It's hard to know exactly how livestock or poultry have been raised just from reading a label on a meat product, but it's a good place to start.
WHO APPROVES LABELS?
There are two main types of labels: those that have been certified by an independent third party, and those that have been approved and are overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Third party-certified claims (Organic, Animal Welfare Institute, Food Alliance) involve a very specific set of standards for a producer's operation. An outside party must come in, inspect the operation, and certify that it meets the standards. The producer pays for this service in order to be able to use the label.
Other labels ("free range/roaming," "no antibiotics added," etc.) have been defined (to varying degrees of detail) by the USDA. While there is not one list of acceptable labels, the USDA does publish a list of Commonly Approved Claims and a Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms Glossary. A producer must apply to use a label and submit documentation that the claim is truthful. There is not, however, a verification system in place and it is possible that individual producers are using these terms incorrectly.
The use of certain labels, including the term "antibiotic free," is "unapprovable" by the USDA. These labels may not be used on meat products.
The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service recently published a notice on Standards for Livestock and Meat Marketing Claims (Docket No. LS-02-02, Fed. Reg. 67:79552-79556) for comment. After comments from KAW and other sustainable agriculture groups, the USDA withdrew five of the proposed claims from the rulemaking process in order to allow for more time to review and solicit input from farmers affected by the claims. The production standards withdrawn from the process are grass-fed, free-range, and breed claims, as well as standards that address livestock raised without antibiotics or supplemental hormones. See the press release on the USDA decision.
WHAT ARE COMMON LABELS AND WHAT DO THEY MEAN?
Certified Organic (third party)
Organic agriculture is a system of production that promotes management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony while minimizing the use of off-farm inputs. Meat certified as organic is from animals that cannot be raised using antibiotics or other drugs - if an animal becomes sick and must be fed antibiotics, it cannot be sold as organic. Animals must be raised on organic feed, grown in soil certified free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The equipment and mill that mix and deliver the organic feed, as well as the meat processing plant, also must meet organic standards.
Under requirements of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the USDA recently finalized new federal standards for organic food. Several dozen organizations nationwide are accredited to grant organic certification under federal and state laws.
Animal Welfare Institute (third party)
The Animal Welfare Institute has developed standards for the humane husbandry of pigs. AWI standards specifically prohibit "the routine use of subtherapeutic antibiotics, hormones or sulfas to control or mask disease or promote growth."
Food Alliance (third party)
Farms and ranches that carry the Food Alliance seal of approval meet environmental and social criteria, including a prohibition on the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics. All Food Alliance-Approved farms adhere to a set of Guiding Principles. These principles ensure the environmentally and socially responsible husbandry of animals.
Free range/roaming (USDA-approved)
There is no standard definition of this claim. For poultry, the USDA says that animals must be "allowed access to the outside." An animal given "access" to the outdoors, but which remains inside or ventures out only to a concrete slab, can still be labeled "free range." Another point of confusion is that, in practice, some poultry producers may use the term "free roaming" differently than "free range," even though they are technically the same under USDA definitions. Some producers may use "free roaming" to mean the bird was raised without cages; the claim does not imply any access to the outside. There are currently no definitions for free range/free roaming beef, pork or eggs.
No antibiotics added, raised without antibiotics (USDA-approved)
Animals are not fed antibiotics at any point in their life cycle, including for veterinary treatment. If an animal is sick and must be fed antibiotics, it cannot be sold under this label. This claim is different than saying that no subtherapeutic or routine antibiotics have been used, which means that antibiotics are not used for growth promotion (see below).
No subtherapeutic antibiotics administered (USDA-approved)
While there is not a published definition of this term, it is approved for use by the USDA. Generally, it means that antibiotics are not used for growth promotion, but may be used to treat sick animals. The subtleties of this definition and its implications, however, make the label confusing and subject to abuse.
In addition to confusion about "free range/free roaming" and "no subtherapeutic antibiotics administered," the USDA's "all natural" label may be misleading as well. Meat can be labeled as such as long as it is "minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients" such as MSG or sodium phosphates. But USDA's "all natural" label is a minimum standard - it does not exclude meats raised using hormones or antibiotics as growth promoters.
HOW CAN I BE SURE ABOUT LABELS?
The best way to make sure the meat you buy has been raised without antibiotics is to get to know the farmer personally. Visit their farm, or talk to them at the farmers' market.
If you don't have direct access to local producers in your area, do the research to find out where the meat and fish in your supermarket, co-op or restaurant comes from. Call the companies and ask for specifics on the label terms they use.