Organic vs. Natural vs. Free Range vs. Grass Fed: Making sense of labels on your protein choices.
“Natural” can be very misleading. The USDA defines a natural product as one that contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” Processing must not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a specific explanation such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed.” So, based on this definition, ALL fresh, raw meat qualifies as natural. Confusing? Absolutely. This term does not require that animals be raised in sufficient open space or indicate that antibiotics have been used prudently. It does not bar growth hormones. It does not mean organic. The term can mislead consumers to believe that a product is healthier and more humane than it is.
Food labeled organic must be third-party certified to meet the USDA’s criteria. Organic foods cannot be irradiated, genetically modified or grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals or sewage sludge. Organic meat and poultry cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics (sick animals must be treated, but cannot be sold as organic) and must be fed only organically grown feed (with no animal byproducts). Organic meat animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants must have access to pasture.
The USDA’s grass-fed marketing standard requires only that animals “must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” It does not necessarily mean that the animals spent their entire lives in pastures or on open fields. Some cattle marketed as USDA grass-fed actually spend part of their lives in confined pens or feedlots.
Free Range refers to food from animals, for example, meat or eggs, that are produced from animals that have access to outdoor spaces. Usually, free range also stands for animals who have free access to graze or forage for food. Although the term “free range” brings to mind wide open spaces with animals living in nature, eating natural foods and soaking in the sunlight, there are no government regulations in place in the U.S. to ensure this is the case. Therefore, it’s important for producers to be clear about what they mean when they say their food is “free range.”
In addition, while all organically-raised food is automatically free range (to be a certified organic vendor, standards require this), all food raised free range is not necessarily organic. Synonyms for “free range” include: free-roaming, cage-free, and pasture-raised.
Learn more about label claims at EWG’s interactive meat and dairy label decoder: https://www.ewg.org/research/labeldecoder
Source: From EWG’s Meat Eater’s Guide
Want to know more detail: check the link above, or this article on labels.