Natural Foods Merchandiser

What's the Beef With Organics?

From "Behind The Label: A Guide For Retailers," A Supplement to Natural Foods Merchandiser


Beef is back in the diets of many Americans. After years of diminishing demand, beef sales are steadily rising, according to the Centennial, Colo.-based National Cattleman's Beef Association. Credit the growing interest in high-protein diets, concerted efforts by beef marketers and the undeniable satisfaction of a juicy hamburger or steak.

Yet health-minded consumers may still balk at conventional cattle ranching and beef production practices, including the use of feed grown with pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones. Some have serious concerns about mad cow disease and food safety, factory farming, inhumane slaughtering methods and poor treatment of farm animals.

These concerned carnivores may well turn to natural foods retailers for meat that is labeled natural, organic or grass-fed, or otherwise provides an alternative to business as usual.

But beware: The beef in your butcher case may qualify as natural, but not organic, because organic beef meets standards that go beyond what's "natural." And while the Certified Organic label is now much more science than art, thanks to national standards implemented in 2002 and regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the term natural remains loosely defined by the USDA, and therefore subject to interpretation by food producers.

In fact, the myriad labels and claims about beef production can be confusing for retailers and consumers alike. Here is a closer look at the most popular, and often misunderstood, labels for beef products.

Natural, Organic Standards Differ
Certified organic meat is a relative newcomer to the organic family; the USDA first approved use of the organic label on meat and poultry in 1999, long after the label was in widespread use on other foods. As of October 2002, the USDA's National Organic Program oversees use of the organic label on all foods, including meat.

Farmers, ranchers and food producers who wish to use the organic label must adhere to USDA standards to have their products certified as organic, based on an audit by an accredited, third-party agent. In broad strokes, organic livestock producers must give the animals organic feed, must eschew the use of hormones and antibiotics (sick animals are treated, but not sold as organic), and must provide access to pasture for animals. Slaughter and production must take place in a facility certified to organic standards.

"If you start with the farm," says Scott Yacovino, marketing manager for Branchburg, N.J.-based Applegate Farms, a producer of both natural and organic meat products, "animals that are in an organic program must be raised entirely without being given antibiotics or hormones. That is key. But they must also eat organic grain and grain appropriate to their species."

Organic grains—which differ substantially from those fed in commercial feedlots where cattle are fattened for slaughter—must be grown without synthetic pesticides, insecticides, herbicides or genetically modified ingredients. Feed mixes cannot contain animal byproducts or synthetics such as nitrates, nitrites or sulfites commonly used in feed processing.

Even after the finalization of the organic standards, some producers attempted to weaken them by seeking legislation removing the organic feed requirement. Consumer and industry efforts turned back one such initiative in early 2003.

In slaughter and processing facilities, USDA standards include segregation of organic meat products from conventional products to prevent contamination. Retailers are similarly required to maintain the chain of organic integrity in handling, storage and display of organic meats, ensuring, for example, that juices from nonorganic meats in the butcher case don't drip onto organic meats. Organic meat cannot be irradiated at any stage of production or sale.

Farmers and ranchers who raise organic beef are even restricted as to the type of fence posts they can use in confinement areas: No posts that have been treated with arsenic—a common wood preservative—can be used to pen cattle, pigs or chickens because arsenic may leach into the soil.

Organic standards also specify that livestock have access to pasture. Some organic advocates see this part of the rule as vague and not consistently enforced with respect for the spirit of the law because of the use of the word "access."

Natural Inclinations
The USDA's definition of "natural" is far less stringent. "Basically, natural products under the USDA labeling rules must be minimally processed and must contain no artificial ingredients," says Mel Coleman, Jr., of Denver-based Coleman Natural Products, a company that pioneered the concept of marketing natural beef.

In some cases, producers of natural beef and poultry products opt to follow some of the same edicts as organic farmers, such as using no antibiotics or growth hormones, and avoiding feed that uses chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

But the natural label doesn't guarantee these practices, or mean that animals have always been entirely free of those substances. And the natural label doesn't require a certification process.

Thus, the practices that fall under the natural beef label may vary considerably with individual producers. Coleman Beef, for example, doesn't sell antibiotic-treated animals as natural. "If we have cattle that become ill and must be treated for that illness with antibiotics, we will do that," Coleman says. "But then we separate those cattle and do not sell them as natural beef."

Coleman says cattle from the company's ranches largely meet the definition of organic because they are raised from birth without antibiotics or hormones. But, because of the popularity of "choice grade" beef (a label that refers to fat content, rather than production methods), cattle fed on grass since they were weaned may go to a feedlot for what is known as finishing, where they are fed commercial grains that may have been grown with pesticides or contain animal byproducts.

While producers of natural beef products have more leeway than organic producers, some take the step of strengthening their brand by making more specific claims on packaging. Coleman indicates that its natural cattle graze on grass on high mountain ranges, where pesticides and fertilizers have never been used, in part because they do not enhance the pastureland.

Because organic meats carry the highest price premium and are still a relatively small production niche, most retailers want to offer a natural product as well. But the wide range of production practices that can be categorized as natural suggest that it's wise to choose a natural meat brand with care, and look for real commitment behind the label.

"There are some fundamental principles behind our company," Coleman says. "We want to see the reduction of the use of chemicals in agriculture; we want to promote the rural lifestyle and small family farms and ranches; and we want to promote the use of sound management practices in grassland and rangeland. We also want to provide consumers with safe, great-tasting food."

Splendor In The Grass
Grass-fed beef is the latest beef production trend to excite consumers. It's still a small niche, but speaks to those who want to support natural methods and smaller-scale, local production. While most beef is intensively grain fed at some stage, grass-fed cattle thrive on the diet that their ancestors knew.

Advocates say that grass-fed, or pasture-raised, livestock are healthier and happier, and that there are environmental benefits. Grass-fed beef has less fat and a somewhat different taste. But it's showing up in natural products stores and on the menus of America's trendsetting chefs, who see it as a contribution to sustainability and health.

Beefed Up
There's no doubt that both organic and natural beef products, as well as the smaller segment of grass-fed beef, have a bright future. Beef sales continue to rise, but so do concerns about unnecessary practices that may carry long-term risk to humans, animals and the environment. Retailers can best serve their meat-eating customers by keeping up with livestock production issues, knowing the definitions and significance of labels and claims, and being familiar with the practices of the brands they sell.

From there, retailers can help consumers make choices that suit their lifestyles and specific concerns, such as antibiotic and hormone overuse or humane treatment of animals. National organic standards were spurred, in part, by a growing consumer interest in both organic and natural food products, but experts say educating the public as to what the terms mean is still a work in progress. As Applegate Farms' Yacovino concludes, "The major job now is to educate the public on these important issues."

Elaine Lipson is a Colorado-based writer on natural health and organic foods. She is the author of The Organic Foods Sourcebook (McGraw-Hill-Contemporary, 2001), a guide that answers the most-asked questions about organics. Dan Luzadder is a writer and editor in Evergreen, Colo.

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