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Making Sense of Meat Labels

Antibiotic-free

The claim: The animal was never given antibiotics to prevent infection.
What to know: Antibiotics aren't necessarily dangerous, but they're a public-health concern because overuse may lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Free-range

The claim: The animal had some access to the outdoors for most of its life.
What to know: Though this sounds kinder and gentler, it only means the animal had the option of going outside -- there's no guarantee that it actually did.

Grass-fed

The claim: The cattle ate grass (not animal by-products) for some or all of its life.
What to know: Grass-fed beef tends to be more nutritious, packing more omega-3 fats and higher amounts of vitamins A and E.

Hormone-free

The claim: The animal didn't receive any hormones to speed growth.
What to know: It's unclear whether hormone residues in meat are harmful, so it's a personal choice. But this claim is meaningless on poultry or pork because, by law, chickens and pigs aren't allowed to be given hormones.

Natural

The claim: The meat or poultry contains no artificial ingredients.
What to know: The term is vague and used loosely, so you have to read the fine print. In some cases, it means the product simply has no added colors.

Organic

The claim: No hormones, antibiotics, or animal by-products were given. The animal had access to fresh air and pasture.
What to know: This is one of the few claims that are strictly government-regulated.

Copyright © 2007. Reprinted with permission from the July 2007 issue of Parents magazine.