As your dietary needs change, it’s important to make sure the product you’re buying aligns with your expectations. And if you’re wondering exactly how do you read a meat label, you’re likely here because you care about making the right choice to fit your lifestyle. That’s why we’ve compiled a guide to what must be on a meat label and a list of common terms you’ll see as you shop.
What Must Be Included On A Meat Label
The best place to start is to understand what must be included on a meat label across the board. By law, these are the requirements every product must satisfy, whether you’re shopping at a grocery store chain or local farmers’ market.
1. Product Name
This should show what product is in the package. But just as important, it should use the USDA-Food Safety Inspection Service’s approved definitions.
2. Official Inspection Legend
Each label contains a number and it’s unique to both federal and state processing establishments.
3. Address Line
This one is simple. It’s just to make sure you know where the product was inspected before reaching the shelf.
4. Net Weight Or Quantity
If you are shopping for meat at a butcher or retail counter (eg., getting meat at the deli) this will be missing. But if it’s pre-packaged, this will be on the label.
This is one of the key areas you’ll want to focus on to figure out how to read a meat label. Some specific ingredients don’t need to be listed if it’s proprietary to the producer. (Things like “spices” or “seasonings” are allowed to safeguard in-house recipes.)
However, other ingredients need to be listed. And even if the meat contains 2% of an ingredient, it’ll need to say something along the lines of “contains less than 2% of…” on the label.
Apart from just listing ingredients, this part of the label will also mention any of the 8 allergens if they’re in the product:
- Tree nuts
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6. Safe Handling Instructions
How you handle meat is key to preventing possible illness and serious side effects. These are required on raw or partially cooked products (and can be left off fully cooked/ ready-to-eat items). Think of this part as a road map that tells you how to safely transport, store, and consume the product.
Other Popular Terms On A Meat Label
Below we’re going to break down other popular terms you’ll likely see on your meat labels. It’s important to understand what these truly mean as some of them may not be as straightforward as they sound.
Popular if you’re shopping for beef cuts, this term is likely one you’ve encountered. But do you really know what grass-fed beef means?
It means the animal was only fed grass or forages during its life. It was never given grain and it had access to pastures during grazing seasons. Although it’s important to note that farms are not required to be inspected to confirm this.
This is why shopping from a local butcher can be a huge perk. They can truly tell you about their rearing practices so you can trust if the animal is truly grass-fed or not.
USDA Grades of Meat
You’ve heard these before, USDA choice, USDA prime, USDA select — but what do they mean? Used when referring to beef cuts, there are actually 8 terms total.
If you’re looking at the store, usually the options you’ll find available for beef are prime, choice, or select. The labels are determined by two factors: marbling of the meat and age, both of which affect how tender your meat is and how you should prepare it.
Below is a representation of the 8 grades of meat and where they fall.
For some folks, gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley) can cause allergic reactions or worse, serious health complications. As mentioned above, it’s one of the 8 allergens, so it’s important to label products that contain it or are processed near it.
Meat itself is gluten-free. But if you’re buying raw meat that’s pre-seasoned, not all seasonings are gluten-free.
A product that is gluten-free should contain none of this protein. But it should also be processed in a separate workstation with separate equipment to avoid cross-contamination. So if you’re shopping based on a dietary need, make sure to read the ingredients carefully to ensure it’s truly gluten-free.
Based on religious reasons, there are several important factors behind kosher meat. To be considered kosher it must be:
- An approved animal species
- Slaughtered according to best practices & inspected
- Processed and prepared according to Jewish law
It’s important to note that the last point will vary a bit depending on different sects of belief and how they observe a kosher lifestyle.
While all animals naturally have hormones, some farms will use hormone injections to cause their stock to grow faster and bigger in order to sell more meat. The FDA has approved this use in particular for beef cattle and sheep.
To be able to label meat as “raised without added hormones” or something similar, the farm operation must provide specific documentation to the USDA-Food Safety Inspection Service. Additionally, if the product is considered organic, it must contain no extra hormones.
It’s important to note that if you’re shopping for pork cuts or poultry, that is legally required to be hormone-free in the U.S. Any reports you hear of animals being larger for farming in these categories are due to breeding practices and not the injection of hormones.
Nitrates are a special set of preservatives used to make meat last longer. Foods that commonly use them include cured sandwich meats, sausages, or hams.
There are some naturally occurring nitrates in meat, but some companies do add synthetic ones during processing. So if this is something you’re concerned about, look for a meat label that says something along the lines of “no nitrates or nitrites added.”
People often confuse this with organic, but it’s important to understand that they are different. Organic covers a broader range of qualifications, with non-GMO (genetically modified organism) being one of them.
Any label for non-GMO food simply means that the product was produced without any genetic modification. And in the instance of meat, this simply means the livestock was not fed any GMO food sources.
However, not all GMO-free products meet the full range of rigorous requirements to be considered organic. So if you want both benefits (Non-GMO and organic), it’s best to look for a label that clarifies your meat is organic.
As you learned above, meat that’s organic meets several criteria that we’ve covered above. If you see it on a package that means:
- The livestock was raised in conditions matching their natural behaviors.
- The livestock was not given GMO feed.
- The livestock was not administered hormones or antibiotics.
- The livestock and facility were inspected by the USDA.
Typically used in reference to poultry, you’re likely to encounter the term “free-range chicken” on your meat label. The industry standard of this definition means birds have access to the outside.
However it’s important to note some meat facilities get away with this label by having a small hole the bird can use to look outside, but without full access to the outdoors. If this isn’t quite what you’re looking for, try finding a butcher that offers pasture-raised poultry instead.
Similar to the idea of grass-fed, this term actually means the livestock (including chickens and other poultry) were able to roam free outside. For consumers who want to support the ethics of the livestock they’re buying, this option is a better fit than free-range.
Birds that are pasture-raised have an outdoor space that’s 2 ½ acres at minimum per 1,000 birds. This gives them a chance to engage in a more natural lifestyle in keeping with their instincts.
Wild-Caught Vs. Farm-Raised
More pertinent to buying seafood, this terminology is important to weigh as you shop. In light of some of the population problems in natural environments (like the ocean, lakes, etc.), seafood farming has become a unique solution.
You’re able to buy the same favorites: fish, shrimp, clams, etc. The caveat is that instead of being caught in their original habitat, your seafood is farm-raised. Meaning it is in a controlled tank environment.
Wild-caught means that your seafood is coming from its natural habitat out in the wild. As problems with ocean pollution continue, there are still pockets of wild-caught that are healthy. But farm-raised seafood may be a safer alternative in the future since it’s raised in a healthy environment and with better nutrients.
Either way, there’s no wrong choice. The right option depends on what you’re trying to achieve through your dietary choices.