Meat Labels

Fall 2009
by Diane Schivera, M.A.T.

Consumers are often confused by an array of labels when purchasing meat and other livestock products. Here are the legal definitions for meat labels.

Naturally Raised Meats

This label does not cover other livestock products such as milk or cheese. This is important to know, since no regulations govern how animals producing “Natural” milk or other products were raised or how the product is processed.

Regarding meat and meat products, however, the definition is: “Livestock used for the production of meat and meat products that have been raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores* used as coccidiostats for parasite control), and have never been fed animal (mammalian, avian, or aquatic) by-products derived from the slaughter/harvest processes, including meat and fat, animal waste materials (e.g., manure and litter), and aquatic by-products (e.g., fishmeal and fish oil). All products labeled with a naturally raised marketing claim must incorporate information explicitly stating that animals have been raised in a manner that meets the following conditions: (1) No growth promotants were administered to the animals; (2) no antibiotics (other than ionophores used to prevent parasitism) were administered to the animal; and (3) no animal by-products were fed to the animals. If ionophores used only to prevent parasitism were administered to the animals, they may be labeled with the naturally raised marketing claims if that fact is explicitly noted. – Federal Register, Vol. 74, No. 12, Jan. 21, 2009, Notices

* An ionophore is a substance that can transport particular ions across a lipid membrane in a cell. One such product is called Rumensin.


A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and that is only minimally processed (a process that does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as: no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed). – Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book, Aug. 2005

Grass Fed Meat

Grass (Forage) Fed – Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen. If incidental supplementation occurs due to inadvertent exposure to non-forage feedstuffs or to ensure the animal’s well being at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions, the producer must fully document (e.g., receipts, ingredients, and tear tags) the supplementation that occurs including the amount, the frequency, and the supplements provided. – Federal Register Notice 72 FR 58631, Grass (Forage) Fed Marketing Claim Standard, Oct.16, 2007. (The farmer has to sign an affidavit to this effect and register it when getting the label.)

Certified Humane Raised and Handled®

This certification and labeling program is the only animal welfare label requiring the humane treatment of farm animals from birth through slaughter.

The Certified Humane Raised and Handled(r) label assures consumers that:

  • the producer meets our [the program’s] standards and applies them to animals from birth through slaughter;
  • animals have ample space, shelter and gentle handling to limit stress;
  • animals have ample fresh water and a healthy diet of quality feed, without added antibiotics or hormones;
  • cages, crates and tie stalls are among the forbidden practices, and animals must be free to do what comes naturally. For example, chickens are able to flap their wings and take dust baths, and pigs have the space to move around and root.

Producers must comply with food safety and environmental regulations. Processors must comply with the American Meat Institute (AMI) Standards, a higher standard for slaughtering farm animals than the federal Humane Slaughter Act.


Meat and other livestock products must be managed according to the rules of the USDA National Organic Program. The animals must have access to the outdoors, must be fed an organically produced diet, be raised in a manner that respects the natural environment, and never be given antibiotics or hormones.

Unregulated Terms

No laws or regulations exist to govern these terms:

  • Free Range – refers to the fact that the animals are not caged
  • Grass finished – refers to the idea that the animals are fed grass and/or forage but not grain, to their ideal slaughter weight
  • Pasture Raised – refers to the idea that the animals spend at least part of their lives on what the farmer defines as pasture
  • Cage Free – refers to the idea that the animals (usually laying hens) are not caged but are raised on an open floor barn

The best way to understand how these unregulated terms are actually being used is to know the farmer who is using them.

How to Keep Livestock Products

Questions have arisen lately about keeping livestock products. Here are some guidelines.

Uncooked meat – Meat should be stored at a low temperature to help preserve its quality and prevent the growth of illness-causing bacteria. Chilling meat to below 40 F is recommended, and below 35 F is better. In general, consume refrigerated meat within four to seven days of purchase. The length of time depends on how well the processing of the meat followed good sanitation practices, called SSOPs (Standard Sanitation Operating Procedures) and HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points).

Frozen meat – When frozen, raw meat and poultry maintain their quality longer than their cooked counterparts, because moisture is lost during cooking.

Food stored constantly at 0 F will be safe almost indefinitely because any microbes (bacteria, yeasts and molds) present in food are inactivated. Only quality suffers with lengthy freezer storage. Freezing preserves food for extended periods because it prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause both food spoilage and foodborne illness.

The freezing process itself does not destroy nutrients. In meat and poultry products, nutrient value changes little during freezer storage.

Freeze food as fast as possible to maintain its quality. Rapid freezing prevents undesirable large ice crystals from forming throughout the product because the molecules don’t have time to take their positions in the characteristic six-sided snowflake. Slow freezing creates large, disruptive ice crystals. During thawing, these large crystals damage cells and dissolve emulsions, causing meat to “drip” – lose juiciness. Ideally, food that is 2 inches thick should freeze completely in about 2 hours.

Frozen storage time is extended by sealing meat in a way that prevents air and moisture exchange and protects against freezer burn (areas of severe dehydration on the surface of the meat).

Once food is thawed in the refrigerator, it is safe to refreeze it without cooking, although quality may be lost due to moisture loss through defrosting. If you purchase previously frozen meat, poultry or fish at a retail store, you can refreeze if it has been handled properly.

To determine the safety of foods after losing power, check their condition and temperature. If food is partly frozen, still has ice crystals or is as cold as if it were in a refrigerator (40 F), it is safe to refreeze or use. It’s not necessary to cook raw foods before refreezing. Discard foods that have been warmer than 40 F for more than 2 hours. Discard any foods that have been contaminated by raw meat juices.

For maximum quality, use frozen foods within the following times. (These times do not relate to safety, since foods kept at 0 F remain safe.)

Item Months
Bacon and sausage 1 to 2
Casseroles 2 to 3
Egg whites or egg substitutes 12
Frozen dinners and entrees 3 to 4
Gravy, meat or poultry 2 to 3
Ham, hotdogs and lunchmeats 1 to 2
Meat, uncooked roasts 4 to 12
Meat, uncooked steaks or chops 4 to 12
Meat, uncooked ground 3 to 4
Meat, cooked 2 to 3
Poultry, uncooked whole 12
Poultry, uncooked parts 9
Poultry, uncooked giblets 3 to 4
Poultry, cooked 4
Soups and stews 2 to 3
Wild game, uncooked 8 to 12

Thanks for assistance from Henrietta Beaufait, Maine Meat and Poultry Inspection Program, and Beth Calder, University of Maine Cooperative Extension Food Science Specialist.

Diane Schivera is MOFGA’s organic livestock specialist. You can contact her with your questions at 568-4142 or [email protected].

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