Chow Line: Find what terms on meat labels mean

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I’m seeing more local meat at the farmers market. Do words like  “no hormones,” “grass-fed” and “organic” all mean pretty much the same thing?

Not really. Each term has a specific meaning, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regulates their use.

One piece of background: Rules about the labeling of different foods are complex. For one thing, the USDA is in charge of only meat, poultry and processed egg products. Other foods are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That might seem straightforward, but it can quickly get complicated.

For example, FDA regulates eggs in the shell, but USDA regulates processed egg products. FDA regulates fruits and vegetables, but USDA runs the National Organic Program that regulates organic crops, including organic fruits and vegetables.

All this is important because if you look on the FDA’s website for organic information, for example, you’ll find that the agency has no regulations regarding the use of the term “organic” on food labels. But if you turn to the USDA, you’ll learn exactly what that term means.

Searching the USDA website (, you’ll find the following definitions for claims used on meat and poultry:

  • “No hormones administered” may be used on a beef label if the producer can supply documentation showing that no hormones were used in raising the animals. Since hormones cannot be used in raising any swine or poultry, a label on pork and poultry saying “no hormones” must also say “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones,” just to make it clear that no pork or poultry at all is raised with hormones.
  • “Grass-fed” means that grass and forage are the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the animal, with the exception of milk consumed before the animal is weaned. Grass-fed cattle aren’t necessarily organically raised, and organic beef isn’t necessarily grass-fed.
  • “Organic” livestock must meet animal health and welfare standards, must not be raised with antibiotics or growth hormones, must be given 100 percent organic feed, and must have received access to the outdoors.

To learn more about terms used on meat and poultry products, a good first step would be to “Ask FSIS,” a service that provides answers to questions about inspection, labeling, importing and more. Just go to If the answer to your question is not already in the system, you can submit it as a new question and a staff officer will answer.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1043, or

Editor, please note: In May and June 2014, Chow Line will be published only every other week.

This column was reviewed by Bridgette Kidd, Healthy People program specialist for Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

CFAES News Team
For more information, contact: 

Bridgette Kidd
OSU Extension, program specialist, Healthy People