Monday, February 4, 2008

Beef Labeling 101

So you’re looking for grass-fed beef. You find some fresh ground beef at the local grocer labeled as “grass fed” and you think you’re home free. In reality, that cow could have spent the last three to four months of its life in a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), been implanted with growth hormones and shot up with sub-therapeutic and therapeutic antibiotics, and, until recently -- fed any unimaginable combination of “legally approved foods.”


Is that what you thought you were getting?

If not, it’s time to take a minute to understand what all the various meat labels really mean.

Here’s a quick summary:

  • Grass Fed —Last October, the USDA issued a voluntary standard for grass (forage) fed marketing claims. The grass fed standard states that “grass and/or forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” Notice that the term “access to pasture” is open to interpretation, and that the definition doesn’t include any requirements about hormone use, antibiotic use, how it’s raised, whether or not it was fed an organic diet, or whether or not it has ever been confined to a feedlot.

  • Organic -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture has established a set of national standards that food labeled "organic" must meet, whether it is grown in the United States or imported from other countries. After October 21, 2002, when you buy food labeled "organic," you can be sure that it was produced using organic production and handling standards. The organic label means that the animal (1) has undergone no genetic modification; (2) was fed grass or grain that was 100 percent organic, and (3) was not treated with antibiotics, growth hormones, or chemical pesticides. In addition, all organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors, including access to pasture for ruminants. They may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety, the animal's stage of production, or to protect soil or water quality. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a Government-approved certifier completes an inspection to make sure the farmer/producer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. The USDA Organic seal also tells you that a product is at least 95 percent organic.

  • Natural – As the USDA puts it: "All fresh meat qualifies as natural." The natural label refers to a product that contains no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product.) The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as - no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.) Notice that there are no requirements pertaining to how an animal is raised, what it’s fed, whether or not it’s given hormones or antibiotics, or how it’s treated. Because there is no government certification program for natural food products, many companies use the term “natural” in their product branding or labeling -- and research tells us that consumers are often confused about what “natural” really means. A national poll conducted by Consumer Reports in 2007 found that nine out of ten consumers expect “natural” meat to come from animals that were raised on a diet without drugs, chemicals or other artificial ingredients.”[1]

  • Certified -- The term "certified" implies that the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Agriculture Marketing Service have officially evaluated a meat product for class, grade, or other quality characteristics (e.g., "Certified Angus Beef"). When used under other circumstances, the term must be closely associated with the name of the organization responsible for the "certification" process, e.g., "XYZ Company's Certified Beef".

  • No Hormones -- The term "no hormones administered" may be approved for use on the label of beef products if sufficient documentation is provided to the USDA by the producer showing no hormones have been used in raising the animals.

  • No Antibiotics -- The terms "no antibiotics added" may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the USDA demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics.

  • No Animal Byproducts, Never Confined to a Feedlot — Not defined or recognized by the USDA, these marketing claims attest that no animal byproducts were used in the feed of the cow(s) and that the animals were never confined to a feedlot.

  • Irradiation — Meat that has been irradiated to reduce bacteria levels must be labeled "Treated by Irradiation" or "Treated with Radiation."

  • Halal and Zabiah Halal -- Products prepared by federally inspected meat packing plants identified with labels bearing references to "Halal" or "Zabiah Halal" must be handled according to Islamic law and under Islamic authority.

  • Kosher -- "Kosher" may be used only on the labels of meat and poultry products prepared under Rabbinical supervision.

  • Prime, Choice, and Select — These USDA grades are a subjective measure of quality and imply nothing about how the cow was raised. Grading is based on several factors but is primarily determined by the amount of marbling – or how much fat is distributed throughout. Prime cuts have the most marbling, Choice cuts are next and Select cuts have the least amount of marbling.

  • Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) is still under debate. COOL labeling became mandatory Oct. 1, 2004. However, in 2005 beef producers were granted additional time to ready their systems, and implementation was delayed until Sept. 30, 2008. On July 27, 2007, the House of Representatives passed its version of the 2007 Farm Bill, which kept intact provisions for mandatory country-of-origin labeling, and on Dec. 14, 2007, the Senate passed its version, which also included mandatory labeling. COOL labeling will help you determine if your grass-fed beef was imported from Argentina or Brazil, or raised in the USA.

That’s a quick overview of the labeling quagmire. If you care about the quality and healthfulness of your food (and the sustainability of your food system), your best bet is to get to know the retailers and ranchers who raise and sell it.

Stay tuned: we’ll be directing you to local retail outlets and local producers of grass-fed beef in upcoming posts.

[1] Consumer Reports food-labelling pollshows consumers want to know where their food comes from and expect higher label standards., as accessed 02/04/08

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