February 6, 2009

Consumers face a variety of options when it comes to purchasing meat these days. Different buzz words may come to mind such as "natural," "local" or "grass finished." Each of these products has a specific set of guidelines before they can be labeled as such. University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Extension Professor Lee Meyer said it may be helpful for consumers to know the difference so they will be able to buy products that meet their preferences.

"Local" refers to meat raised and processed close to where the consumer lives. Natural and grass-fed distinctions are a bit more complicated.

"Let's start with ‘natural,'" he said. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a standard, which producers must follow to use that term in their marketing. It states that livestock used for producing meat and meat products have to be raised entirely without growth promotants or antibiotics, and that they are never fed animal by-products."

The rule applies to all kinds of meat, including chicken, pork, beef, lamb or goat. The rule was published in the Federal Register Jan. 21.

Meyer said there are many brands of meat products on store shelves that are sold as "natural," and they can come from many different places. Some national-level meat companies produce products following the "natural" guidelines, and those products are sold at virtually every kind of food store. He went on to say that even some imported meats meet the "natural" guidelines, and that Country of Origin Labeling makes it clear where the meat originated.

Unlike "natural," the "grass-fed" standard only applies to cattle, sheep and goats.  Meyer said many consumers prefer meat from grass-fed livestock, because it is leaner, typically, and according to some research, has a more favorable fat profile. About a year ago, the USDA set specific guidelines for grass-fed labeling. Cattle, sheep and goats must consume only grass and forage throughout their lifetimes, with the exception of milk prior to weaning. Animals cannot be fed any grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Producers may also feed their animals hay, silage and crop residue without grain. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included.

Although these standards provide labels that clearly identify the products that fit consumers' preferences, farmers may be wondering how to decide which standards to follow.

"Most Kentucky cattle producers sell commodity feeder cattle without following any guidelines," Meyer said. "But with the ‘natural' label for meats, there is an increasing demand for feeder cattle that have been verified as ‘natural' - raised without antibiotics or implants. But these cattle have to be marketed directly or through special sales for the farmer to capture any of the higher value. Another alternative is for farmers to produce meat, not just livestock. It is a much more complicated process but seems to be profitable for some of our producers."

Easily confused with grass fed is the term "grass finished," however; "grass finished" is the most restrictive standard and Meyer said it's just now starting to gain wider interest.

"Grass finishing has the potential to use Kentucky's tremendous forage base, but there are many technical details we are still researching," he said. "As we learn more, we'll be able to pass along information to producers who are interested in implementing grass-finished standards."    

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