5 Ground Beef Labels To Look Out For & What They Mean

So you’re eating burgers at a cookout with some friends. One pal asks the host, “Hey, is this ground beef organic?” The host smugly answers, “Of course, I only buy grass-fed.” “Oh, so it’s antibiotic free?” queries another buddy, to which the host replies, “Didn’t you hear me? I said it’s grass-fed.” What the host apparently doesn’t know is that he may be very mistaken.

As we showed before with chicken, there are dozens of different labels, marketing terms, and certifications that can be slapped on meat to differentiate it from the competition in the supermarket cooler, but not all of them are as meaningful as the wording might imply.

Here’s a look at five different commonly used beef labels and what they actually mean.

1. “No Antibiotics Administered”

Producers of beef carrying this phrasing — or the slightly different “raised without antibiotics” — are required to provide the USDA with paperwork showing that no antibiotics were used during the animal’s life, however there is no independent verification process so the only source substantiating the “no antibiotics” claim is the company supplying it.

Look for: If the package also says “USDA Processed Verified,” a “no antibiotics” claim is more trustworthy.

Beware of: If the label says “no antibiotics used for growth promotion,” that doesn’t mean the animal was raised without antibiotics. It just means the drugs were provided for a different reason.

RELATED: How to cook a burger to a safe temperature that’s still tasty

2. “Grass-Fed”

Because of its cultural association with sustainable farming, some consumers incorrectly assume that grass-fed beef is free of antibiotics. In fact, the two don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.

To label beef “grass-fed” or “100% grass-fed,” the USDA requires that the meat comes from animals that have never been given grain and have access to pasture during the grazing season.

Much like the generic “no antibiotics” claim, grass-fed beef producers need only provide affidavits saying that their beef meets these standards, and no independent verification is required.

Look for: The USDA Never Ever 3 indicates that the animal was not given any antibiotics, growth promotants or animal by-products at any point. Auditors from the USDA or an approved certification agency verify these labels.

3. “American Grassfed Association”

While the regular “grass-fed” label requires no independent verification and gives no indication of antibiotic use, this label demonstrates that the Grassfed Association has verified that: the animals are never fed grain; have continuous access to pasture or a grass-­based forage when the weather does not allow for pasture access; and that no antibiotics or growth hormones were used.

However, the American Grassfed label does allow for animals that have grazed in pastures treated with pesticides and herbicides.

4. “USDA Organic”

Cows used to produce beef labeled “organic” can not be provided animal feed that includes pesticides, synthetic fertilizer, or genetically engineered ingredients. Additionally, organic beef cows are not given antibiotics, hormones, or other drugs.

While these animals must be given access to pasture for most of their lives, organic cow farmers can still use feed­ lots and grain feeding during the last few months of the cows’ lives.

5. “Grass-Fed Organic”

If you’re out to find beef that was not fed grains, not treated with antibiotics or other drugs, not provided hormones, and ate only organically grown grass and forage, you’ll want this combination.

Look for: There are a handful of labels that add a level of certainty to your purchase. Certifications like the “Animal Welfare Approved” seal, the “Certified Humane” seal,
or the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) 5 or 5+ seal, mean that animal welfare standards also apply.

For more on what’s in your beef and what you can do about it, you should read the latest investigation from our colleagues at Consumer Reports.