Grass-fed, organic, free-range—what do these terms all mean? Make sense of the meat counter with this guide to meat labels. You'll see that many of these common labels are vague or unverified. The best way to buy meat raised with specific standards is to find a producer or farm that follows the practices that are important to you.
Free-RangeThere are standards for "free-range" (or "free-roaming") for poultry, but not for other meat. Chickens labeled "free range" must have access to the outdoors, although this need not be pasture and may be dirt or gravel areas. Since there is no legal standard for "free range" when applied to eggs or to meat other than chickens, the label doesn't have any teeth. In most cases, however, it means the animal has access to the outdoors.
Left to their own devices, cattle would eat grass their whole lives. Conventional beef (and plenty of organic beef) are brought to feed lots at the end of their lives to be fattened up on grain. Beef from cattle that has been raised exclusively on grass has less saturated fat and more nutrients that grain-finished beef.
USDA grass-fed beef has only has a grass diet and access to pasture year-round. The program is voluntary, however, without third-party verification. Labels that read "100% grass-fed" or "grass-finished" and verified by a third party, such as the American Grassfed Association, will guarantee the beef has only been grass and hay fed.