Cutting through the fog of all that meat labeling lingo

Posted by
July 29, 2014



Those of you who include meat in your diet may understandably be confused by the terminology used on meat labels. And that’s quite understandable, given the different bureaucracies involved in the regulation of meat by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In fact, we found it all a bit perplexing ourselves. So we consulted an expert, Dave Carter, who has long been involved in the development of higher quality standards for meat in general and organic meat in particular, having served on the Organic Standards Board and worked with farmers pioneering the development of natural meat and organic food production.

“You have every right to be confused,” he told us.  “Some labeling programs for beef are governed by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service under a user-fee system for ‘voluntary’ claims. Others are governed by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service as mandatory requirements based on food safety considerations. In some rare cases, the claims are even governed by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).”

So Dave volunteered to help us out by sorting through the labeling lingo and explaining what some of the more commonly found definitions actually mean.

Let’s start with the term “natural” (which has become a bugaboo for a whole slew of processed foods in addition to meat):

This standard, which is administered by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, is what Dave describes as “a very low-level claim, with the only specific requirements being: (1) the product does not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, or chemical preservative or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient, and (2) the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed.

“In other words, this is only a processing claim, and not an animal production claim. That means that animals injected with growth hormones and fed antibiotics and GMO grains can produce meat that would be labeled as ‘natural’,” Dave noted.

“Natural,” of course, should not be confused with the term “organic” (which is a mistake a lot of consumers still tend to make). Organic meat products are administered by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service under the authorization of the Organic Foods Production Act.

“Although this is a voluntary claim, the law, and the implementing regulations, strictly govern the use of ‘organic’ on any food labeling,” with violations punishable by fines of up to $11,000 per incident, Dave pointed out, adding that because of these strict regulations, organic “is definitely the ‘Gold Standard’ of claims, and the one with the strongest enforcement mechanism.”

Then there’s “grass fed beef,” which, according to Dave, is an “evolving claim” that has been loosely regulated in the past. Under the audit-based voluntary claim program developed a few years ago by the USDA-AMS, the diet of grass-fed animals shall consist of forage, along with hay, baleage, silage and other roughage  sources and vitamin and mineral supplementation. But they “cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.”

The American Grassfed Association, he added, has also developed its own audit-based program that is similar to the USDA definition, and that also specifies restrictions on the confinement of animals.  But despite increasingly tight oversight, labels and company names  aren’t held to the same strict standards. “For Example Joe-Bob’s Grass Grazed Beef Company would be an allowable label, even though Joe-Bob’s animals received some grain.”

Other common labeling terms include:

  • No Added Hormones, which is traditionally administered by FSIS, and includes the word “added” because all animals have naturally-occurring hormones. According to Dave, “added growth hormones are only approved for beef and dairy cattle, and not for other species. Thus, any label on poultry, pork, bison etc. that claims “No Added Hormones” must also include an asterisk that refers the shopper to language reading “*Federal regulations prohibit the use of growth hormones’ “ in the specific product.  (There is also the growing use of the “No Antibiotics or Growth Hormones, Ever” clalm. This is a voluntary claim administered by USDA AMS, and requires the user to have an audit- based verification system.)
  • Antibiotic Free Diet (Commonly called ABF), also regulated by FSIS. “Under this program, the producers use an affidavit system to verify that the feed regimen does not contain antibiotics. This does not prohibit the farmer from using antibiotics in a therapeutic manner (to treat sick animals).”

Not covered by Dave were such terms as “finely textured beef” and “boneless lean beef trimmings” used to describe fillers used in ground meat that have become collectively known as “pink slime” and largely shunned by consumers as a result.

In any event, our thanks to Dave Carter for his help in clarifying what’s what when it comes to meat labeling.  But whatever type of meat you opt to buy, be sure and cook it at a high enough temperature and for a long enough time to destroy any pathogens (and to sterilize any surfaces with which it comes in contact). Because no matter what kind of meat you buy – even if it’s organic – it can pose a definite health risk if you don’t.