Going to the grocery store and trying to buy pork can be confusing. The following guide can help you interpret all the labels so you can choose pork that is fresh and raised using standards for sustainability and humane treatment that you're looking for. Look for pork that is light red to cherry red, never pale or white. The fat should be white and creamy with no dark spots. Fresh pork should never have any off odors. The best-tasting pork is marbled with flecks of fat interspersed in the lean meat.
Pictured Recipe: Pork Chops with Creamy Mushroom Sauce
Avoid pale, soft pork sitting in the package in liquid—it indicates pork that comes from animals stressed during processing. The meat will be dry and tasteless even when cooked to the desired degree of doneness.
Because lean pork can dry out so quickly when cooked, many manufacturers sell something called "enhanced" pork. It is injected with a solution of water, salt and phosphates. The percentage of water is usually around 8 to 10 percent. It can have a soft, rubbery texture and a slightly acrid or bitter taste. To determine if pork is enhanced, check the label for any added solution that is not plain water.
Refrigerate or freeze pork as soon as possible after purchase. Be sure to cook it or freeze it by the "use by" date on the package. If you're freezing pork for longer than two weeks, make sure it is wrapped tightly, either in a vacuum-sealed package, heavy-duty foil, freezer paper or in a freezer bag. Frozen pork should be defrosted in the refrigerator, never at room temperature, to prevent bacterial growth.
Here are some of the most common ways that pork is labeled and marketed, along with definitions of what those words mean:
This USDA-regulated term means that all feed given to the pigs must be certified organic, which means no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, animal by-products or other additives. Pigs raised to meet certified organic standards also must have access to pasture.
Raised Without Antibiotics
This term indicates that the pork was raised without any use of antibiotics (commonly used for health maintenance, disease prevention or treatment of disease). Medications not classified as antibiotics may still be used.
The USDA prohibits the use of hormones in pigs, so while the label "hormone-free" is accurate, it doesn't set one pork product apart from another.
One of the most widely used labels, this simply means that no additives or preservatives were introduced after the pork was processed. "Natural" doesn't tell you anything about standards of care, type and quality of feed or administration of medications.
Percent Retained Water
To control pathogens like Salmonella, producers must quickly lower the temperature of meat during processing. Most do this by immersing the slaughtered animals in a cold bath, which causes them to absorb water. The USDA requires producers to list the maximum amount of water that may be retained.
Certified Humane Raised & Handled
Overseen by a nonprofit endorsed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society, this label ensures the animal received the basic standards of care that are regulated by the USDA. Encouraging natural behaviors is also considered: pigs must have access to straw or other material to root around in, as well as objects for manipulation, such as chains or balls.
What Does Organic Certification on Meat Mean?