The call for food transparency continues to build, and with it, the use of terms like “natural,” “hyper-local” and “antibiotic-free” in conversations around our food. When it comes to meat, discussions include the added dimensions of livestock care and processing, complicating the labeling of meat products well beyond what’s needed for an organic banana or a package of fiber cereal. So what exactly do these meat labels mean, and what are the nuances? But perhaps more importantly, do consumers really want “cleaner” meat?

From a total U.S. consumption perspective, the short answer is yes. According to a Nielsen survey (, sales growth for some of the meat label claims with the highest shares (natural, antibiotic-free and hormone free) is rapidly outpacing that of conventional meat. From 2011 to 2015, conventional meat posted compound annual sales growth of 4.6%. Comparatively, products with a natural label posted growth of 14.6%, products labeled antibiotic-free posted growth of 28.7%, products labeled hormone-free posted growth of 28.6% and products labeled organic posted growth of 44%. Meanwhile, sales growth of products labeled “minimally processed,” another top claim, declined 1.6% from 2011 to 2015.

While the growth percentages associated with these labels are strong, it’s important to understand some key nuances for complete perspective. First, natural, minimally processed, antibiotic-free, hormone free and organic meat products account for a relatively small piece of the total meat department pie (or pig). That said, however, these products represent a significant amount of sales because the total meat department pulls in more than $50 billion in U.S. sales annually. It’s also important to note that label claims on meat aren’t mutually exclusive. So as a result, a product that is hormone free can also be, and typically is, antibiotic free and natural.  In 2015, 6% of products in the meat department was labeled natural, 2% was labeled minimally processed, 3% was labeled antibiotic free, 3% was labeled hormone free and 1% was labeled organic.

For industry players, consistent labeling and an informed consumer base will be important for capitalizing on the growing demand for transparency in the meat department. As a first step, manufacturers and retailers alike can begin to better arm consumers with the facts as they make their purchase decisions. So for starters, labels should state what the labels mean--and consistent definitions throughout the industry would alleviate possible consumer questions and confusion.

Here’s how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines the most common meat label claims:

NATURAL/MINIMALLY PROCESSED: A product can be labeled “natural” if it contains no artificial ingredient, added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as "no artificial ingredients; minimally processed").

NO ANTIBIOTICS ADDED: This phrase can be used on labels for meat or poultry products if the proper documentation showing that the animals were raised without antibiotics is provided to the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).

NO HORMONES ADMINISTERED: Like “no antibiotics added” this claim may be used on beef labels if sufficient documentation is provided to the FSIS by the producer showing that hormones were not used in raising the livestock. This claim, however, cannot be used on pork or poultry labels unless it is followed by the phrase "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."

ORGANIC: This term can be used to label any product that contains a minimum of 95% percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Up to 5% of the ingredients may be non-organic agricultural products that are not commercially available as organic and/or nonagricultural products.

For now, conventional meat still dominates department sales, but the rapid sales growth of products with these label claims is quickly changing the game. More suppliers and quick-service restaurants are “going antibiotic free,” or have plans to do so in the near future, and the growth of products with these labels at retail shows no signs of slowing.