Claims on meat and poultry labels are confusing, and trying to determine if they actually have value is even more confusing. The following is designed to help you better determine how the animals you're eating were raised, what they've been fed and how they've been cared for.
Free range, free roaming, cage free
What it implies: These terms suggest the poultry had access to the outdoors -- to roam around, eat natural foods and live a normal life.
What it means: Here's the U.S. Department of Agriculture's definition: "Producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside."
The real story: Even if there were a verification system, there isn't an accepted set of standards farmers must meet. According to the definition, "free range" means that the chickens have had daily access to the outdoors.
While that sounds good, it means very little: The coop door can be open for just a few minutes a day, and if the bird doesn't go outside (or is returned to the coop after a minute), the term "free range" still applies, says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the nonprofit Consumers Union.
Certified humane and free-farmed
What it implies: That the animals were treated in a humane manner.
What it means: Both certified labels or stamps require that livestock have access to clean and sufficient food and water, protection from the weather and adequate space to move around, and that their environment is not dangerous to their health. Managers and caretakers must also be thoroughly trained in the humane treatment of animals. (www.certifiedhumane.org and www.americanhumane.org)
Verification: Yes. According to Rangan, "These are some of the most credible labels." "Free-Farmed" uses an independent inspection company, while "Certified Humane" relies on individual inspectors trained in sustainable animal-management systems. Both labels require an initial inspection and annual recertification.
The real story: The "Free-Farmed" label on poultry and meat indicates that the American Humane Association has verified that the animals had access to clean water and food and that no antibiotics were used for growth promotion.
Treating animals in a humane fashion can help prevent disease and infection, resulting in healthier food. But keep in mind, free-farmed and certified humane do NOT mean organic.
What it implies: That the animal was raised roaming the fields and hills eating grass and hay -- basically pasture-raised.
What it means: The terms vary and may include "grass-fed," "grass-fed, grain supplemented," "pastured" and "pasture-raised." But "grass-fed" does not necessarily mean "pasture-raised," and consumers should check with the producer or company for more information. Grass is a low-starch, high-protein, fibrous food, as opposed to carbohydrate-rich, low-fiber corn and soybeans.
When cattle are 100 percent grass-fed, they usually have higher levels of omega 3s, vitamins A and E and conjugated linoleic acid (a good fat and potential cancer fighter), and lower levels of saturated fat. The USDA recently issued a proposed standard for what "grass-fed" must mean on meat (but not poultry) products: The animals' diets must consist of at least 99 percent grass over their lifetimes.
Verification: None, although once the USDA standards are in place, producers can seek an additional USDA "Process Verified Program" label, which will mean that the product has been verified to meet the standard.
The real story: Standards on how much grass a "grass-fed" animal must eat are in the works, says Rangan. The downside is they're limited to meat, not poultry or even milk. And while "100% Grass-Fed" isn't verified, it's still a specific enough claim to be enforceable under truth in labeling laws, she adds. However, the USDA does not currently regulate these terms, and their intended meaning is vague. While "grass-fed" implies that the animals are fed grass and hay, they are not necessarily "pasture-raised" and vice versa. (For example, a grass-fed animal can be kept indoors and fed clipped grass.) Also, there is no way to know how much grass and how much grain a "grass-fed, grain-supplemented" animal receives. Check out Eatwild.com, which lists approximately 800 grass-fed beef ranches.
What it implies: That it is wholesome and natural.
What it means: "Certified organic" means the animals were raised on a diet of 100 percent organic feed. No growth hormones can be administered, and no animal byproducts can constitute any part of the feed. It also means that the animals were raised without most synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, antibiotics, genetic engineering, irradiation, sewage sludge or artificial ingredients. Additionally, all animals must have continuous access to the outdoors.
The real story: The organic labels are among the most meaningful. Farmers must receive certification from an organic certifier (there are nearly 100 certifiers in the United Statesalone) approved by the USDA who verifies that the standards set by the USDA have been met.
Bottom line: "If you want to purchase a product that is more natural, presumably the organic animals are among those that have been raised as close to nature as possible," says Rangan.
Fresh and natural
What it implies: Right from the farm, and as close to nature as possible.
What it means: According to the USDA, "fresh" can only be used on foods that have never reached temperatures below 26 degrees Fahrenheit. And "natural" means that the meat or poultry product does not contain ingredients, colors or preservatives considered artificial and not natural to the product. It has nothing to do with how the animal was raised or what it ate. And don't confuse "natural" with "organic." They're not interchangeable.
The real story: This label means very little other than what it states in the definition.
Note: Check out www.eatwellguide.org for a list of outlets that sell "sustainably raised" foods.
The opinions expressed solely are those of the writer. Charles Stuart Platkin is a syndicated health, nutrition and fitness columnist, author of the best-selling book "Breaking the Pattern" and founder of Nutricise.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information and a complete archive of columns, go online at www.dietdetective.com.