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Understanding Beef Labels

Fine Cooking Issue 93

As the demand for safer, sustainably raised beef grows, we’re seeing more language relating to farming and production methods—or how the animal was raised—on beef packages. That’s the good news. The bad news is that some of these terms have loose standards and are not verified by anyone other than the producer. (If the beef in your market doesn’t carry any of these terms, tell the meat manager you’d like to see more options.) Here’s what some of the most common terms mean:


All cattle eat a natural diet of grass at the beginning of their lives. The question is whether the animal was switched to grain to fatten up before slaughter, or whether it continued to eat grass and hay throughout its life. From a health standpoint, exclusively grass-fed beef has more nutrients and less saturated fat, lower rates of the dangerous E. coli O157:H7 bacteria, and no risk of mad cow disease. From a flavor perspective, it’s leaner than conventional beef, and it’s less forgiving if overcooked; aim for rare or medium rare.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grass-fed standards (look for the “process verified” shield on beef packages) specify a grass-only diet as well as continuous access to pasture during the growing season. However, there is no restriction on the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides, and the program is voluntary, which means a producer may use “grass-fed” on its labels without verification. Look for terms like “100% grass-fed” or “grass-finished” or for another third-party verifier, such as the American Grassfed Association (whose standards are stricter than those of the USDA).


Beef that carries the USDA organic logo has met the department’s standards, which prohibit the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified feed, and animal byproducts, among other things. The standards do not require a grass-only diet; the animal may be fed organic grain.

Free-range or free-roaming

These terms have no legal definition when applied to beef (though they do for poultry). While they suggest, at minimum, that the animal had access to the outdoors, there are no standards that producers need to follow.

Raised without antibiotics

This implies just what it says: that antibiotics were not given to the cows. The producer must submit documentation supporting the claim, but unless otherwise noted, it isn’t independently verified.

No hormones administered

This suggests that the animal received no growth-stimulating hormones. The producer must submit documentation supporting the claim, but unless otherwise noted, it isn’t third-party verified.


As defined by the USDA, “natural” or “all-natural” beef has been minimally processed and contains no preservatives or artificial ingredients. Since virtually all fresh beef conforms to these standards, the term has no real significance.

Naturally raised

The USDA is working on a new standard for naturally raised beef that would prohibit the use of hormones, antibiotics, and animal byproducts but might not address other production concerns, such as animal welfare, diet, or access to pasture. Once the final standard is released, you may start to see this term accompanied by the USDA “process verified” shield. However, the program will be voluntary, so producers may use the term even without verification.

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