Posted in News Brief on October 6th, 2010
With summer barbecue season in most parts of this country drawing to a close, this seems as good as time as any to take a few minutes and talk a little about what the labels found on commercially available meat products actually mean. For example, what exactly is organic? How does it differ from natural? Can meat really be organic or natural? And does free range really have any legal meaning, or is it just a clever term invented by marketers to separate those of us who actually care what we put in our bodies from more of our hard-earned money than we would normally be willing to spend?
As you will see from the information featured below, only three of the eight most common classifications of meat actually require USDA oversight. The rest, I guess you could say, really don’t mean all that much. So it’s anyone’s guess if the products sold under these labels are actually what they purport to be.
Now that you feel sufficiently violated, we can begin.
The first on our list, NATURAL is a particular favorite of mine as it means that the USDA has verified that the meat contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed. Of course, the possibility exists that after years of deregulation fever in Washington DC, there are just not enough USDA inspectors to go around and insure that this is actually taking place. So, as in all things, be forewarned and act accordingly, which in this case means purchasing all meat products, regardless of classification, from a reputable source, and by this I do not mean the friendly, local, mass-market supermarket, but rather the Whole Foods, Sprouts or other natural food markets that have sprung up in virtually every part of the country.
From here, we move onto CERTIFIED ORGANIC. In this instance, the label means that the USDA has verified that the animal was fed only pesticide and chemical fertilizer-free food, and NEVER, repeat never in its lifetime given hormones or antibiotics.
In addition, the USDA requires that meat labeled Certified Organic be processed, a benign way of saying slaughtered and butchered, in a Certified Organic facility, which should virtually insure that meat from downer cows has not made its way into the “processing” line. Note, however, the operative word in this sentence is should.
From here the line gets a little hazy with products labeled FREE RANGE. By definition, this means that the animals, during their lifetime, must have had access to the outdoors for at least part of the day. However, there is no legally binding requirement that this actually occurs, which, as I see it, can and probably does make the Free Range label highly suspect as anything more than a shameless attempt to mislead consumers into paying too damn much for pen raised meat.
Well, with HORMONE FREE, things are starting to look up again, as this is the official USDA label for beef grown without synthetic hormones, those nasty, nasty substances commonly used by the beef industry, and many professional athletes, to promote growth and fleshiness and to score proportionately more cash for each animal slaughtered.
Now here’s where things get a little bit dicey: Federal law prohibits treating pork and poultry with hormones, so any attempts by meat processors and distributors to charge more for chicken or pork labeled as being HORMONE FREE is an out and out rip off, and you should report the bastards.
In the case of NO ANTIBIOTICS ADDED, this means, or at least it’s supposed to mean, that the USDA has verified that the meat has not been treated with antibiotics, a common industry practice to prevent illness and promote rapid growth when animals are raised in crowded conditions. Once again, we can only hope that the overworked and understaffed USDA actually had a chance to get around to this verification. The alternative is downright scary.
Moving on, we find ourselves getting back into the gray area again with GRASS FED, the classification which means that the animals, during their lifetime, were fed grass and forage plants, such as hay, exclusively, and not given grain or grain byproducts.
In addition, to use the “Grass Fed” label, the animals must have had access to pasture during “the growing season”. Here too, without any real legal definition and regulatory oversight, we can only hope that this is what is taking place.
I always get a perverse kick out of the next one, GRASS FINISHED. Now what the he’ll does this mean? Some meat processors interpret it as meaning that the cattle are fed exclusively on grass, while others define it as the cattle having been raised on corn and then fed grass for the last couple of weeks prior to slaughter. Since no one really knows what to make of this one, I wouldn’t put a he’ll of a lot of trust in it, whatever it means.
Last but not least, there is always PASTURE RAISED, another legally meaningless term, which is typically interpreted by the meat industry to mean that the animal has spent most of its life feeding in an open pasture and not in a feedlot. But here too, we have to take someone else’s word for it, and they have nothing to loose by taking liberties with the truth.
In closing, more is wrong with our system of raising animals for slaughter than whether or not we feed them grain, keep them in tight spaces and pump them up with massive doses of antibiotics, a process that many scientists now believe alters the balance of fats in the meat so much so that it is contributing to the rise of health problems, including heart disease. These are the measures that meat producers are taking, after slaughter, to try and stem the rise in e-coli and salmonella poisoning, measures including irradiation, chlorination, tenderization, treating meat with ammonia and blasting meat with carbon monoxide. The fear, according to some scientists, is that these stopgap measures might be making the meat even more dangerous than it already is.
All good arguments, as I see it, to consider becoming a vegetarian.
Source of the data on the meat classifications: USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service