A Meat and Poultry Label Guide To Help You Shop

For shoppers, food labels can often be difficult to navigate seemingly by design. Food manufacturers want to capitalize on our desire to eat healthier and more ethically and they label their products accordingly, proclaiming in bold font that something is “natural” or “organic,” “grass-fed” or “grain-fed.” What do these terms really mean for Canadians? Here is a Meat and Poultry Label Guide To Help You Shop.

What does the term "Organic" mean?

The Canadian General Standards Board defines organic production as “a holistic system designed to optimize the productivity and fitness of diverse communities within the agro-ecosystem, including soil organisms, plants, livestock, and people”. Practically, this means that organic farmers are prohibited from using things like synthetic fertilizers or pesticides in their food production.

For a product to display a Canada Organic Logo it has to contain a minimum of 95% organic content. The same standard applies to any labels stating that something is “organically raised,” “organically produced,” etc.

What does the term "Natural" mean?

While there’s no official logo you’ll see on food that claims to be “natural,” there are guidelines distributors need to adhere to in order to use the word on their packaging. Per the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), food products labeled “natural” must not contain “added vitamins, nutrients, artificial flavors or food additives.”

Additionally, those products cannot “have been significantly changed” or have anything other than water removed from them.

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What does Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed mean?

All cows begin their lives grazing on a pasture but some cows are later fed grain which allows them to fatten up quicker and hence be ready for slaughter earlier. These cows are referred to as “grain-fed” because they are “finished” on a diet of grain. Cows that instead continue to subsist on grass are called “grass-fed”.

One advantage of eating grass-fed beef as opposed to grain-fed beef is that it tends to have higher levels of omega-3 fats. However, as many experts have pointed out, if your goal is to increase your consumption of omega-3 fats it is better to introduce more fish into your diet than substitute one kind of beef for another. There is a much higher omega-3 content in fish than in any beef, grass-fed or otherwise.

Shoppers should also keep in mind that the CFIA does not regulate the use of the term “grass-fed.” So if you do prefer grass-fed beef because of its omega-3 content, or for any other reason, you might want to look for evidence of some kind of certification from an independent body on the packaging before you buy that steak. The Organic Council of Ontario has a helpful guide on its website of a few different organizations that offer grass-fed accreditation.

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What does Pasture-Raised mean?

“Pasture-raised” is another label whose use is not regulated by the CFIA. Companies typically employ the term to refer to animals who can forage for their own food and are raised outdoors rather than confined to a barn but there is no legal definition that food producers need to conform to in order to use the label on their packaging.

Again there are certifying bodies consumers can look to for help in the absence of governmental regulation. To qualify for a Certified Grassfed by AGW certification, for instance, farmers must “raise [their] animals outside on range or pasture for their entire lives”. They must also abstain from the use of growth hormones and feed their livestock a “100% grass and forage diet” so this certification is useful for consumers who want to eat grass-fed beef as well.

What does Cage-Free, Free-Run, and Free-Range mean?

On the surface, it might seem like the terms “cage-free” and “free-range” are interchangeable. However, they do actually have pretty important distinctions. Many people assume that cage-free chickens are raised outside. In reality, all a cage-free label tells you is that the chicken was not kept in a battery cage. Cage-free chickens can still be housed in incredibly cramped conditions inside of a barn. The same is true of “free-run” chickens. By contrast, “free-range” chickens do have at least some access to the outdoors.
Crucially though, as The Chicken Farmers of Canada point out on their website, there is again no current legal definition for any of these labels.

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So while the CFIA does investigate complaints raised by consumers about misleading claims on packaging, the use of terms like free-range or cage-free is not regulated in the same way that the use of the word organic or natural is.

What does Raised Without the Use of Antibiotics vs. Antibiotic Free mean?

Similarly, the labels “raised without the use of antibiotics” and “antibiotic-free” might seem at first glance like they have the exact same meaning but there is a pretty key distinction shoppers should be aware of. When a label says that an animal was “raised without the use of antibiotics,” it means just that. From the CFIA’s website: “To display the claim ‘raised without the use of antibiotics,’ in relation to a meat, poultry or fish product, the animal may not have been treated with antibiotics, administered by any method, from birth to slaughter or harvest.”

An “antibiotic-free” label tells consumers that there is no residue of antibiotics in the meat they are about to purchase but it does not mean that there was never any use of antibiotics on the animal, period. As Mario Fiorucci, co-founder of The Healthy Butcher,  writes on the site’s blog, “technically, all animals that have met a specific withdrawal period prior to being slaughtered can be called ‘antibiotic-free.’”

Ethical Meat Brands You Can Trust

DuBreton — carried at Sobeys, Loblaws, Whole Foods, and many other retailers this brand sells organic pork raised without the use of antibiotics.

Blue Goose — a brand that sells free-range, organic poultry.

JBS Canada — you can find their Aspen Ridge line of beef which is raised without the use of antibiotics in Sobeys.

PC Free From — all the meats on the PC Free From line (which is available in most Loblaws stores) are raised without the use of antibiotics.

A final word on meat labels

It can be really overwhelming to make a difference in some cases, but if you have the right info behind you, you can make more informed choices. And since the meat industry is so bad for the planet, these small actions do add up!

If you found this post helpful, please help someone by sharing this article – sharing is caring 🙂!

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4 thoughts shared

  1. Thanks for the article! Do you know whether the PC Free chicken and meat is also raised humanely? They claim to be raised without hormones & antibiotics, but that may not speak to the conditions they’re raised in. How would I find out?

    1. Comment author image

      Candice Batista


      Hi Liz,
      Thanks for your note, it’s really hard to know, when we wrote that post, we reached out to PC to ask them, but they never responded. The certification label they have on the packaging is not a third-party certification which always makes me a bit skeptical of the claims. If you are concerned about this, I’d opt for another brand that does have third-party certifications. You can also try and reach out to them directly. Take a look at this comprehensive guide as well: https://thehealthybutcher.com/blog/the-ultimate-guide-to-canadian-meat-labels/.
      Let me know if this helps,