By: Lindsay Chichester, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Educator
This is Part 2 of a three part series that will provide information on meat labeling terms. Last month Grass-fed and Grain-fed was covered in Part 1.
Meat is a nutrient dense food product. Specifically, beef is a good source of protein, zinc, B vitamins, iron, and other essential nutrients.
How many times have you been grocery shopping or watching your favorite television program and you see and/or hear that organic is better? Or that you should be consuming all-natural? It can be confusing, overwhelming, and frustrating – who do you trust? Below I will provide you with the facts and truth, as well as resources to do some homework of your own.
Sales of organic products continue to grow, especially organic food products. Organic products now make up just over 3% of total U.S. food sales.
Organically labeled meat means that the animal’s diet can consist of any grain or forage product as long as those feed items are certified organic. This program is the most strict with the most guidelines, and is governed by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). To be certified organic, a grain or forage resource must not have had synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation applied, and/or had genetically engineered products produced on that ground in three or more years. Additionally, the livestock cannot receive antibiotics or additional growth hormones (many hormones are naturally occurring in the animal, but no additional hormones are given by producers in this program).
What organic does not certify or guarantee -- The important thing to keep in mind here is that organic only refers to what the animal has consumed. The NOP does not regulate or govern what happens to the meat during processing. Meaning that the meat may have additional colorants or products (spices, sauces, marinades, etc.) added to the final product, unlike all-natural meats.
Research has indicated that organic foods are NOT considered to be healthier or better for you than conventionally raised foods. However, people who may have food allergies, chemical allergies, or intolerance to preservatives may prefer organic food products. Additionally, organically produced strawberries, corn, and marionberries may be higher in antioxidants than the conventionally raised form. Research has also indicated that because there is no preservative use, organically grown products may be more susceptible to bacteria, parasites, and pathogen contamination.
How can you tell if the meat you are purchasing is organic? Look at the label. If a product is organic it will have the USDA organic seal (click here for more information on the seal). This indicates the product is certified organic and has 95% or more organic content. For multi-ingredient products such as bread or soup, if the label claims that it is made with specified organic ingredients, you can be confident that those specific ingredients have been certified organic. If someone is claiming that a product is organic, but they are not certified, be cautious – the NOP says that a product cannot be marketed as organic unless it is certified. The only exemption is if a producer sells $5,000 or less in goods annually, then they are not required to become certified.
It is estimated that 375,000 to 425,000 head of cattle are produced under an all-natural regime; this would be a large portion of meat in the meat case. Meat, poultry, and eggs that carry the "natural" label CANNOT be altered during processing; this would include the addition of artificial ingredients (spices, marinades, sauces, etc.), the addition of colorants, the additional of chemical preservatives, making the meat minimally processed (does not fundamentally alter the product). Meat labeled as all-natural can come from an animal that has consumed any grain or forage product, organic or not. All-natural does NOT include any standards regarding farm practices; which means an animal can receive additional growth hormones or antibiotics. Additionally, there are no regulations on what the animal can or cannot consume.
Unlike organically labeled meats, there is no governing body for all-natural meat products. Again, it is a common myth the animals cannot receive growth hormones or antibiotics. This is false, each individual producer can decide if their animals can/need to receive growth hormones and/or antibiotics. If you want to purchase meat from animals that have not received growth hormones or antibiotics then make sure you purchase your meat from a producer or retailer (look at the label) that you trust to provide meat that meets your requirements.
This should not be confused or used interchangeably with all-natural – they are NOT the same thing! The naturally raised marketing claim states that livestock used for the production of meat and meat products have been raised entirely WITHOUT additional growth promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control), or animal by-products (no longer a common practice). Additionally, naturally raised does have a certification program and all products must be certified by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS).
Since naturally raised does carry the "natural" label, the meat does not contain any artificial ingredients (spices, marinades, etc.), colorants, chemical ingredients, or other synthetic ingredients - making the meat minimally processed (does not fundamentally alter the product).
Part 3 of this three part series will be in the April BeefWatch newsletter and will cover Hormone free, Antibiotic free, and Humanely Raised.