How to Understand the Quality of Meat You Are Buying

Madeline: Posted 27/10/2015

More people are becoming concerned about the quality of their food, especially when shopping for meat. It can be confusing to read the label and know what you are getting, so you need to familiarize yourself with the terms to determine the right products for your family. Sometimes, the packaging can be a bit misleading, causing you to think that you are buying high quality meat when it’s really low-quality, factory farmed products.

Here are a few things that you need to know about common messages on meat packaging:


The United States has a National Organic Program that regulates how produce and animals can be grown and raised to qualify for an “organic” label. Buying organic has become more popular in recent years, but many people are jumping on the bandwagon without realizing why they should buy organic or what it means. If you have the choice to buy organic instead of conventional food, it is always better to choose organic because higher quality standards were used.

There are differing organic rules in regards to meat and fruits/vegetables. In order for an animal to be labeled organic, it needs to be fed 100% organic vegetarian feed, which means that the food was not contaminated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Other requirements include year-round access to the outdoors, no treatment with hormones or antibiotics, and the animals need space to move.

As you can see, the organic label is more than just chemicals and pesticides, because it considers the overall quality of the animal’s living conditions. There is still wiggle room with the regulations, such as limited outdoor space for the animal to visit.

Grass Fed

If you want high quality meat, then grass-fed is a label you should be looking for. Some people claim that grass-fed is the best choice in terms of the way the animal was raised. According to the USDA, “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.”

Grass fed animals are leaner and healthier, and they have the opportunity to live more of a natural lifestyle. These animals are not fed grain in their diet, and they spend more of their time eating grass feed. As a result, the meat is higher in nutrition and contains optimal levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids.

Organic and Grass Fed

The best option is to choose meat that is both organic and grass fed, which meets all of the requirements listed above. You need to make sure that the packaging specifically states both of these labels, otherwise you should assume that the requirements were not met when the animal was raised.

Pasture Raised

Just because an animal was grass fed, doesn’t necessarily mean that they spent their time in the pasture though. Grass-fed refers to the type of food that the animal consumed, pasture-raised refers to the location where the food was eaten. If you want to eat meat that was raised in the most natural environment, then pasture-raised is a good option to consider.

But, keep in mind that just because an animal is pasture raised, doesn’t necessarily mean that they were grass fed. An animal can be raised in a pasture and also fed grain. For example, chickens don’t eat grass, so a pasture-raised chicken could have spent most of its time outdoors and fed a diet of grain, could have eaten bugs like nature intended, or a combination of both. If you choose to go pasture raised, ask your local farmer some questions pertaining to the diet of their animals for peace of mind.


Genetically modified products have become common on the shelves of the grocery store, and there are many types of genetically modified fruits, vegetables, and grain. At this point, animals are not genetically modified, but genetic engineering can still play a role in raising the animal. For example, there are many animals that are fed a diet of GMO grain. The way to avoid these animals is by choosing organic, grass-fed, and/or pastured raised products.

Additionally, choose meat products that are in their original form and aren’t processed. Certain types of processed meat like sausage, bacon, and ham contain additives that were sourced from genetically modified ingredients.

Yesterday, the World Health Organization’s cancer research classified processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans”.  This statement is based on evidence from  hundreds of studies, and they are linked specifically to color, or colorectal, colon cancer. In addition, Who’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) states there is some link between the consumption of red meat and pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.  Unprocessed red meat is classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

This is something to take seriously, especially if you consume conventional meat on a regular basis. If you haven’t made the switch to grass-fed meat, now is a great time to start. When ruminant animals, such as cattle, are left to feed on grass-only diets, levels of conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA are three to five times more than those fed grain-based diets. There are many benefits to choosing grass-fed meat.


Even though “natural” might seem like a good label to have on a package of meat, it actually doesn’t really mean much. According to the USDA, “natural” is a product that is free of “artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed.” Most fresh meats fall within the natural label, regardless of the way the animal was raised.

On the other hand, “naturally raised” is a different label that you might find on a meat package. If an animal was naturally raised, then it means that the animal was raised without antibiotics, growth promotants, and it has never received animal by-products in the food. These are all good things to keep in mind, so the label “naturally raised” is a good one to watch for.



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