Natural beef can come from cows given added hormones or antibiotics.

By Leah Zerbe

EMMAUS, PA—Your trip to the grocery store is about to get a little more confusing, thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The agency recently approved a new label that will allow producers to market their meat as “naturally raised” as long as they don’t lace the animals’ feed with animal by-products or antibiotics, or inject livestock with added hormones.

The problem is, the government is continuing to allow companies to stamp the term “natural” on meat products. That term is loosely regulated and will likely confuse customers and dilute the meaning of the “naturally raised” labeling, according to sustainable food advocates.

THE DETAILS: In a Federal Register document published at the end of January, the USDA gave the green light for meat producers to say their products are “naturally raised” The agency did not say when the new labeling guidelines would go into effect. “The addition of USDA’s new ‘naturally raised’ standard alongside the meaningless ‘natural’ label will confuse consumers and undercut the efforts of responsible producers,” says Margaret Mellon, food and environment program director at Union of Concerned Scientists, a health and environmental advocacy group in Washington, DC.

WHAT IT MEANS: Food labeling is tricky. With so many similar terms and somewhat loose regulation, it’s hard to know what to trust.

Here’s a quick guide to what means what on meat labels:

• “Natural” means next to nothing. Don’t be tricked—the term is ambiguous and can be used without regard to how the animal is raised. Rather, it refers to what happens after the animal is slaughtered, such as the fact that it was minimally processed and no artificial ingredients were added.

• Naturally raised trumps natural. The USDA did not say exactly when you might start seeing this label on meat, but if you have to choose between “naturally raised” and “natural” claims, pick the first one. But better yet…

• Shoot for the gold standard. USDA organic meat and dairy animals aren’t given antibiotics, hormones, or fed with genetically engineered crops. However, some are fed organic grain, which isn’t always a part the animals’ natural diet. The best-case scenario involves buying from a local farm that raises pasture-fed animals and practices organic methods.

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