• What has a real meaning - and what's just marketing jargon? (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Here's what meat labels really mean: what’s real and what’s not worth your attention.
Melanie McGrice

31 Oct 2016 - 12:59 PM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2016 - 6:02 PM

We see all sorts of labels on our meat, from terms such as free-range and grass-fed to Heart Foundation ticks. What do they mean? Which have legally set meanings and which are just marketing ploys?

It wasn’t that long ago that buying meat was as simple as chicken, lamb or beef, but, like the rest of our grocery shopping, it seems that the food labels on meat products have become a lot more complicated. Many of the terms, such as ‘homestyle’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘premium’, have no legal standing, but are simply used by clever marketers to evoke an emotion and encourage sales. So which Do have real meaning? Here’s 16 common terms that you should know:

1. 100 % Australian / Product of Australia / Australian made 

These labels are certainly confusing, but you’ll be glad to know that the new ‘country of origin’ logos that were brought into law by the Federal Government earlier this year have started appearing on packs.  These new logos clearly define whether the product was sourced from Australian farmers or just packed here, and what percentage of the ingredients are Australian.  Manufacturers have two years to make the change before the logos are mandatory. 

2. Antibiotic free

Antibiotics are used to help raise animals relatively infection and disease-free. In Australia, there are maximum residue limits. According to the Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia (FREPA) guidelines, free range chickens cannot be given antibiotics and the same is true with certified organic chicken, but any factory farmed chicken will most likely be treated with antibiotics.

3. Certified organic/organic

There is no single  legal definition of ‘organic’, but there are a range of organisations who certify organic produce in Australia – some of which are stricter than others.  ‘Australian Certified Organic’ is one of the strictest and most vigilant. If the label only says ‘organic’, with no reference to a certification scheme you are relying upon the manufacturer’s honesty. 

4. Certified pasture fed / grass fed / grain fed     

Pasture fed beef is popular at the moment as studies suggest that cattle fed on pasture may be slightly leaner, but it’s also savvy marketing as consumers like the idea of seeing cattle roaming around on lush paddocks of green grass. Most Australian beef is fed a combination of grass and grains.  If you really want your beef only fed on grass, make sure that you buy beef which has the ‘certified pasture fed’ label from the Cattle Council of Australia, which ensures that the cattle has only ever eaten grass – but be prepared to pay a lot more.

5. Extra lean / lean / low fat

These terms are used to describe meat and poultry products that have lower levels of fat.  In general, ‘lean’ meats should contain less than 10g of fat per 100g and ‘low fat’ products need to contain less than 3g of fat per 100g.

6. Free range / certified free range / accredited free range / open range / free to roam

There is no overall legislation covering the term ‘free range’ in Australia in regards to meat, and the different bodies that credential ‘free range’ products have their own definitions about how much time an animal needs to spend outdoors and what living conditions need to be like. For example, just because a chook is categorised as ‘free range’ and has the “opportunity” to roam around in a barn or access an outdoor chicken run, doesn’t necessarily mean that it does.  If the barn is cramped the chook will still be discouraged from moving around. Read a more detailed explanation of free range meat labelling by consumer group Choice here

7. Gluten free

Meats naturally do not contain gluten, a type of protein often found in grains and grain products. If you have coeliac disease and need to be on a strict gluten-free diet you will be safe eating any grain-fed meats as the gluten in the grain is broken down during digestion and used by the animal. Pay attention when buying meat products that have other ingredients or added fillers, such as meat patties or pies, as they can contain gluten unless otherwise specified.

8 Halal / kosher  

For meat to be classified as halal or kosher it needs to be processed in a manner that is consistent with the Muslim or Jewish faiths, respectively.

what is halal?
The lowdown on halal certification
Like mosques, headscarves and face-veils, halal certification is seen by many as a sign that Muslims are changing the Australian way of life.

9. Health star rating

The health star rating is an initiative started by the Federal Government in partnership with industry, public health and consumer groups in 2014.  Itcompares the energy and nutrients of products in a similar category. The system assigns processed food products a rating from ½ a star to 5 stars. The higher the rating, the healthier the product.

10. Heart smart

Refers to meats that have a low fat and cholesterol content, helping to lower the risk of cardiovascular-related diseases. However there is no governance for this term so it’s up to the manufacturer’s discretion.

11. HGP free/no added hormones

HPG stands for hormonal growth promotant. HGPs assist to increase the growth rate of the animal. Although the use of HGPs may sound scary, assessments by the Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) have concluded that levels found in meat are safe for consumers. Current regulations prohibit the administering of hormones to any poultry, so you can rest assured that your chicken is hormone-free.

12. Meat Standards Australia / (MSA) graded

Used to rank the quality of both lamb and beef in Australia, the MSA system was started in Australia but is now used in other countries, too. The system, which is voluntary, uses MSA-accredited graders employed by licenced meat processers. Meat is graded as three stars for MSA graded, four stars for premium quality or five stars for supreme quality. The gradings take into account various stages of the production process, using information from producers, as well as assessment of carcasses during processing on factors such as colour, acidity, marbling and fat distribution. The MSA system also predicts improvement in eating quality if the meat undergoes extended ageing (all MSA beef requires a minimum ageing period of five days).  All cuts also carry at least one recommended cooking method.

13. Natural

This is an ambiguous term which has been interpreted in different ways by food companies. Although Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) doesn’t provide a definition, it does outline that a product claiming to be “natural” should not contain additives and be as close to its initial form as possible.

14. No added preservatives

Most often seen in cured meats such as ham, dried meats and sausages, preservatives are used to increase the shelf life and prevent the harmful growth of microorganisms. While they play an important role in food safety, some preservatives may have negative effects on health. For example sulphur dioxide can cause breathing problems in some individuals. Meat or meat products that have no added preservatives are still safe to eat, however, should be cooked and eaten within a few days and/or frozen to preserve quality. The use of preservatives in meat products is controlled by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.

15. No artificial flavours or colours

This means products are free from any flavouring or colouring that does not come from a natural source (spices would be considered a natural source). Meat is naturally free from these, however processed meat products like nuggets or sausages can often contain artificial flavouring. The use of colours and flavours is also controlled by the code.

16. RSPCA approved

The RSPCA has a set of guidelines for each different animal, and they provide assurance against inhumane animal conditions, although their guidelines allow for more intensive farming than some other groups.  For example, the RSPCA legislates a maximum of 30 sows (pigs) per hectare compared with ‘Human Choice’ guidelines which legislate a maximum of ten.

For more information on food labels in Australia, see this information sheet from Food Standards Australia New Zealand. 

We eat a lot of meat in Australia – more than most other nations on earth. But do we really know what meat we are eating, and where it’s come from? Find out more with Matthew Evans in For The Love of Meat and watch the series on SBS On Demand.

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