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Beyond the Label: What ‘Raised Without Antibiotics’ Really Means

Beyond the Label: What ‘Raised Without Antibiotics’ Really Means

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Antibiotic use on farm animals is a more layered, debated issue than people might assume

If you’re deciding between two packages of ground chicken at the supermarket and one is labeled “raised without antibiotics,” while the other is not, which are you going to pick?

Antibiotic-free seems like the obvious answer, right? But if we asked you why, the answer becomes less clear. Much like ‘natural,’ ‘organic,’ and ‘cage-free,’ ‘raised without antibiotics’ has become one of those food labels we’re programmed to see as the right dietary choice — yet the reality behind the label is knowledge few fully possess.

Are antibiotics really that harmful to raising slaughter animals? Investigators at NPR’s food blog, The Salt, looked into the issue because, like us, they “needed a little clarity” beyond the label. Here is what they found.

Most antibiotics are available to farmers over the counter. While antibiotics are frequently used to avoid infections, they’re also used to promote growth.

80 percent of antibiotic use in the United States goes toward farm animals.

The concern with this practice, however, comes back to antibiotics for humans. If we’re constantly consuming animals raised on antibiotics, will our bodies become resistant to such drugs when we actually need them?

This can happen — but rarely. According to Scott Hurd, a veterinarian at Iowa State University, “All published, peer-reviewed scientific articles to date have demonstrated negligible risk from on-farm antibiotic use.”

While using antibiotics on farm animals to prevent disease is necessary, using them to increase growth is not. The Food and Drug Administration is steadily making efforts to control antibiotic use on farms and allow the drugs’ “use to only address diseases and health problems.”

“Grass-Fed” On The Label: What It Does (And Doesn’t) Tell You

I spied a new product in my grocery store the other day — vacuum-packed beef sold under Safeway’s Open Nature brand.

The label indicated this beef came from grass-fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free cows. Woo-hoo! It was more expensive than the stuff packed in the butcher case — but not by much. And since we’ve been buying grass-fed beef from a local rancher, this new supermarket offering piqued my curiosity.

But I took a step back… What does the “grass-fed” label really mean? My research into food labeling regulations has opened my eyes, and the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve come to suspect that many (most?) labels are just full of crap (and frankly downright insulting at times). So I mentally added a “Research Grass-Fed Meat Labels” task to my to-do list and did some analysis for all of us.


There 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, or even a slab of concrete. If the life the chicken led is important to you, research the farm or grower on the label.

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 when on those products. In most cases, however, it means the animal has access to the outdoors.


Meats labeled "No Antibiotics/Raised without Antibiotics" are another good bet. However, unless the product also bears the "USDA Process Verified" shield, the veracity of the claims aren't being monitored, Halloran says.

“They do have to get permission from the USDA to use the no-antibiotics label and they do have to supply the USDA with paperwork explaining what they are planning to do and how. But only if they request the ability to display the "USDA Process Verified" shield will anyone from the USDA check up on them.”

While meats with the "no antibiotics/raised without antibiotics" label, but without the USDA shield aren’t being verified, “if a company is found to be violating the rules, there are consequences and they know that,” says USDA spokesperson Cathy Cochrane.

Share All sharing options for: ‘Natural’ Means Practically Nothing When It Comes to Food

A judge in Washington, D.C. Superior court has dismissed a lawsuit against meat conglomerate Hormel that once again highlights the murky nature of products labeled as “natural” — a term that’s become more popular in recent years in grocery aisles. The lawsuit filed by the animal rights group Animal Legal Defense Fund claimed that Hormel “engaged in potentially misleading advertising of animal products,” arguing that the Hormel Natural Choice label lead consumers to believe its meat products do not contain antibiotics or hormones when, in fact, they do. While the ruling sided with Hormel, the lawsuit did reveal that the company’s Hormel Natural Choice label uses the same hormone- and antibiotic-treated animals used to produce other conventional Hormel meat products like Spam.

The FDA has no guidelines for use of the term “natural” and only lightly enforces the term “all-natural,” according to Vox. Meanwhile, the USDA defines “natural” as “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color” that “is only minimally processed,” meaning it’s “processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.” That means animals raised with hormones and antibiotics can still fall under the “natural” category, as can Cheetos, lemon-flavored Oreos, and Skippy peanut butter. The Hormel Natural Choice packaging is within the legal bounds outlined by the USDA — it defines “natural” as “minimally processed” with “no artificial ingredients.” But the ALDF plans to appeal the ruling.

Although the lawsuit wasn’t successful, the plaintiffs showed that Hormel employees acknowledged there isn’t a meaningful difference between Hormel Natural Choice meats and other conventional Hormel options. Attorneys for the ALDF cited an email from a Hormel marketing director noting “the fact that many consumer[s] assume Natural=RWOA [Raised Without Antibiotics].” Another employee, Corwyn Bollum, stated in a deposition that there is “no separate manner in which the pigs raised for Hormel Natural Choice products are versus any other of Hormel’s products, so Spam or any other lunch meat or bacon product.” Hormel did not deny the statement in its response to the lawsuit.

There’s plenty of outside evidence that big food companies profit off consumer confusion. Consumer Reports found that 73 percent of respondents sought out products with the “natural” label — a greater percentage than those who purchased more stringently labeled “organic” foods (another sector that food conglomerates are edging their way into). A separate survey from Technomic found that one in five consumers are willing to pay more for “natural” and “organic” labeled products — in essence, paying more money for a vaguely defined word.

Natural products aren’t the only labels to go virtually unregulated. Terms like “lightly sweetened,” “made with real. ” and “multigrain” are also more a branding strategy than a substantive label, forcing shoppers to stay vigilant in the grocery aisles if they’re truly looking for a healthy food.

⑤ USDA Prime Choice

USDA grades, such as Prime, Choice and Select, are a measure of the meat’s tenderness. Dellapietras is a fan of Top Prime. "It has a different flavor profile than other options. If the product is aged, you’re talking about a truly spectacular piece of meat," he says. "There's also no comparison when it comes to internal marbling—the inner layer of fat is where Prime meat's intense and rich flavors come from."

Using a bundt pan cooks a chicken similar to a vertical roaster

We've already learned you can't trust everything on the internet, and this cooking technique for chicken is one that evokes some skepticism. According to endorsements by some online sources, home cooks can roast a chicken, turkey, or any piece of meat in the oven using a bundt pan. Placing the chicken cavity over the cone at the center will keep the meat from touching the bottom, and allow for the effect of a vertical roaster. The recipe even calls for vegetables at the bottom in order to cook an entire meal in one fell swoop. science advisor Prof. Greg Blonder calls this "an unspeakably bad idea." Using a bundt pan as a vertical roaster won't offer the desired results for anyone looking to cook a crisp roasted chicken. "It won't speed up cooking, and the pile of vegetables and juices will create a low temperature sauna that steams instead of roasts the meat," he explains. Home chefs will be left with soggy skin and undercooked thighs. Instead, Blonder recommends cooking with a Dutch oven. At least it's not a myth that Dutch ovens really do offer an excellent way to cook chicken.

Free Range

Canadian chickens and turkeys are cage-free. This means that they are ‘free run’ chickens at the very least, who roam freely indoors. Free range animals have the opportunity to go outside if they want, weather permitting. Again, as with organic, it does not mean that they wholly live out in the pasture. Since winters in Canada are quite cold (especially in the very northern areas), it’s hard for us to know by looking at a label how much outdoor time an animal actually enjoyed. Again, it’s important to ask questions about this.

1. No Added Hormones or Steroids

Despite this label appearing on many chicken products found in the store, no chicken you buy is ever given added hormones or steroids.

In fact, the use of such added or artificial hormones is forbidden by law by the FDA and this must be noted on the label. Ever notice the asterisk with that label? Take a closer look on any chicken package with that label and you’ll find an explanation stating that federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones and steroids in the production of any poultry raised in the United States.

Claim: No Antibiotics

On meat and poultry labels, the Department of Agriculture requires that a "no antibiotics" claim means that the animals were not given antibiotics in their feed, in their water, or by injection. This includes ionophores—antibiotics used only in animals, not in human medicine. Other, similar claims that fall under the same definition include: "raised without antibiotics," "never, ever antibiotics," and "no antibiotics ever." The USDA doesn't permit the claim "antibiotic free" to be used on meat or poultry.

These claims address only antibiotic use, so they don't mean that the animals weren't treated with other types of drugs, such as hormones, to promote growth or increase fertility.

Labels on dairy and egg cartons are overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, which doesn't have a definition for "no antibiotics" and similar claims, and doesn't verify the claims. You may see the words "no antibiotics" or "antibiotic free" on milk cartons. The FDA permits this and expects that residues of certain types of antibiotics in the milk are below detectable levels however, it doesn't mean the cows weren't given antibiotics.

For meat and poultry, the Department of Agriculture requires that companies submit a copy of their label for approval if it includes a "no antibiotics" or similar claim. Government employees approve this one-time application based on the supporting documentation provided by the producer, without independently verifying or inspecting any farms or facilities. The Food and Drug Administration doesn't require that labels be approved before products go on the market, so on dairy and egg cartons, "no antibiotics" claims aren't verified. (The FDA, like the USDA, requires that labels be truthful and not misleading, however.)

If you see any "no antibiotics" claim plus the USDA Processed Verified Program shield, USDA Organic label, or American Grassfed label, the claim has been verified. Be aware, though, that "no growth-promoting antibiotics" doesn’t mean "no antibiotics," even if it's paired with a USDA Process Verified shield. That claim means that animals were not given antibiotics for growth promotion (a practice now banned across the board by the government), but they may still be given antibiotics for disease prevention.