Understanding USDA Food Labels

March 10, 2022

what does grass fed, grass finished, free range, cage free, pasture raised mean
Whenever I post meal prep videos or meal photos to Instagram, I tend to receive questions about where I purchase meat for my dogs- is it all "GFF" and pasture-raised, organic, antibiotic-free and so on. To be honest, I never realised just how many labels there are on products at the grocery store, and that most people had no idea what they all mean. So to make everyone's life a bit easier, and also to clear up a few misconceptions, I went ahead and provided explanations for what the most common USDA food labels actually mean!


The animal ate only grasses and forages during its lifetime, starting when it was weaned off its mother’s milk, rather than grain feed. The label is regulated by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS).

Some farmers/products also market the phrase “grass-finished” meaning that the animal was not fed corn/grain during their final months before slaughter, and instead only ate grass their entire lives; however, this is already comprehensive in USDA’s “Grass-fed” label. 


The meat has been minimally processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product, and does not have any artificial ingredients, such as spices or sauces, colouring, or chemical preservatives.

You can check the label of each product to figure out what the “natural” label means in each case. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”) per the FSIS guidelines.

Pasture-Raised / Free-Range

A pastured-raised animal must have had access to the outdoors for a minimum of 120 days per year. According to USDA regulations, this label must be followed by additional terminology on what pastured-raised means in each particular case, since what’s considered pastured-raised could vary significantly from farm to farm. 

Raised Without Antibiotics

The animal was not given antibiotics at any point in its life- not in its food, water, or through injections. 

There has long been evidence that antibiotics used in farm animals can transmit antibiotic resistant bacteria in humans consuming those animal products.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports there is “strong evidence that antibiotic use in food animals can lead to resistant infections in humans,” because antibiotic-resistant bacteria can grow in animals that have been treated with antibiotics, and these bacteria can be passed along to humans and cause infection.

Both conventional and organic meat is tested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure that it is safe for human consumption, but choosing meat that is raised without antibiotics may help minimise risk of being infected with resistant bacteria. Even without use of antibiotics, farm animals can be kept healthy with alternatives to antibiotics use such as: probiotics, prebiotics, herbal additives, organic acids, enzymes, active plant metabolites, etc... which may boost production performance and immunity without any adverse effect (Dutta 2019). 

Raised Without Hormones

The animal received no added (exogenous) hormones during its life. 

Federal regulations prohibit adding hormones to poultry, but hormones are allowed for cows and sheep, and some producers use them to make these animals grow faster.

While growth hormones have been banned in Europe for decades and there is concern that eating meat from an animal that was given growth hormones can lead to health issues, there is not conclusive research to validate these concerns. So far, studies have suggested that any artificial growth hormones in meat occur in too low a dose to have a measurable impact on human health.

If you are still worried about hormones, looking for the "raised without hormones" label may lessen that concern, as can limiting your intake of red meat altogether.


The organic seal means the animals were raised on certified organic land, which is defined as land that has not been subject to any prohibited substances, such as most synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, sewage sludge, or genetic engineering, for at least 3 years.

To earn the USDA organic seal, the animals must also have year-round access to the outdoors, be fed an all-organic diet (which could include grains, as long as they are organic), and may not be given antibiotics or hormones. This means if the animal is treated with antibiotics/hormones, it cannot be sold under the organic program. Animals also need to be raised in a way that “accommodates their health and natural behaviour"- that is, with access to sunny areas, shady spots, clean water, and shelter.


In aviary systems, all hens must have access to all levels of the housing system at all times. All cage type systems such as battery cages, furnished or enriched cages, as well as, aviary systems that are designed to confine birds, such as lock back cages that would be open during the day but closed at night, are prohibited.

Additional Comments:

The USDA’s U.S. National Residue Program prevents animal products with antibiotic residues (chemical traces of active antibiotics in the muscle or blood) to be sold and enter the US food supply regardless of label. While it is illegal/prohibited to sell products with active antibiotic residues, animals that were at one point treated with antibiotics that are no longer in their system are allowed

As previously discussed, the issue for many consumers is that animals that were at one point treated with antibiotics can carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is why the USDA “Raised without Antibiotics” and “Organic” labels are becoming increasingly prominent and more companies are moving towards being able to market these products.

As of 2016, “meat products from animals raised without any use of antibiotics already account for around 5 percent of total meat sales in the United States and their market share is growing, transforming the broader marketplace. In addition, production of chicken raised without the routine use of antibiotics has become mainstream. NRDC estimates that more than one-third of the entire U.S.
chicken industry has now eliminated or pledged to eliminate routine use of medically important
antibiotics.” (NRDC 2016).

When purchasing meat for myself, I now opt for pasture-raised, grass-fed meats (when applicable), from local farmers because I have come to care more about how these animals are raised and treated throughout their lives.

Unfortunately, due to cost, it would not be sustainable for me to also feed my raw fed dogs the same quality of meat/eggs for every single one of their meals. Instead, I still purchase commercially raised meats for them on a regular basis. When I can afford to, I purchase many cuts of meat, organ, and even raw meaty bones from pasture-raised, GFF animals, but this is not yet our "norm."

If you cannot afford to feed your pets 100% pasture-raised and grass-fed meats, that is quite literally OKAY! Do not let strangers on the internet shame you for feeding commercially raised meats, when you are providing your pets with the absolute best you can afford (if they ain't paying your bills, then they can keep it moving).

Additional Sources


Please consult physicians/veterinarians, and/or other trustworthy science-based sources for advice on human and animal dietary questions.

As always, I hope this post was helpful!

Follow me on instagram @nolorlin for more raw feeding content & recipes!


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