However, there are no official USDA standards for this label yet.

Grain Fed Chicken

You hear this a lot in chicken flesh ads on TV. All chickens in Canada are grain-fed, so this is a bit misleading. In Manitoba, farmers feed a blend of wheat and barley which gives the chicken skin and fat the white colour we’re accustomed to. In other parts of Canada, and in the USA, chickens eat more corn than wheat. Corn gives the skin and fat a yellow colour.

It’s meant to signal, “This bird wasn’t fed other birds or animals.” CFIA objects to the label, saying the definition is too narrow and doesn’t account for supplements such as vitamins or even antibiotics. They prefer the more pointed “animal by-product-free”. Policing is the same as for antibiotic-free.


Whew. Confused yet? I think if they put thought into it they could make these labels a bit more clear and/or stop advertisers from implying things through omission.