DECODING MEAT AND DAIRY PRODUCT LABELS

Most animals raised for meat, milk and eggs are on industrial farms that contaminate our air, soil and water. These farms rely heavily on antibiotics and other synthetic treatments to boost outputs, and combat diseases caused by stressful, crowded and unsanitary conditions. Weak bacteria are killed, leaving behind the most resilient and hard to kill — so-called “superbugs.” These bacteria are capable of causing untreatable infections.

On the other hand, better practices, such as raising animals on pasture, have documented positive effects on the planet and on the quality of the meat and milk.

Some companies have committed to more responsible practices. Yet shoppers can find it difficult to tell which claims on labels represent truly responsible practices. In fact, so called “free range” chickens may have very little access to the outdoors and “natural” meat products may still be from animals fed antibiotics critical to human health.

To help you find the most reliable labels and avoid deceptive claims, EWG reviewed and ranked common label claims for meat, dairy and eggs.

Choose one...

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SEAFOOD

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BEEF

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PORK

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BISON

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GOAT

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LAMB

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CHICKEN

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TURKEY

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EGGS

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MILK

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Most Reliable

EWG’s most reliable certifications are those that follow these best practices:

  • No antibiotics given to healthy animals.
  • No synthetic growth hormones.
  • No cages allowed and outdoor access required.
  • More space to allow for natural behaviors.
  • Strong third-party verification.
  • Frequent on-farm inspections (every 12 to 36 months).

The criteria of these certifying bodies differ slightly, as does their availability on store shelves.

Less Reliable

Other third-party standards set a lower bar. Some label claims are subject to minimal scrutiny, or lack a uniform definition or federal standard to ensure consistency across producers.

Be Wary

These terms can be deceptive or misleading. For example, some producers market their pork and chicken meat as “hormone free” even though growth-boosting hormone treatments are never allowed for use on these animals. “Cage-free” layer chickens are often stuffed in crowded indoor sheds with no space to walk or flap their wings. And even though “free range” chickens must have access to the outdoors, there is no requirement that they actually leave their shed.

Most Reliable

American Grassfed Association

  • Raised primarily on pasture with daily access to fresh air.
  • No feedlots allowed.
  • Requires pasture management to maximize soil fertility and biological diversity.
  • Fed only grass and forage.
  • No grain feeding ever.
  • GMO feed prohibited.
  • No antibiotics allowed (sick animals must be treated and are no longer eligible for the certification).
  • No standards to minimize painful physical alterations such as tail docking or castration.
  • No audits to ensure humane slaughter.
BEEF
BISON
LAMB
GOAT
SHEEP
MILK

To learn more, visit the American Grassfed Association.

Animal Welfare Approved

  • Raised with continuous access to outdoor pasture.
  • No feedlots allowed.
  • GMO feed is not recommended, but allowed.
  • No antibiotics given to healthy animals (sick animals must be treated and can be certified).
  • Detailed standards to minimize painful physical alterations (tail docking, beak trimming, etc.).
  • Slaughter facilities are audited.
BEEF
BISON
LAMB
GOAT
MILK
TURKEY
CHICKEN
EGGS
DUCK
GEESE
MUTTON

To learn more, visit Animal Welfare Approved.

Certified Humane

  • Beef, but not dairy cows, must have continuous access to outdoor pasture.
  • No outdoor requirements for other animals.
  • Animals cannot be confined in cages or crates. Specifies minimum amount of space per animal.
  • Some use of feedlots allowed.
  • GMO feed allowed.
  • No antibiotics given to healthy animals (sick animals must be treated and can be certified).
  • Details standards to minimize painful physical alterations (tail docking, beak trimming, etc.).
  • Slaughter facilities are audited.
BEEF
BISON
LAMB
GOAT
MILK
PORK
TURKEY
CHICKEN
EGGS

To learn more, visit Humane Farm Animal Care.

USDA Organic

  • Animals must have year-round access to the outdoors, including fresh air and direct sunlight. Cows, sheep and goats must have access to pasture.
  • Some use of feedlots allowed.
  • Requires pasture management to maximize soil fertility.
  • Animals fed only certified organic feed.
  • GMO feed prohibited.
  • No antibiotics allowed (sick animals must be treated and are no longer eligible for the certification).
  • Painful physical alterations must be done “in a manner that minimizes pain and stress,” a vague standard that doesn’t provide additional details on how these alterations should be conducted, or if they are even necessary.
  • No audits to ensure humane slaughter.
BEEF
LAMB
GOAT
MILK
PORK
TURKEY
CHICKEN
EGGS

To learn more, visit USDA Certified Organic.

Food Alliance Certified-Grassfed

  • Raised outside on pasture or range for their entire lives.
  • No confinement or feedlots allowed.
  • Fed only grass or forage.
  • No grain feeding.
  • GMO feed allowed.
  • No antibiotics allowed (sick animals must be treated and are no longer eligible for the certification).
  • Detailed standards to minimize painful physical alterations (tail docking, beak trimming, etc.).
  • No audits to ensure humane slaughter.
BEEF
BISON
LAMB
GOAT
MILK
PORK
CHICKEN
EGGS

On any label that boasts it is “Food Alliance Certified,” be sure the term “grassfed” is used. The group’s “sustainable” certification is less rigorous than its “grassfed” label and the other certifications listed as EWG’s most reliable. To learn more, visit Food Alliance.

Global Animal Partnership

The "5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program" offers a range of welfare standards, with step 1 being the least rigorous. EWG recommends you search for products marked as steps 3 and above as they are significantly different from conventional production.

  • Steps 4 and 5 are raised outside on pasture. Step 3 requires some outdoor access.
  • Steps 1 and 2 do not require outdoor access and allow feedlots.
  • All steps prohibit cages, crates and crowding.
  • GMO feed allowed.
  • No antibiotics given to healthy animals (sick animals must be treated and can be certified).
  • Detailed standards to minimize painful physical alterations (tail docking, beak trimming, etc.).
  • No audits to ensure humane slaughter.
BEEF
BISON
LAMB
GOAT
PORK
TURKEY
CHICKEN
EGGS

To learn more, visit Global Animal Partnership.

Marine Stewardship Council

  • Only certifies wild-caught fish.
  • Only certifies fisheries that minimize the environmental impacts on the ecosystem and keep fishing activity at a sustainable level.
  • Requires traceability for each animal from ocean to plate, leading to a best-in-class fraud rate of less than 1 percent. For comparison, the fishing industry averages a fraud rate of 30 percent.
  • Since the fish are caught wild and not farmed, they are not grown with antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones.
SEAFOOD

To learn more, visit the Marine Stewardship Council.

Less Reliable

American Humane Certified

  • Specifies minimum amount of space per animal to allow for natural behaviors.
  • Animals can be confined in cages or crates.
  • No requirement for outdoor access.
  • Permits use of antibiotics to prevent diseases associated with crowded or unsanitary conditions.
  • No growth hormones.
  • Painful physical alterations must be done in a manner “to minimize pain and stress.”
  • Audited by an independent third party.
  • Annual on-farm inspections.
  • No audits to ensure humane slaughter.
BEEF
BISON
MILK
PORK
TURKEY
CHICKEN
EGGS
DUCK

To ensure the meat or dairy products you purchase are from producers that set humane standards to minimize pain, limit suffering and provide humane living conditions, look for these certifications instead:

To learn more, visit the American Humane Certified.

Farmed Responsibly ASC Certified

  • Requires traceability for each animal from ocean to plate.
  • Strong third-party verification.
  • No antibiotics given to healthy fish, and a veterinarian must certify disease before treatment is allowed.
  • No use of critically important antibiotics, as defined by the World Health Organization, allowed.
  • Does not allow use of transgenic fish.
  • GMO feed allowed
SEAFOOD

To learn more, visit the Aquaculture Stewardship Council.

USDA Process Verified

The “USDA Process Verified” shield on a meat label indicates the U.S. Department of Agriculture has verified whatever claim the shield is attached to. By itself, the shield does not indicate anything specific about the meat product. It is meaningful only when it is used in conjunction with another claim such as “grassfed” or “not fed antibiotics.”

  • Indicates that the USDA has conducted a paperwork audit, followed by an on-farm audit to verify the producer’s claims firsthand and ensure producers are following their own policies.
  • No federal standard for various claims. Producers’ practices vary, and they can write their own standards for each claim.
  • Annual on-farm inspections.
BEEF
LAMB
PORK
TURKEY
CHICKEN
EGGS

To learn more, visit the Process Verified Program.

No Antibiotics

“Raised without antibiotics,” “no added antibiotics ever,” “no antibiotics administered,” “no antibiotics,” or “no antibiotics added”

These terms imply that the animal never received antibiotics.

  • To use these terms, producers must show the U.S. Department of Agriculture documentation that animals never received antibiotics in their feed, water or by injection.
  • USDA defines “no antibiotics” on its website to mean red meat and poultry that “were raised without antibiotics.”
  • In 2002, the USDA proposed to define “raised without antibiotics” as livestock that “never received antibiotics from birth to harvest,” but never issued those standards.
  • No regular on-farm inspections to verify correct usage of this claim.

“Raised without subtherapeutic antibiotics,” “responsible use of antibiotics” or “not fed antibiotics”

Imply antibiotics were not used on healthy animals to speed growth.

  • To use these terms producers must show the USDA appropriate documentation.
  • Animals may have received antibiotics for other reasons, including prevention of disease caused by overcrowding.
  • Some producers may follow the World Health Organization’s recommendations and limit antibiotics important in human medicine.
  • Without a federal standard, practices vary. In 2002, the USDA proposed to define “no subtherapeutic antibiotics added,” but never issued those standards.
  • No regular on-farm inspections to verify correct usage of this claim.
BEEF
BISON
LAMB
PORK
GOAT
MILK
TURKEY
CHICKEN
EGGS
DUCK
GEESE
MUTTON
SEAFOOD

To ensure that producers are not using antibiotics – or if they are using them, only to appropriately treat infection – look for products with these seals from rigorous third-party certifiers instead:

No Beta Agonists

“No beta agonists” or “no growth promoters”

These terms imply that adrenal hormones were not given to promote the development of lean muscle instead of fat in the animal. Treated animals can develop health problems such as increased heart rate and hoof defects. European and Chinese authorities do not allow beta agonists in meat.

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires documentation from producers to use this term.
  • No federal standard.
  • No regular on-farm inspections to verify correct usage of this claim.
BEEF
PORK
TURKEY

To ensure that producers are not using antibiotics – or if they are using them, only to appropriately treat infection – look for products with these seals from rigorous third-party certifiers instead:

Grass-fed

Implies animals were fed a diet of natural grass and other forage – not grain.

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires documentation from producers to use this claim.
  • It can often include other healthier practices not associated with industrially produced meat, such as more range time for livestock, less crowded conditions and local butchering.
  • No federal standard. In January 2016, the USDA withdrew its grass-fed standard that required animals “must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.”
  • Despite the withdrawal, the USDA still requires proof of access to pasture, and that animals’ diets were “derived solely from forage” and they were not “fed grain or grain by-products,” in order to approve use of this claim.
  • Does not necessarily mean that the animals spent their entire lives in pastures or on rangeland.
  • No regular on-farm inspections to verify correct usage of this claim.
BEEF
GOAT
MILK
MUTTON

To ensure the meat or dairy products you purchase require that animals eat a diet exclusively of forage and spend most of their time on pasture, look for these certifications instead:

Heritage Breeds

The term “heritage” refers to historic animal breeds raised before industrial producers developed modern breeds that grow faster and mature earlier.

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires documentation from producers to use this claim.
  • Preserves genetic diversity and prevents extinction.
  • Generally less susceptible to diseases based on their genetic vigor and the fact that they are typically raised outdoors in less crowded environments.
  • Some meat producers use the terms “heritage” or “heirloom” loosely and raise animals that are a mix of historic and modern breeds.
  • While the Livestock Conservancy has worked to create a definition of “heritage” and maintains a list of heritage breeds for poultry and livestock, they do not certify producers and, currently, there is limited oversight on use of the term.
  • No regular on-farm inspections to verify correct usage of this claim.
BEEF
PORK
TURKEY
CHICKEN

Organic Seafood

Implies the seafood was raised organically.

  • The federal government doesn’t presently allow any domestic seafood to be certified as organic, although fish labeled as organic can be legally imported into the United States.
  • Fish and shellfish products labeled as organic presumably comply with an international certification standard, though it may be difficult to find out what those standards require. A reasonable standard should require practices that minimize the toll of aquaculture to the environment, and limit the use of antibiotics, dyes and other harmful additives.
  • Seafood marketed as “organic” is generally farm-raised.
SEAFOOD

Pasture Raised

Implies animals were raised in a pasture where they can roam freely outdoors and are able to eat grasses and other foods their bodies are adapted to digest.

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires documentation from producers to use this term.
  • No federal standard. In 2002, the USDA proposed to define “pasture raised” to mean animals with “continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life cycle,” but never issued those standards.
  • No regular on-farm inspections to verify correct usage of this claim.
BEEF
LAMB
PORK
GOAT
MILK

To ensure the meat or dairy products you purchase are from pasture-raised animals, look for these certifications instead:

Not treated with rBGH/rBST

This designation means products come from animals that have not been treated with the recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). This genetically engineered, Food and Drug Administration-approved hormone artificially increases milk production by 10 to 15 percent. The European Union has banned the use of rBGH to prevent the human health risk (it may boost insulin-like growth factor) and animal health risks (animals may have more infections on rBGH).

  • The FDA requires documentation from producers to use this term.
  • The FDA considers use of the term “r-BGH-free” to be false, since all milk contains natural growth hormone.
  • No federal standard, however the FDA did publish guidance on the voluntary labeling of dairy as “not treated with rBGH.”
  • No regular on-farm inspections to verify correct usage of this claim.
MILK

To ensure the meat or dairy products you purchase are from pasture-raised animals, look for these certifications instead:

Sustainable Seafood

Implies wild and farmed fish are from sustainably managed fisheries.

  • The U.S. Department of Commerce legally enforces national standards to prevent overfishing and ensure sustainable fishery management.
  • This term is more meaningful if the seafood comes from a U.S. fishery.
  • Due to a high amount of fraud, without a certification, consumers can’t always be sure to what extent these fish populations are actually being protected.
  • Remember to steer clear of high mercury seafood, like swordfish, which may be labeled as sustainable.
SEAFOOD

For detailed sustainability ratings, consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which is the most rigorous rating for sustainable seafood choices. Unfortunately, the Seafood Watch program doesn’t certify specific products. To ensure the fish you purchase is sustainable look for this certification:

Vegetarian Fed

This claim implies that the animals were not fed meat byproducts, which is common in industrial practice.

  • Producers have to submit documentation to the U.S. Department of Agriculture proving that animals were fed only vegetarian feed.
  • This label claim has no legal definition.
  • Chicken, turkeys and other omnivores are still allowed to forage naturally for insects and grubs.
  • No regular on-farm inspections to verify correct usage of this claim.
BEEF
PORK
TURKEY
CHICKEN
EGGS

Wild-Caught/Wild Fish

The term “wild” on a fish or shellfish label suggests that the fish lived in the wild and was caught in the wild.

  • Can be more ecologically responsible than farmed fish, particularly when harvested in the United States where local boards set harvest levels to ensure continued supply.
  • The Food and Drug Administration has no rules to define these claims, so practices vary.
  • Fraud, mislabeling and the substitution of one species of fish for another is high within the seafood industry, and consumers can’t always be sure that fish labeled as such were actually wild-caught.
  • No regular inspections to verify correct usage of this claim.
  • Independent verification is necessary to ensure this claim is true.
SEAFOOD

To ensure the fish you purchase is wild-caught, look for this certification:

Be Wary

Animal Welfare Review

  • Documents that an on-farm audit was passed.
  • Animal welfare standards require the producer to have an action plan in the case of injury, illness, emergency, or willful neglect or abuse of animals, among other things.
  • No requirement for outdoor access.
  • Minimal considerations for natural behaviors.
  • Animals can be confined in cages or crates.
  • No protocols to reduce antibiotic usage.
BEEF
PORK
MILK

To ensure the meat or dairy products you purchase are from producers that set humane standards to minimize pain, limit suffering, and provide humane living conditions, look for these certifications:

To learn more, visit Animal Welfare Review.

Cage Free

The vast majority of industrial egg producers use cages. This term implies that animals are not kept in cages and that this is an improvement in the living standards for egg-laying chickens.

  • If the product has a U.S. Department of Agriculture seal it means the agency has seen a signed affidavit stating that the hens are not raised in cages from the producer.
  • Still, an affidavit says nothing about the amount of space for the chickens. Cage-free birds may still not have space to engage in natural behaviors.
  • The term has no legal definition, so practices vary.
  • No regular on-farm inspections to verify correct usage of this claim.
  • Chickens and turkeys raised for meat are never caged, so this claim on poultry products is meaningless. The term cage-free is only useful when shopping for eggs.
EGGS

To ensure the eggs you purchase are from animals that had access to the outdoors, space to flap their wings and engage in other natural behaviors, look for these certifications instead:

Free-range

Implies that animals had access to the outdoors and adequate space to engage in other natural behaviors

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires documentation from producers to use this claim.
  • USDA defines “free range” on its website to mean poultry that have been “allowed access to the outside.”
  • Does not specify the quality or size of the outside range, nor how long an animal must have been outside.
  • Does not apply to animals other than chicken and turkey. In 2002, the USDA proposed to define “free range” for cattle, sheep and swine as “continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their lifecycle,” but never issued the standard.
  • No regular on-farm inspections to verify correct usage of this claim.
TURKEY
CHICKEN

To ensure the poultry products you purchase are from animals that had access to the outdoors and space to engage in natural behaviors, look for these certifications instead:

No Hormones Added

Implies cattle and sheep were never implanted with pellets containing sex hormones to speed growth. These hormones boost meat and dairy production and profits. The European Union does not allow any hormone treatments for meat or milk animals.

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires documentation from producers to use this term.
  • The USDA does not allow producers to use hormones in chickens, turkeys and hogs.
  • No regular on-farm inspections to verify correct usage of this claim.
BEEF
LAMB
MILK

To ensure the meat or dairy products you purchase are from animals that never received growth hormones, look for these certifications instead:

Humanely Raised

  • No legal definition and essentially meaningless.
  • No regular on-farm inspections to verify correct usage of this claim.
BEEF
BISON
LAMB
PORK
GOAT
MILK
TURKEY
CHICKEN
EGGS
DUCK
GEESE
MUTTON
SEAFOOD

The certifiers below set standards for confinement, minimizing pain and cruelty to animals to limit animal suffering, and providing animals with humane living conditions. However, certifiers’ rules differ. To understand the differences among humane certifications, click on their logos.

Lean/Extra Lean

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture has defined lean and extra lean to mean the meat is lower in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol.
BEEF
BISON
LAMB
PORK
GOAT
TURKEY
CHICKEN

Natural

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a natural meat product as one that contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” Processing must not fundamentally alter the product. The label must have a specific explanation, such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed.”

  • USDA standard exists for meat and poultry.
  • No Food and Drug Administration standard for other foods.
  • The term is often misinterpreted to mean that the product is healthier and more humane than it is.
  • All fresh meat qualifies as natural.
  • Does not mean that the animal was raised in sufficient open space.
  • No indication producer refrained from treating healthy animals with antibiotics to boost growth or prevent disease.
  • Does not bar growth hormones.
  • Does not bar GMO feed.
  • Does not require organic feed or prohibit the feeding of animal byproducts.
BEEF
BISON
LAMB
PORK
GOAT
MILK
TURKEY
CHICKEN
EGGS
DUCK
GEESE
MUTTON
SEAFOOD

No Nitrates or Nitrites Added

Nitrates or nitrites are preservatives that prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, enhance color or add a smoky flavor. Processed meats such as ham, bacon, lunchmeats and hot dogs are often treated with nitrates that increase the risk of cancer and other health problems through the formation of carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines.

  • U.S. Department of Agriculture standard exists. The USDA defines “no nitrate or nitrite added” as products “which contain no nitrate or nitrite.” Products should also bear the term “Uncured.”
  • The USDA requires documentation from producers to use this claim.
  • This does not mean the product is nitrate- or nitrite-free, as most products add a naturally occurring source of nitrite, such as celery powder. These products must also bear the qualifying statement “except for those naturally occurring in,” and state the natural source of nitrite.
BEEF
PORK
TURKEY
CHICKEN

To avoid the risks associated with nitrates and nitrites, look for meat products whose ingredient lists do not contain sodium nitrite, potassium nitrite, sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate. Learn more about nitrates here.

Omega-3 Fortified Eggs and Milk

Some eggs and milk products are marketed as containing higher concentrations of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

  • Manufacturers usually boost the concentration of healthy fats by feeding milk cows and laying chickens with vegetarian sources of omega-3’s. In some cases, dairies add fish oil directly to milk.
  • Omega-3-supplemented milk and dairy products typically contain less of these healthy substances than would be found in a serving of seafood, so they may not be worth the extra price.
  • If you don’t eat seafood and want to get healthy fats through eggs or milk look for those that contain docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are more potent than those containing alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) or marked as containing “omega-3’s” since ALA provides a lesser benefit.
  • You can also get omega-3s from nuts, flax seed oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds and other foods.
MILK
EGGS

Farmed Fish

Indicates the fish was raised on a fish farm.

  • These farming practices often pollute water and local ecosystems, and escaped fish can harm wild fish.
  • No federal standards to ensure farms are well managed.
  • No on-site inspections to verify farms are well managed.
SEAFOOD

To ensure the fish you purchase are from well-managed, third-party-verified farms, look for this certification:

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