Understanding meat labels

Wanda Patsche and her husband are pig and crop farmers in southern Minnesota.

As a consumer, mom and pig farmer, I understand that meat labels can be confusing.  I’ve heard fellow moms, even food bloggers, say they chose not to buy meat simply because they didn’t know what the labels meant.

Hearing that, I felt like someone punched me in the stomach. The last thing I want is for people to walk away from the meat counter because of label confusion.

Wanda Patsche

To help alleviate some of the confusion, I want to provide you with some helpful definitions of package labels you might see on pork, along with their meanings.

No Hormones Added

Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs. Ever. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” should not be used on the labels of pork unless it is followed by the statement, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

No Antibiotics Added

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the label “no antibiotics used” may be used on meat products if the animal never received antibiotics during its lifetime.

However, the FDA does not allow any meat to be sold with traces of antibiotics above strict safety limits. When an animal is sick, antibiotics are carefully prescribed by a veterinarian. As a farmer, we take administering antibiotics seriously. We are required to follow FDA mandates and drug-withdrawal times (the specific number of days that must pass between an animal’s last antibiotic treatment and the date the meat enters the food supply). By doing this, we can ensure the antibiotics have sufficiently exited an animal’s system. 

Organic

“Organic” is a labeling term that indicates that the food is grown through a specific production method. It is not related to the quality or safety of the food. A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-accredited certifying agent must verify that products meet all requirements before products can be labeled “USDA organic.”

Here are just a few of the requirements on organic pork, according to the USDA:

  • Must be raised organically on certified-organic land
  • Must be fed certified-organic feed
  • Livestock must never have received antibiotics during its lifetime
  • Allowed year-round access to the outdoors

Natural

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) defines “natural” as a product containing no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally change the product (ground, for example). This is all true of all fresh (uncured) meat, including pork products. Some examples of fresh pork products include pork chops, roasts and ribs.

 Locally Grown

This term has no USDA guidelines. What defines “local” may vary from one person to another. For some, it may represent a drive to a farmer’s market. For others, it may mean a specific geographic region.

 Free Range

Free range is also referred to as “pasture raised,” “free roaming” and “raised outdoors.” The USDA standard to make this claim for pork is that hogs have had continuous access to pasture for at least 80 percent of their lives.

I feel confident feeding pork to my family, and I hope you can feel confident feeding it to yours.

The most important thing to remember is that all pork raised in the U.S. must meet federal and state regulations for safety before being sold to consumers, regardless of the label. I feel confident feeding pork to my family, and I hope you can feel confident feeding it to yours.