Look at any meat case in a grocery store or meat market, and there are many choices for the consumer to make when selecting beef products.
By: Nancy Thelen, Michigan State University Extension
Memorial Day traditionally marks the unofficial start to grilling season, usually anchored by beef products. Today’s consumer has many choices regarding the types of beef they can purchase, but often times it is easy to become confused by the many options available in the meat case.
I recently checked out a new grocery store after hearing comments about how nice it was, what a great selection of food they had, and the large size of their deli and bakery. The first place though that I checked out was the meat case and what a selection was offered – grain-fed, grass-fed, natural, certified organic and branded beef.
While I was viewing their branded meat section a shopper asked me if I knew anything about the packaged meat she was looking at. As a Michigan State University Extention educator I have experience with the branded beef program it was exciting for me to explain to her what a branded meat program meant and to talk about several cuts of meat and provide her with information on how to make her purchasing decision. Sometimes shoppers don’t take the time to ask the meat department staff their questions, but some research ahead of time can help prepare shoppers to make knowledgeable decisions.
One special note is that all beef is required to be free of antibiotics and artificial hormones in order to be harvested for the production of meat (this is based on a withdrawal time). This is a very important to note since some labels sometimes highlight this and leave questions about other products for consumers.
Consumer preference has driven the beef industry to provide more options to meet consumer demands and trends. For the most part, all beef cattle options begin the same way. Beef cattle spend the majority of their life grazing on pasture. Cattle that are grain-finished, typically spend the last 4-6 months of their life in a feedlot being fed scientifically balanced diets with vitamin and mineral supplements. Cattle that are grass-finished spend their entire lives grazing on pasture taking more time to reach maturity. This is generally more difficult to do in Michigan because grass is not accessible year-round. The definition of "natural" beef can confuse some consumers. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), natural means that a product is minimally processed and contains no additives. By this definition, most beef in the meat case is natural. It is important for consumers to read labels carefully to understand what a particular company means when it says "natural." Naturally raised cattle can be grain or grass-finished, and can be labeled naturally raised if they are certified by USDA’s Marketing Service. Certified organic cattle are either grain or grass finished as long as the field (grass) and feed are certified to be 100 percent organically produced. Branded programs are all unique and can be breed specific, company specific or store specific. Brands usually offer a promise to consumers in regards to flavor or taste.
Consumers need to be aware of the range of options in regards to beef products. All beef goes through rigorous inspections before reaching your table. What all of the options have in common is that they are all safe and nutritious to consume packed with protein, zinc, iron and many other nutrients. It is important for consumers to know the key differences between the different choices of beef to make an informed decision when purchasing beef. No matter what you desire there is a great beef choice for summer grilling and throughout the year