What does this label mean? Clearing up the confusion about meat labels.

A friend contacted me after reading one of my blogs and asked for more information about what meat labels really mean. Thank you to her for asking and seeking out accurate information!! 🙂

First thing we have to discuss is that ALL meat has been inspected for safety and wholesomeness. Inspection is a service paid for by tax dollars and is MANDATORY. That is a good thing; the government is making sure the food supply is safe for you and your family. If you go to a grocery store or a restaurant and see something labeled “Prime”, “Choice”, or “Select” you are looking at a meat cut that has been quality graded. This is an OPTIONAL service meat packers pay for to estimate the consumer’s eating experience or satisfaction. I talked about this more in a previous blog posting. You will generally pay more for meat which has been quality graded because of the extra cost  the packer had to pay. The important thing to remember is that there may be no difference at all in the meat … just one was graded and one was not. Make sense?

The US government requires some specific information on labels as outlined in 9 CFR 317.2 / 381 Subpart N. The required label features are:

  1. Product name – You have to know what the product is you are buying, right?
  2. Inspection legend and establishment number – The inspection legend is basically documentation that the food was inspected and meets USDA guidelines. The establishment number is a unique number given to the individual establishment … basically this is telling you where the food was produced.
  3. Handling statement – These are instructions on how to handle the food to keep it safe. With meat products it is generally a “keep me cold” statement.
  4. Net weight statement – The weight of the product you are purchasing. If it actually weighs a little more than the net weight statement, you get a little bonus! If it weighs less than the net weight, that can lead to product recalls because that is an issue of mislabeling. (Notice – a recall of a food can be due to mislabeling, not necessarily safety.)
  5. Ingredients statement – You want to know each ingredient that is in the product. Think about a boxed cake mix … there is flour, sugar, salt, and a lot of other ingredients in that box to make the cake turn out. Same basic idea with meat products but expect to see spices and seasonings. Also with the ingredients statement you should expect to see an allergen statement. Generally you won’t see this as much with meat products but there is the possibility of soy or other allergens being in processed meats.
  6. Address line – This is telling you where the company that made the product is located.
  7. Nutrition facts – This is on everything. This is the box we look to for how many calories are in a food, what the fat content is, etc. Generally the nutrition facts are pretty straight forward and easy to understand. The main thing to keep in mind is that the way you cook the food can really change the nutritional value. Frying for example … adds fat and calories quickly.
  8. Safe handling instructions – This is the statement that tells you to what internal temperature food should be cooked to ensure safety. I talked about this in a previous blog as well, The Danger Zone of Food Safety.

I already said that food can be misbranded or mislabeled. A food is considered mislabeled if the label is false or misleading in any way. Food which is offered for sale under another food name is mislabeled. Any imitation food must be labeled as such (think imitation crab … HAS to be labeled imitation or it is mislabeled). If a food is mislabeled it will be recalled. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is unsafe for the average consumer but it will be recalled due to mislabeling.

Okay, so there is required information for labels, who manages that? The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) monitors label usage and product formulation. A policy book is used and precedents become regulation. Regulation changes with new understanding. FSIS promotes and strictly enforces product standards of identity. This means that there are standards for what can be labeled butter, ice cream, or ham based on amounts of ingredients like fat, water, etc. That is why you may see a product labeled ham, ham with natural juices, or ham water added in the store. Basically it says that additional moisture, and often flavor, was added to the product. This is the same reason that you see ground beef labeled 70:30, 90:10, etc. These statements mean that there is 70% lean or meat and 30% fat in that ground beef. Make sense? Here is a cool little fact for you … ground beef may contain no more than 30% fat and hotdogs/frankfurters can contain no more than 40% fat and water. How nifty is that?

When you see the word “meat” what should you expect? As per 9 CFR 301.2(rr), meat is muscle that is skeletal, or in the tongue, diaphragm, heart, or esophagus. Don’t panic … in the US we are really talking about skeletal muscle because we, as a culture and society, don’t generally eat tongue, heart, esophagus, or diaphragm. Sometimes you will see beef tongue in the grocery store because it is safe and people do eat it. Personally, I have tried it … the flavor was great but I couldn’t get by the texture. Included under the meat umbrella are products recovered by advanced meat recovery systems machinery. The really short definition is the use of motorized knives and other cutting instruments to remove bones from carcasses. You can read the linger definition and a discussion about the benefits here. The definition of meat does not include mechanically separated meat and it must be labeled as mechanically separated. Think chicken nuggets … a machine separates the meat away from the bone. The separated, ground lean looks something like a paste that is then put into cookie cutters to get the shapes you find at McDonald’s. Still a safe product that still tastes pretty awesome … just a different method to get the meat separated from the bone.

If you see “fresh” on a label that product does not contain any sodium/potassium nitrate/nitrite or brine concentrations of more than 10%. Short version – it is just meat. It also means that the meat has not been below 26 degrees Fahrenheit (this is the temperature at which meat freezes).  Now let’s get into some of the labels that tend to really make me mad. Before I describe what the label means, I want you to understand that beef is beef. If you want to buy organic or grass finished beef that is your choice and I thank you for choosing beef. However, organic is NOT any safer or healthier for you than any other type of beef. Beef is beef people. There is a lot of research going into niche markets like organic and grass finished and it all says there are no health benefits of one versus the other. There are some taste differences, especially with grass finished, and there are definitely price differences (organic, natural, etc., are more expensive). The bottom line is that I want you to understand what the label means. If you want to pay more for organic beef and can afford to do that, more power to you, but, you are not getting any added health benefits and you are not saving the planet. Here is an interesting read about organic foods … I warn you, this guy doesn’t sugar coat it but he does point out some great aspects.

When we talk about organic, grass finished, etc., we are talking about production techniques. All beef is raised on some kind of grass. The majority of cattle spend most of their life on grass or pasture. The way cattle are finished (or fattened before being harvested) usually determines the label. Traditional, conventional, or grain fed beef describes how most beef is raised in this country. Calves are allowed to grow on pasture eating grass before they are sent to a feedlot to be finished on grain. Again, finishing is when the animal is gaining weight to reach their desired market weight (this is the weight end point we use to harvest the animal). This is also the time when the animal is putting on fat. A typical feedlot diet consists of oats, corn, and hay (grass that has been cut, dried, and saved for later eating … think dehydrated fruit for humans. At the feedlot, the cattle are checked daily for health, have constant access to water, are fed usually twice daily, and have room to wander around and make new friends.

Grass finished beef comes from cattle that are finished on grass rather than traditional grain based diets. These cattle have not received any grain in their diets. Grass finished carcasses tend to be leaner or have less fat. The fat on the carcass is yellow in color from the beta-carotene in the grass the animal ate. It takes a lot more grass to get the animal to market or harvest weight and it takes longer because there is less energy in grass compared to grain. Grass finished beef also tends to have a different flavor.

Organic beef comes from farms that have been “Certified Organic” by the Ag Marketing Service. Animals can be finished on grain or grass as long as the feed they are given is certified organic. This does NOT mean that no fertilizers or other chemical substances were used … it means that “organic” fertilizers were used and they are an environmental nightmare all their own. The main thing with organic is that the animal never receives any hormones or antibiotics. Okay, here is where I start to lose my patience. Any young woman taking oral or topical contraceptives (the pill or the patch) is daily exposing herself to more hormones than she will ever find in beef. Further, cabbage, eggs, and ice cream have more estrogenic activity than implanted cattle. Sick animals cannot be given antibiotics … that makes them non-organic. So if a sick animal is given antibiotics it must be sold or moved into a traditional beef production herd. He or she lives but is no longer organic. If antibiotics are administered, there is a withdrawal time or a time that has to pass before the animal can be harvested. This is protecting the food supply. Make sense?

Process verified programs are monitored by the USDA and they tell the consumer about the age, breed, or source (where the animal came from). Examples of process verified products are Kentucky Beef Network and Angus Source.

Any label that claims “All Natural” is just warm and fuzzy. This label has nothing to do with how the animal is raised, it is just defined by USDA as “minimally processed containing no additives”. It is just meat people. Another warm and fuzzy label is “humane certified”. These labels tell you nothing about how the animal was raised or the food was produced … you are paying more money to feel good about it.

Perhaps the one meat product people are most familiar with is Certified Angus Beef (CAB) because it is so heavily marketed. CAB is a great example of a marketing or branding campaign. We buy CAB products because we expect a level of quality with that product and CAB delivers by selecting carcasses based on eating characteristics like marbling (the fat flecks in the muscle that help keep it so tasty). CAB does not allow dairy or Brahman breed influence in carcasses but, interestingly, it does not actually have to be Angus … just have a black hide. Now because of the CAB program and the genetics from Angus cattle, we can actually assume that if a beef animal has a black hide it has Angus genetics in its background. Hopefully that makes sense … most breeds have or are crossbreeding with Angus cattle for the known carcass quality characteristics Angus produce.

Some other great sources of information are:

Please feel free to pass this information along and post any questions you have!


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