Find what terms on meat labels mean

452468129I’m seeing more local meat at the farmers market. Do words like  “no hormones,” “grass-fed” and “organic” all mean pretty much the same thing?

Not really. Each term has a specific meaning, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regulates their use.

One piece of background: Rules about the labeling of different foods are complex. For one thing, the USDA is in charge of only meat, poultry and processed egg products. Other foods are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That might seem straightforward, but it can quickly get complicated.

For example, FDA regulates eggs in the shell, but USDA regulates processed egg products. FDA regulates fruits and vegetables, but USDA runs the National Organic Program that regulates organic crops, including organic fruits and vegetables.

All this is important because if you look on the FDA’s website for organic information, for example, you’ll find that the agency has no regulations regarding the use of the term “organic” on food labels. But if you turn to the USDA, you’ll learn exactly what that term means.

Searching the USDA website (, you’ll find the following definitions for claims used on meat and poultry:

  • “No hormones administered” may be used on a beef label if the producer can supply documentation showing that no hormones were used in raising the animals. Since hormones cannot be used in raising any swine or poultry, a label on pork and poultry saying “no hormones” must also say “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones,” just to make it clear that no pork or poultry at all is raised with hormones.
  • “Grass-fed” means that grass and forage are the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the animal, with the exception of milk consumed before the animal is weaned. Grass-fed cattle aren’t necessarily organically raised, and organic beef isn’t necessarily grass-fed.
  • “Organic” livestock must meet animal health and welfare standards, must not be raised with antibiotics or growth hormones, must be given 100 percent organic feed, and must have received access to the outdoors.

To learn more about terms used on meat and poultry products, a good first step would be to “Ask FSIS,” a service that provides answers to questions about inspection, labeling, importing and more. Just go If the answer to your question is not already in the system, you can submit it as a new question and a staff officer will answer.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1043, or


A new definition for ‘gluten-free’

120724276I heard recently that the government set a definition for “gluten-free” labels on foods. If that just happened, why have I seen “gluten-free” on some food labels for years? 

Unfortunately, the gluten-free labels you’ve seen in the past had no standard definition — and that will continue to be the case until August 2014, when the new rule by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration goes fully into effect.

At that point, you can be assured that any food labeled gluten-free will contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. That is the lowest level of gluten that can be consistently detected in foods using valid scientific testing, and is a standard consistent with that used in other countries.

Luckily, the FDA believes that of the foods currently labeled gluten-free, only about 5 percent contain more than 20 ppm of gluten. But if you are one of the estimated 3 million Americans with celiac disease, you’ve got to wonder: Which foods would those be?

Although a lot of people these days flirt with a gluten-free diet to try to lose weight or feel healthier, eating gluten-free is a serious matter for people with celiac disease. Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in wheat, rye, barley and hybrids of those grains. Although oats do not contain gluten, they can be contaminated during harvest or processing with grains that do, so people with celiac disease usually avoid oats, as well.

Why? If you have celiac disease and you consume gluten, your body’s defense system goes haywire and attacks the lining of your small intestine, causing sometimes-severe abdominal pain, bloating, intestinal bleeding and diarrhea. Long-term, the damage to the small intestine can be so severe that deficiencies of important nutrients such as iron and calcium can result, leading to conditions ranging from anemia to osteoporosis.

Gluten-free labels can be an immense help if you have celiac disease. It might be obvious to examine ingredients listings of grain-based foods — breads, pastas, crackers and cakes — for wheat, rye, barley and related ingredients. However, other foods that contain gluten aren’t so obvious, including candies, gravies, salad dressings, sauces, seasoned rice mixes, flavored snack foods, soups and soup bases, vegetables in sauce, and processed lunchmeat.

A “gluten-free” label — one you can trust — will make life in the grocery store aisle much easier.