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What’s in a name: Reading meat labels about antibiotic use

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What's in a name: reading meat labels for best results!

Some labels are more meaningful than others.

Consumers can have a very high level of trust that any meat and poultry labeled “USDA Organic” has never been given any antibiotics at any stage of production.  Organic producers follow strict USDA guidelines in order to use the label on their products, which indicates that   many healthful and environmentally sound practices were employed in the production of the food, including no antibiotics use on livestock.

In general, consumers can also rely on “no antibiotics administered” and similar labels (see table for the many label iterations), especially if they are accompanied by a “USDA process Verified” shield.

In addition to these labels,  “grassfed” labels, usually found on beef, can also be useful, but require close scrutiny. If they are coupled with the “organic” label, consumers can be sure the cow was raised without antibiotics. If “grassfed” appears alone, however, antibiotics might have been given. “American Grassfed” and “Food Alliance Grassfed” labels also indicate that in addition to having been raised on grass, the animal in question received no antibiotics, but those products are available in very few stores.

The “natural” label in fact has nothing to do with how an animal was raised.  The USDA requires only that no coloring or artificial ingredients are added to the final meat or poultry product and that it be “minimally processed” (although salt water can be added).

“Natural” meat or poultry products can definitely be given antibiotics in their feed or water while being raised—and can also be raised in confined spaces with thousands of other animals, given hormones and other drugs, fed animal by-products and subjected to many other unnatural practices.

Consumers should beware of several labels that are unapproved by the USDA, such as “antibiotic-free” and “no antibiotic residues”, that could mislead them to think a product was raised without any antibiotics, when in fact that may not be the case.