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Meat-Label Madness

Kimberly Lord Stewart

April 24, 2008

8 Min Read
Meat-Label Madness

Two factors have changed the way Lauren Harmon grocery shops—two young children and reading the book Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser (HarperCollins, 2002), which details the atrocious conditions prevalent in the conventional meat industry. "Ever since I've had kids, I try to buy more natural," she says.

Harmon buys beef and chicken from a local butcher who doesn't sell organic but assures her the animals are raised free range and contain no hormones or antibiotics. She feels good about her buying decision, but when asked to explain what all the label terms mean, she's really not sure.

Harmon and mothers like her aren't alone. Meat labels barrage consumers with any number of single-issue "motivators," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Greenfield, Mass.-based Organic Trade Association. But while some companies live up to the spirit of the rules behind their claims, most label terms are not independently certified. And some of the claims are disingenuous and designed to confuse even the most educated shoppers.

The most obvious example, natural or all natural, appears on meat labels of even the biggest national producers. And if you ask the average consumer what that means, he or she will tell you the phrase implies health and well-being, according to a survey conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based National Consumers League. But in the livestock industry, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the term natural only means: "During processing, nothing synthetic is ever added to the meat, including preservatives, and the product is minimally processed."

"The definition doesn't address how the animal was raised, only how it's processed," says Mel Coleman Jr., chairman of Denver-based Coleman Natural Products. "But every consumer thinks natural means the way the animal was raised." Even for a company that pioneered a strict definition of natural and hormone- and antibiotic-free beef, Coleman admits that getting that message to consumers is "incredibly difficult."

Beefing Up On The Issues
Because of consumer concerns about antibiotic and hormone use in beef, Coleman says the beef industry is full of terms that make less ethical companies appear to have the same standards his company keeps. Take the term antibiotic free, for instance. He says it's misleading, because all cattle, natural or otherwise, are required to have withdrawal time before processing to allow any antibiotics administered to wear off. In theory, almost all beef is antibiotic free at the time of processing, but the animal may have been treated with the drugs in the past.

No hormones added is another label that calls to consumers. Conventional beef producers use hormone implants to create rapid weight gain, but few realize all beef and poultry have naturally occurring hormones. "Perhaps the greatest fraud being pulled on the public is in the area of 'no hormones added,'" says Roy Moore, CEO and founder of Maverick Ranch in Denver. Moore says that although his company does not accept hormone-treated beef, there are greater risks from natural beef companies that buy bull beef rather than steer and heifer beef, because that meat contains testosterone and estrogen levels 20 times higher than beef treated with hormones. "If people are sincerely concerned about hormone ingestion, they should know the source, sex and treatment of the cattle," he says.

Moore's company, and others like his, do not raise their own cattle, but instead buy from screened suppliers. The practice has been scrutinized by some naturals veterans because the companies lack complete oversight of their cattle from birth, implying they can't guarantee hormones or antibiotics were never used during the animal's life. Moore recognizes the concern and says his company "spends a fortune" testing for hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, down to parts per billion and even trillion. "At Maverick, we are in the process of getting the USDA to implement its process and source verification system to monitor our producers for no antibiotics and no hormone claims and to monitor GuaranTek Laboratories for no pesticide detection claims," he says.

Pesticide use is another little-known treatment in the beef industry. Moore believes it's an even bigger issue than hormones in natural and conventional beef production. In addition to ingesting pesticide residue present in feed, cattle are commonly sprayed to kill off lice, flies and mosquitoes. Moore says some of these compounds are more estrogenic than the FDA-controlled hormone implants.

With the exception of organic meat, there are no controls for these chemicals in cattle production, Moore says. As an alternative, Coleman says there are approved parasiticides for organic beef that pose few, if any, risks.

Chicken Run
Chicken and egg producers also are not immune from loosey-goosey labeling. For instance, in 2001, Tyson Foods Inc. played on consumer fears by advertising that the company's "all-natural chicken" contained no added hormones or steroids. Competitors filed complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, not because the claim wasn't true, but because the USDA prohibits the use of hormones for hogs or poultry, organic or otherwise, at any time.

Mention the USDA definition of free range to chicken and egg producers and feathers will also ruffle. According to the government, free range or free roaming simply means "producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside." It gives no parameters for length of time or space allocation. For even the most well-intentioned farmers, inclement weather conditions, the threat of highly contagious diseases and the short lifespan for roasting chickens can limit the amount of time the birds spend outdoors.

This vague definition gives some producers the freedom to label their products free range even though the barn door is never opened, creating a challenge for other producers who comply with the rules and label their products as only cage free. "When it's 15 degrees outside, our hens don't go outside," says Jesse LaFlame, co-owner of Pete and Gerry's Organic Eggs, in Monroe, N.H. He says his birds have very plush, clean living quarters and do go outside, but not when weather and contagious diseases pose a threat to the hens' health. "So, we are not going to call our eggs free range as others do who are in the same area," he says.

LaFlame won't name names, but Petaluma Poultry says it too has similar issues. "It's tough to stick to your guns," says Randy Duranceau, director of sales and marketing for the Petaluma, Calif.-based company. For example, the company's Rocky Jr. brand nonorganic chickens don't reach maturity in time to get any direct sunshine, so despite pressure from retailers and distributors, the company chooses not to label the chickens free range. Conversely, Rosie, the company's organic brand chickens, do have free range time. "There are too many loopholes," Duranceau says, "and there are many people out there who claim free range who are not."

Cage free is another marketing moniker with little meaning. LaFlame would like a formal definition of cage free. "It's easy to cheat on this one,' " he says, because some barns are so small and poorly designed that they don't allow space for birds to exhibit natural nesting and scratching behaviors.

With the exception of organic, "anyone is free to use labeling such as hormone free, vegetarian fed and cage free, because they aren't legal definitions," says Laura Koblentz, director of marketing for Horizon Organic, based in Longmont, Colo.

Koblentz believes in the egg industry, nonorganic producers who use these labels get 90 percent of the benefits, but don't pay 100 percent of the price. "Egg labeling is one of the most widely abused practices," she says. Consumers should ask their retailers questions, but it is up to the natural products retailer to conduct due diligence so customers don't have to, she says.

Pressure From Above And Below
OTA's DiMatteo says when the organic rules were first being hashed out, the conventional livestock industry said to make them as strict as possible. "That was music to our ears," she says, "but now the song has changed."

Conventional egg producers, recognizing the increased demand for organic, have been asking that the free-range requirement be removed from the organic rules for egg-laying hens. According to Ken Klippen, vice president of government relations for United Egg Producers based in Washington, D.C., the free range requirement is dangerous because it allows birds to be exposed to migratory-bird diseases, parasites, predators and rodents (believed to increase salmonella). Klippen says the association's measures are for the animals' well-being, and suggests organic hens be allowed large cages with protected access to daylight.

The group developed a logo called the Animal Care Certified symbol. But critics from the Humane Society say the organization still isn't doing enough to improve living conditions for hens.

It's hard for these companies to make changes, says Bill Robinson, president of College Hill Poultry in Fredericksburg, Pa. "It's like kicking a nicotine or drug habit."

DiMatteo says if consumers believe in the UEP label, that's fine. But the goal of organic agriculture is not to create systems and rules to fit the way some farming operations work, but to emulate nature and protect the environment while promoting agriculture.

LaFlame agrees, saying much of his competition disappeared after the organic labeling standards went into effect on Oct. 21, 2002, which is a positive thing because people are learning what organic is really about. The challenge now is "the buyer has a whole new set of markers for organic, and companies need to talk about how the whole animal was raised, rather than a single issue," DiMatteo says.

Kimberly Lord Stewart is a freelance writer in Longmont, Colo.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 72, 74

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