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Is your meat antibiotic free? How to read the labels

What does natural or organic really mean when it comes to antibiotics in meat? A new guide from Consumer Reports helps explain.
/ Source: TODAY

Parents are increasingly being warned that life-threatening antibiotic resistance can harm their children. Recently, American pediatricians sounded the alarm that “indiscriminate use of antibiotics" in farm animal feed can lead to drug-resistant germs and endanger kids.

Meat products laid out and packed in a shop window; Shutterstock ID 109438748; PO:
Meat products laid out and packed in a shop window; Shutterstock ID 109438748; PO: today.commrivserg / Shutterstock / mrivserg

How can you be sure the meat you're buying is from antibiotic-free animals? You have to read the labels — but it's not always easy to decipher the terms. A new guide from Consumer Reports is on the mark, according to a spokesperson for the USDA.

courtesy of Consumer Reports
courtesy of Consumer Reports

Here's what meat labels mean when it comes to antibiotics, according to Consumer Reports:


One of the best bets may be meats labeled "organic", says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

Producers of foods — all meat, fruits and vegetables — labeled organic have to be certified by the USDA.

"The USDA accredits certifiers, which are sometimes state agencies and sometimes independent certifiers, and the certifiers actually visit and check on the organic producers," says Halloran.

If an animal gets sick and needs antibiotics, then the meat cannot be sold as organic.

One caveat: the USDA allows antibiotics to be injected into eggs destined to become chickens and also into 1-day-old chicks, Halloran says. So, while some chickens may be labeled organic, they are not completely antibiotic free.


Meats labeled "No Antibiotics/Raised without Antibiotics" are another good bet. However, unless the product also bears the "USDA Process Verified" shield, the veracity of the claims aren't being monitored, Halloran says.

“They do have to get permission from the USDA to use the no-antibiotics label and they do have to supply the USDA with paperwork explaining what they are planning to do and how. But only if they request the ability to display the "USDA Process Verified" shield will anyone from the USDA check up on them.”

While meats with the "no antibiotics/raised without antibiotics" label, but without the USDA shield aren’t being verified, “if a company is found to be violating the rules, there are consequences and they know that,” says USDA spokesperson Cathy Cochrane.


The Global Animal Partnership provides a 5-Step animal welfare standards and third-party certification. Meat bearing this label means no antibiotics have been used.


This label means that while antibiotics cannot have been used to promote growth or to prevent disease, sick animals can be treated with antibiotics.


Meat with the AHA label comes from animals that were not given antibiotics to speed growth. But they can have been given regular low doses of antibiotics to prevent diseases. This use of antibiotics is usually related to the practice of keeping animals in close quarters which makes the likelihood of infection much higher, Halloran says.


While this sticker doesn't cover antibiotic use, meat with the label “American Grassfed Association” means that no antibiotics have been used and that this has been verified, Halloran says.


The most "misused label in the food industry," this doesn't cover antibiotic use, says Halloran.

According to the USDA, a product labeled "natural" simply means it is minimally processed and contains no artificial colors or ingredients.

“Everybody thinks that 'natural' means the same thing as "organic" — it doesn’t,” Halloran says.


This label implies nothing about antibiotic use.

Hormones are not allowed in the raising of hogs or poultry, according to the USDA.