Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What’s in a food label? USDA


This week there has been a story circulating about a grocery store chain that was labeling their meat as USDA graded. My dad sent me a link to the story yesterday. You know you must write a post when your dad has a question, and I thought it fit into my labeling series.

According to the Washington Post story, the Giant supermarket chain was selling beef packages with the label “USDA Graded.” They were ordered to stop selling beef with that label, not because the claim was untrue, but because it was misleading.

What does USDA graded mean?

The USDA has two separate roles when it comes to evaluating the meat we buy in stores and restaurants.

1.       USDA Inspectors evaluate the animals before harvest and the carcasses and the meat afterwards for wholesomeness. I wrote a post about USDA Inspection last year. To be sold in interstate commerce, meat must be inspected by USDA. In my earlier post, I stated that when meat is inspected by USDA it either passes or fails. If it fails, it is discarded and not sold for human consumption.

2.       USDA Graders evaluate the meat for eating quality. They take into account the marbling in the ribeye, the color of the meat, and approximate the age of the animal and assign USDA grades, like Prime, Choice and Select, to the carcasses. Beef has another set of grades that indicates the lean meat to fat ratio of the carcass called Yield Grades, but it is rarely used in marketing to consumers.

 
USDA grading and inspection
USDA Inspectors and Graders both work for USDA, but their education and training is very different. Inspection is funded by the government, whereas meat processors pay a fee for grading.

According to USDA, over 75% of the meat that is inspected is also graded and assigned USDA grades of Prime, Choice, Select, etc. The packers can use these grades to market the carcasses according to their eating quality. Prime carcasses are worth more than Choice, Choice more than Select, and so on. 

When this store labeled its beef as ‘USDA graded’, all it means is that a USDA grader looked at the beef gave it a grade, but it doesn’t indicate what grade it was assigned. It’s kind of like a teacher grading your test. The teacher gave you a grade. It may be a good grade or a bad grade, but it wouldn’t make much sense to go around bragging that your test had been graded if you weren’t willing to share the grade with other people.

I'm not going to speculate why the store chose to label their beef as merely 'USDA graded.' Other stores use the label ‘USDA inspected,’ which I think is just as misleading. If meat is being sold, it is either USDA inspected or its state inspected. Otherwise, it would be against the law to sell it. Saying that meat is inspected is almost as pointless as saying it was graded.

I hope this clears up some of the confusion with this story.

Would you be interested to learn more about USDA grades?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What’s in a food label? Antibiotic free

This summer I started a blog series on food labels. I’ve covered labels you see on meat products like Organic, Natural, Grass-fed, and Raised without Hormones.

Another claim you commonly see with ‘Raised without Hormones’ is ‘Raised without Antibiotics,’ ‘No Antibiotics Added’ or ‘Antibiotic Free.’


Big Island Beef

About two years ago I wrote a blog post about why antibiotics are used and Antibiotic Residues and Antibiotic Resistance. I’m not going to get into those topics in this post, just stick to the labels.

First, let me address Antibiotic Free.

Just like the similar label concerning hormones, the ‘Antibiotic Free’ claim is misleading and shouldn’t be found on a meat label. You may see it on some marketing claims that are not regulated by USDA, though.

All of the meat you buy in the US should be Antibiotic Free. Even if the farmer used antibiotics, those antibiotics shouldn’t be in the meat because the FDA regulates how antibiotics are administered to animals. The time when the farmer must stop using antibiotics before the animal is harvested is known as the withdrawal time. Those times differ between types of antibiotics and the species of animal, and they are explained on the antibiotic label.

Withdrawal times allow the animal to metabolize the antibiotic and eliminate it from the body so that no residues will be left in the meat. Therefore, all meat should be free of antibiotics.

Back to the Label

When a meat company uses the ‘No antibiotic added’ or ‘Raised without Antibiotics’ label, they must be able to prove to the USDA that no antibiotics were used to raise that animal.

Basically, that’s it. If the animal has never been given antibiotics, the meat company can use that label.

This has probably been the simplest of the labels in my labeling series.

Have you seen any other labels that you have questions about?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Ten things you didn’t know about ground beef

Ground beef is one of our favorite cuts of meat in the US, but I’ll bet that you have lots of questions about it. The USDA dictates what can and cannot be labeled as ground beef and that information is published in the Code of Federal Regulations. They call those rules ‘standards of identity’ and they apply to labels of ‘chopped beef’ and ‘hamburger’ as well as ground beef.

Here are a few things that you may not have known about ground beef:

1.       Ground beef must be from cattle. Any other animal would be considered misbranded and would be illegal.


2.       Ground beef is made from only muscle. It must be skeletal muscle. No organs, eyes, skin, guts or anything but muscle that used to be attached to bones.


3.       Ground beef must be at least 70% lean. No more than 30% fat. It is usually leaner than that, though.


4.       Ground beef is not made from ‘leftovers’ or ‘scraps off the floor’. The fact is, not every cut of beef is equal. Some make great steaks on the grill. Others make great roasts in the oven. Some pieces of the beef carcass are either the wrong size or too tough to be tasty as whole muscle cuts. So, to get maximum use out of the entire animal, butchers collect those pieces in clean containers called lugs and grind them up into ground beef.

5.       Ground beef is the most popular cut of beef. In the US, we enjoy lots of ground beef. In fact, we like it so much that butchers are now grinding up cuts that used to be sold as steaks and roasts. In a large processing plant, the decisions on what to grind up and what to leave whole are made based on price and demand.


6.       Ground beef may not contain any added water. Beef itself contains water, but processors are not permitted to add water to the ground beef.


7.       Ground beef may not contain any phosphates, binders or extenders. Some processed meat products use non-meat fillers such as texturized vegetable protein to stretch the protein portion of a processed meat. If these ingredients are added, it cannot be labeled ground beef.



8.       Ground beef is not all the same. Some dishes work best with really lean ground beef, whereas other are tastier with fattier ground beef. Generally, the more lean the ground beef, the more costly it is. Just like people, not all animals are the same in fatness, and just like people, different parts of the animal have different amounts of fat. Think about how your thigh compares to your abdomen. (mine are different, if yours are not, congratulations) When formulating ground beef, the processors mix some of the leaner cuts (like leg muscles) in with some of the fattier cuts (like abdominal cuts) to get their target fat content.


9.       Ground sirloin, ground round, ground chuck are also ground beef, with more requirements. Those labels not only let the customer know from where on the carcass their ground meat comes, they also give the consumer the percent fat. Ground sirloin and ground round are usually labeled as 15% fat and ground chuck is usually 20% fat. You can look for the fat percentage on the label.   Special ground meats like these must be at least 50% from the source specified. (For example, ground sirloin must be made from at least 50% sirloin cuts.)


10.   Ground beef should always be cooked to 160°F. Because ground beef is ground and mixed, bacteria may be found anywhere within the patty (not just on the surface like in a steak or roast). To make sure all those bacteria are killed, you need to cook your burger to 160°F and check the temperature with a meat thermometer! Checking the temperature will also keep you from over-cooking your burgers so they will be juicy and flavorful!

I hope you have learned something about ground beef and that you enjoy your burger this summer.

 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Reciprocal Meats Conference


Anyone who follows me on any type of social media knows that I have been traveling in the past few weeks and that my travels largely involved meat and food production. For me, the third week in June is like a family reunion, a science fair, and the state fair all rolled into one. The third week in June is time for the Reciprocal Meats Conference!

In 1948 a group of meat scientists met in Chicago to discuss their industry and ways to improve meat production, and began meeting together annually for the Reciprocal Meats Conference. But it was in Madison, WI in 1964 that they decided to form an association for people interested in meat science, the American Meat Science Association. This year we celebrated 50 years of the AMSA.

A photo from the 1964 RMC when they started the AMSA.
We are definitely a different looking crowd today.


The whole concept behind the RMC is to share information about meat science and the meat industry with other meat scientists. People that attend RMC may be from academia like me, from meat companies like my husband, from governmental agencies like USDA, or from industry trade groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association or the American Meat Institute. Of the 850+ people that attended RMC this year, about 1/3 were students.

We reciprocate ideas about the food we produce. People that have attended RMC are responsible for making our meat supply safe and wholesome. One of the great things about the food industry in the US is that food safety issues are non-competitive. At meetings like the RMC, companies and universities are open to sharing the ways they make food safe.

I thought I would share a few thoughts and photos from RMC. If you have attended an RMC, this year or in years past, please share in the comments below or on my facebook page. Let people know who you are, what you do, and especially the things you love about RMC. Be sure to include your blog or twitter handles for people to follow!

The first AMSA Board of Directors.
Giants in the world of meat science.


I am honored to say that I worked with Dr. Kropf (far left) on a meat color project when I was a PhD student. Because it was the 50 year anniversary of the AMSA, our first session was a history of the organization and all the challenges we have faced in the meat industry over the past 50 years.

Some of the other topics of discussion throughout the week included:

·         Diet and Health – Analysis of Current Nutrition Policy

·         Myoglobin chemistry and meat color

·         Antibiotic resistance

·         Food safety and E. coli

·         Natural curing of meat

·         Genetics and meat quality

·         How is social media changing our business

·         Environmental sustainability and meat production

Several of the talks ran against one another. I was so thankful that they were ALL recorded this year so I can go see them online later this summer.

The technical sessions at RMC are great, but the most valuable thing at RMC is the networking opportunities. The professional members (non-students/ old guys) have a networking mentality when they come to RMC. They make it a point to meet new people, and to learn what the students are doing at their respective universities. This mindset has been ingrained in the meeting from the first one.  I encourage my students to get out of their comfort zones and meet new people. Some of the older professors have been known to require their students to write reports on the people they meet.

Because of this friendly, family-like atmosphere, there is an immeasurable amount of collaboration that takes place at RMC. I would bet that more advances in the meat industry have been a result of conversations between the sessions than from those during the sessions. There are lots of opportunities for this extra Reciprocation, like the family picnic and the golf tournament. This year we had some extra reciprocation in the basement late at night during a tornado warning.

A tweet from David during our tornado reciprocation session.
Just about everyone in the basement was from RMC.


This year, we really worked to have a strong presence on social media. We added these little flags to our name tags so people would know to watch for our tweets.

 
The flags on my name tag.
(The Twitter one was new this year)

We used the hashtag #AMSARMC. You can check out some of the great tweets from this year’s meeting.

 
Just a few of the tweets from #AMSARMC. Even with 850+ attendees,
we try to get hands-on in our sessions

 All in all, I think RMC was a great success. It continues to be the place to be during the third week in June for us meatheads (we call ourselves meatheads). I hope to have many in my future.
Don't forget to comment on your RMC experience!
 

Every year on our way to RMC, I take my students on tours of meat plants and farms in the area. Next week, I’ll post about our trip to Wisconsin.

Monday, June 9, 2014

What’s in a food label? Raised without hormones

I’ve been writing a series of posts about food labeling. My previous posts have been about labels that involve the whole system of raising animals, like Organic, Naturally-raised or Grass-fed. Some labels are more specific and address one particular technology used for raising animals like hormones or antibiotics. Today I’m going to address the labels concerning hormones in meat.

First let me address “Hormone Free”

A big joke in the livestock industry is when we see a food, especially meat milk or eggs, advertised as “Hormone Free.”

All animals have hormones and need them to grow and produce meat, milk, eggs, babies, or whatever. All food has hormones. Nothing can actually be ‘hormone-free.’ Saying that beef is “hormone free” is about as pointless as talking about a boneless chicken ranch (you know, all the chickens just lay there.)


But, we all know that they really mean that the animals were raised without the use of added hormones.

Technically, you cannot label a meat product as hormone free. You see it on signs and menus, but it shouldn’t be on a label.

You CAN label a meat product as “Raised without hormones” to let the consumer know that no extra hormones were administered to the animal. Now, that means different things depending on which species the label is on.

What does that mean for Pork and Poultry?

In the US, it is against federal regulations to use hormones to raise pork and poultry.


Yep, its true.
 
Wait… what?

That’s right, no pork or poultry in the US is raised with hormones (other than the ones they make in their own bodies).

But you see it on pork and poultry labels?
Yep, meat companies are allowed to label their pork and poultry with a “No hormones administered” label. All pork and poultry in the US is eligible for the label. When they choose to use that label, they have to also write that “Federal Regulations prohibit the use of hormones in pork/ poultry.”


Some examples of pork and poultry labels that say that hormones are not allowed to be used.
 
So, what about beef?

In beef, it is legal to administer hormones to the cattle. They are similar to the hormones the cattle produce naturally and they allow them to grow larger, leaner, and more efficiently. They help the cattle grow more beef using fewer natural resources.

These hormones are actually administered in what we call an Implant in their ear, not usually fed to them. There are several different options available, and they are usually applied in the feedlot or finishing phase of the animal’s life (the last few months) before harvest.

Just like anything given to the cattle, the FDA and USDA have rules and regulations that the farmers must follow concerning the implants. These rules will involve how long they can be administered and how long before harvest.


Back to the label. When the implants are not used, the beef company may say so on the label.  

Big Island Beef was really popular in Hawaii
It is raised without the use of hormones.


Very often the ‘raised without the use of hormones’ label will accompany another claim like Natural, Grass-fed, or Organic.

How much does it really matter?  

When beef raised without hormones was compared to that from cattle that was given hormones, the level of hormones in the beef was slightly different. In an 8-oz steak, the amount of estrogen found in steak from the implanted steer was 5.1 nanograms and that found in a non-implanted calf was 3.5 nanograms.



How big is a nanogram? One nanogram is one billionth of a gram. That 8 oz steak is a little over 226 grams.

 
This has been an awfully long post to answer a simple question, but people that know me expect that. I hope this helps to understand another meat label. Please let me know if you have any more questions.

 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

What does Alltech do for the average consumer?

Last week I was invited to attend the Alltech Symposium. Alltech is a global agricultural company that produces a variety of products used in several segments of food production. Other than their beer (which was quite tasty), bourbon, and coffee products, a big portion of what is produced by Alltech is sold to others within agriculture. The average consumer probably doesn’t even know the company exists.

So, that got me thinking. When people ask me where I was last week; why I left my kids and my husband for 5 days to attend a symposium hosted by a global agriculture company, what will I tell them? How do I relate what Alltech does to them and their everyday lives?

What does Alltech do to affect the average consumer?

·         DHA ~ Docosahexanoeic acid. The most important of the omega 3 fatty acids, DHA promotes brain and eye health in babies and small children and is important for heart health and immunity in adults. New research is showing that kids supplemented with DHA have greater attention spans and sleep longer (Score!).

Most DHA comes from fish oil or a diet high in fish. The fish get the DHA through the food chain, originally from algae. Alltech is capturing the DHA directly from the algae and working on ways to get it into livestock feed. In addition to making the animals healthier, the DHA will be deposited into meat, milk and eggs. Then, our everyday foods will be naturally supplemented with DHA. No more fish oil pills or worrying about over-fishing the oceans for DHA.

The Alltech Algae plant

We toured the Alltech Algae plant in Kentucky while we were there.

·         Antibiotics ~ A hot topic in animal agriculture today. Consumers worry about the overuse of antibiotics in livestock. Alltech works with farmers to improve the health and immunity of their livestock and help them reduce the amount of antibiotics used on their farms.

·         Farming technology ~ We’ve all heard about how massive amounts of data is used by marketing companies to follow our purchases at stores, and we’ve seen stories about the military’s use of drones and small, remote controlled aircraft. At the symposium, we discussed how those technologies can be used by farmers to produce food more efficiently. Imagine computers helping farmers know when to plant and harvest crops or when a cow is getting sick. I was personally quite impressed with the possibility of using a drone with a camera attached to it to check cows in hard-to-reach places on our hilly farm.
The camera-mounted drone
video


When farmers work more efficiently, more food is produced. That will not only affect the price of food, but the availability of food throughout the world.

·         Promote new science ~ Alltech embraces science and the role science plays in food production. Research discussed at the symposium explored the way nutrition can change the genetic code of babies in the first 1000 days of life. This Nutrigenomics research is in its infancy, but it takes support from companies like Alltech to drive these hypotheses from ideas to real-world applications that will make us and our children healthier.

·         Bees ~ One in three bites of food that Americans eat is directly or indirectly affected by bees, but the bees in our country are suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder. The bees leave the hive, never to return. Education and awareness are the biggest factors in helping the bees, but Alltech is conducting research to figure out how to save the bees and get them healthy again.

·         Food safety ~ Obviously food safety is important to consumers. Food safety is dependent on all the links in the food chain.  In a global food supply, those links may span across several countries that have varied levels of food safety regulations. Alltech recognizes that challenge and utilizes an all-encompassing Quality system that ensures food safety and traceability of their products regardless of the regulations (of lack of regulation) in the country that supplied it. This approach will reap benefits for their products, but more importantly, it will set an example of consistent, high quality food production worldwide.

·         Environmental sustainability ~ Sometimes sustainability can be hard to define. At last year’s symposium, Alltech brought together scientists from all over the world to discuss ways to measure and improve the environmental impact of animal agriculture. I wrote a post about our carbon hoofprint after the meeting last year.

·         Look at the Global Picture ~ We live in a big world and the number of mouths to feed in it is increasing more and more each day. Because of its size and scope, Alltech is able to focus on improving pork production in China, grain production in Europe, and beef production in Brazil. Some of that focus is on products that can be sold within agriculture today, some is in developing products for tomorrow, but some is simply bringing together people in the world that can work to solve the challenges that we are facing today and the opportunities in the future.

 
Sometimes I think we forget the benefits of having lots of interests can be. A global agriculture company like Alltech can have a huge positive impact on consumers every day, and the consumers may never know about it. As with all the folks involved in agriculture, the people at Alltech are working hard to provide a safe, healthy and abundant food supply for the entire world.
 
I learned so much at the symposium this year (and last). I'm really excited about my next post about what I learned about Africa!

Monday, June 2, 2014

What’s in a food label? Grass Fed


I’ve been working on a series of blog posts about the meaning behind the labels you find on meat packages. Previously, I’ve written posts about the meaning behind the Organic and Natural labels and I’ve talked about how those two terms can be confused with each other and with Grass-fed labeling.
The next labeling term I’m going to cover is Grass-fed.
Hawaii Big Island Beef was popular in Hawaii.
It is all grass fed.
 
To use the Grass-fed label on a beef package, the USDA requires that the cattle were…
·         Only allowed to eat grass or hay for their entire lives
·         Never given grain or grain byproducts
·         Allowed access to pasture during the growing season
That basically means that, in the summer time, they were turned out on pasture and ate grass and in the winter time, they were fed hay because the grass wasn’t growing. They are never fed grain (corn, rice, barley, oats etc…).
You may be asking yourself, “So, what does that mean about the beef that is not labeled Grass-fed?
That’s one of the things that makes this particular label confusing. Some people may think that beef that is not labeled as grass-fed come from cattle that never see a pasture. That’s not really true at all.
In the US, all cattle are grass-fed. 
Grass-fed cattle.
Cattle are ruminants. Their bodies are able to digest grass and convert it into energy that they can use to grow, fatten, make milk, or raise calves. Their digestive systems are much more diverse than ours. We can’t metabolize grass, but cattle can. That’s part of what makes cows so awesome!
Vallie and some of our cows.I think she was
demonstrating gymnastics to them
Calves are born and live with their mother’s for 5 to 7 months. They may be fed some grain to supplement them, but for the most part, they drink their mother’s milk and eat grass. Their mothers will eat mostly grass, too. Once they are old enough to be weaned (teenagers), they are usually sent to a stocker farm to grow for a few more months. How much grain vs. grass they get at this step depends on the time of year and the weather. If there is grass growing, they will get to eat it. If not, they will eat a combination of hay and grain.
For the final few months of their lives, cattle that comprise most of the beef in the US, will be fed a greater percentage of grain in a feedlot. In the cattle industry, we call the high-energy ingredients used in these diets concentrates because the energy is more concentrated; whereas, grass and hay are called roughages. The high-concentrate (grain) diet allows them to gain weight more efficiently and gives the beef the flavor and tenderness we expect in the US. Even then, they have to get fiber (roughages), too. So, they get hay, silage (fermented hay) and other forms of roughage. It would be unhealthy for the calves if they only ate corn. Their diet is closely controlled by nutritionists.
I have a post about the steps cattle go through to become beef.
One of my favorite blogs is written by Anne Burkholder, a mom, feedlot operator, Feedyard Foodie. She writes about daily life in a feedlot in Nebraska and her kids and beef and life in general.
Ryan Goodman, of the Ag Proud blog just wrote a great post about how cattle digest grass and grain.
Personally, I prefer the flavor of beef from cattle that have been grain-finished (fed grain for the last few months before harvest). Some people prefer the flavor of beef from grass-finished cattle (fed exclusively grass and hay). The great thing is that we have the choice.
Sometimes, labeling claims like organic and natural are confused with grass-fed, but those labeling claims have different meanings that I covered in previous posts.  Most of the time, grass-fed labels are accompanied by claims about being raisedwithout hormones or raised without antibiotics, but those labels have different meaning and will be coming up soon in my labeling blog series.