The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

June 14, 2014

Meat-labeling terms can be confusing

By Dana Zook, Extended Forecast
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — I will have to admit, grocery shopping has always been one of my favorite things to do.

I know a great many people, including my dear mother, absolutely hate the chore of tabulating a list and purchasing food needed for meals during the coming week. One of the things that hit me during a recent trip to the local grocery market was the variety of options at the meat counter.

Much of the beef consumed in the Zook household comes from animals raised on our parents’ farms, and it had been awhile since I purchased any. As I browsed the selection, I ran across terms like all-natural, organic and grass fed. For many people, purchasing meat often can be an overwhelming and confusing venture.

For those people who dread the chore of grocery shopping, these choices can make the experience even worse. In an effort to clear some confusion, below I will provide the facts about these terms so during the next trip to the meat counter, you will be better able to make an educated decision.

All-natural is a term utilized to label meat that does not contain any artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or any other artificial or synthetic ingredients — this meat undergoes minimal processing. This term only applies to how the meat was processed after the animals were harvested and does not include any standards regarding how the animals were raised. Another important fact to keep in mind is meat labeled as all-natural can come from animals that consumed any grain or forage (not necessarily being organic) and can be administered growth hormones and/or antibiotics.

Natural is not to be confused with naturally raised. They are not the same thing. The USDA established standards in 2009 stating naturally raised livestock used for the production of meat and meat products have been raised without growth promotants, supplemental hormones, antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostates for parasite control), and animal by-products (no longer a common practice).

The USDA’s agricultural marketing service does have a naturally raised certification program and all products produced under this label must be certified. Naturally raised does carry the standards of natural, therefore naturally raised meat does not contain any artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or any other artificial or synthetic ingredients — making the meat minimally processed.

Meat labeled as certified organic must meet certain regulations under the USDA National Organic Program. An animal used in a certified organic program can consume any grain or forage as long those feed items are also certified organic. For details regarding regulations of grain and forage resources visit www.ams.usda. Animals in a certified organic program must be free of any antibiotics, growth hormones (other than those naturally occurring) or animal by products. It is important to keep in mind that unlike all-natural or naturally raised, organic only refers to on-farm production practices and what the animals consume. There are no regulations regarding the meat during processing, therefore flavors, colors, and preservatives can be included in the final product.

Grass-fed beef is raised on grass and forages the entire duration of life, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. Feeds acceptable as stated by the USDA Grass Fed Marketing Claim Standard include grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g. legumes, Brassica), browse, cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state, hay haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain and other roughage sources. Mineral and vitamin supplementation to meet the animal’s requirements is allowed.

Similar to all natural, cattle raised in a grass-fed program may be provided antibiotics and growth hormones when necessary. Keep in mind the grass-fed label does not mean the animal was produced in accordance to all-natural, naturally raised or organic standards. Although meat can be labeled organic grass fed, all-natural grass fed and organic all-natural grass fed, the production practices to achieve each of these labels would have to adhere to USDA regulations.

Conventional or grain fed is how the majority of meat animals are raised in the United States. The grain fed term means the animals receive grain as part of a balanced diet during a certain period of time before it is harvested. Grain-fed animals will grow more quickly and will produce meat that has increased amounts marbling (fat within the muscle). Increased levels of marbling will make the meat increasingly tender, flavorful, and juicy. Grain-fed meat can be labeled organic and all-natural grain fed if complying with USDA regulations.

Zook is Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service area livestock specialist.