Don't Miss Out

Subscribe to OCA's News & Alerts.

Cook Organic not the Planet Campaign

The Beef with Beef Labels: Do You Know What They Mean?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's CAFO's vs. Free Range page, All About Organics page and our Myth of Natural Campaign page.

The catchphrase was "Where's the beef?" It was first used in a hugely successful 1984 ad campaign for Wendy's, the fast-food chain, and it tickled the nation's collective funny bone. Thirty years later, consumers are far more likely to ask, "Where's the beef from?" According to a recent Consumer Reports survey on food labels, 88 percent believe, for example, that a humanely raised claim on meat packaging means the animals were humanely slaughtered-the reality is far more complicated. The survey found that more than a third of consumers look for certified humane labeling at the grocery store, and 80 percent believe that good living conditions for animals is crucial when they consider what meat they're going to buy.

But sorting out the various labels at the butcher counter and the supermarket meat case is no laughing matter-and there are a lot of differences among the labels and claims you'll come across. In a perfect world, your beef comes from cattle raised in an idyllic setting where they have ample grass and space, aren't subjected to unnecessary physical alterations from drug treatments, and are slaughtered in a manner that is as humane as possible. But by no means do all the labels out there assure that each of these requirements is being attended to.

Below is a buying guide that will help you get the most value and also what you think you're paying for.

American Humane CertifiedStandards from this third-party welfare certification program, administered by the American Humane Association, aren't as comprehensive as "Animal Welfare Approved" and "Certified Humane"-access to pasture or grass feeding isn't required-but they do include standards for living conditions, treatment of breeding animals, handling of animals during transport, and some for animals at slaughter. AHC also has standards for dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, veal, bison, lamb, goat, and pork. Consumer Reports rating: somewhat meaningful

Animal Welfare Approved The label of this third-party certification program of the Animal Welfare Institute is only issued to meat from independent family farms that adhere to the highest welfare standards on range or pasture. Standards include the treatment of breeding animals, animals during transport, and animals at slaughter. AWA publishes Food Labeling for Dummies as well as the handy Food Labels Exposed smartphone app. AWI also has standards for dairy, eggs, chicken, goose, duck, turkey, bison, lamb, goat, pork, and rabbit. Consumer Reports rating: highly meaningful

Certified Organic USDA certification for organic beef requires 100 percent organic feed (whether pasture or grain), thus no genetically modified feed, animal byproducts (such as poultry litter and manure), plastic pellets for roughage, growth hormones, or antibiotics-all allowable in conventional beef production. Ranchers and handlers must keep extensive records to be certified organic, so there's traceability of the animal from birth to market. Only a small percentage of organic beef is "finished," or fattened up, on pasture; most of it still goes to a feedlot, where it gets organic feed. Specific animal welfare standards lag behind those of many other labels. Consumer Reports rating: meaningful