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Commentary: Confused about beef labeling?

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By John Moon

Consumers are constantly being bombarded by various messages about our food supply and farming practices. Having spent the last 62 years around beef and dairy cattle -- I started milking cows by hand at age 6 -- I can easily understand how confusing it can be for the consumer. What I am about to tell you only concerns beef, but may relate to other food products as well. We are free to make decisions about the food we eat, but as a beef producer, and a state beef council director, I feel some responsibility to inform local consumers about some of the terminology used in the marketplace.

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Organic

This is a term that in itself is confusing. Organic means is or was living. I believe all of our food to be organic and not inorganic so why do we label some beef organic and some not, when all beef is actually organic by way of definition? The term organic is a marketing term used for certain beef that comes from cattle fed following guidelines set up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Organic beef must come from cattle raised on land that is 100 percent free of pesticides, herbicides and commercial fertilizers for at least three years prior. The land, the feed and the beef must be certified by the USDA as organic. No growth stimulants or antibiotics can be used throughout the animal's life. When making choices at the meat counter, you must know that it would be very difficult to prove that all of these rules have been met and in the real world, highly unlikely. You should also know that there is no science to prove that organic beef actually is more nutritious, safer, or tastes better than conventionally fed beef. We do know that you are going to pay a great deal more for it.

Natural

The word "natural" is another term that causes confusion. All beef occurs naturally, right? The rule for labeling meat "natural" according to the USDA is that it has been minimally processed and contains no additives such as artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. The current consensus is that natural means no antibiotics or growth hormones were used in the raising of the animal before harvest and that it was raised in a natural way. There is no rule presently that requires natural labeled beef to meet these stipulations, and if there was, it would be almost impossible to prove. Again, there is no science to prove that antibiotics and growth stimulation by way of hormones, when used appropriately are in any way, shape or form detrimental to human health. Here again, the term "natural" is being used as a marketing tool to try and sway the consumer into believing there is something better about natural raised than conventionally raised cattle.

Grass fed

There is confusion over the word grass fed which is used to describe beef from cattle that have led their entire lives eating grass, hay and other forages rather than grain. Right off hand, I can think of no grain that doesn't originate from a grass so nearly all cattle are, in fact, grass fed. Cattle finished on grass without grain are harvested older, making the beef harder to prepare and giving it a slightly different taste. In 2003, a University of Nebraska, Lincoln review of nine studies on tenderness concluded that grass-finished cattle produce beef that is less tender than beef from grain-finished cattle (in both shear force and taste panel testing). The analysis of existing flavor panel studies also showed consumers preferred the overall flavor of grain-finished beef compared to grass-finished beef. This study can be found at: www.lanr.unl.edu/pubs/beef/mp80.pdf.

Grass fed and grain fed beef which has little internal fat is graded "select" by the USDA, as compared to "choice" grade which has more internal fat (marbling), generally associated with grain fed. Proponents of grass fed claim higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids. The facts are that corn fed beef contains about the same Omega 3 and has more Omega 6, which are both important for improving human health.

To learn more about beef choices you can go to the Web site ExploreBeef.org . You will find in-depth fact sheets on all the different types of beef, production methods.

The bottom line here is that the choice is yours at the meat counter. Whether it be organic, natural, grass fed or conventional beef in the coolers, they are all nutritious and an important food item. No science, however, proves that one is any more safe, nutritious, or healthy than the other.

It has been said that misstatements, if said over and over enough, become accepted as the truth.

It's your choice.

John Moon, of Moon Creek Ranch in Montevideo, is director of the Minnesota State Beef Council.

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