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Top 6 Misleading Beef Claims and How to Spot Them

posted on

January 9, 2020

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Have you ever paid more for your food and discovered later the product did not live up to its claims?

Maybe this happened to you, and you don't even know it.

Unfortunately, this happens to thousands of consumers daily who are trying to feed their families healthy and ethical food. Navigating label claims can be daunting and downright frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be this way for you.

Our farm has raised grass-fed beef for the past 20 years, and we’d like to offer you an inside look into this industry to help you cut through all the marketing fluff when shopping for true grass-fed beef.

Beef is a big culprit when it comes to misleading claims. Why beef? One of the main reasons is that compared to chicken or pork, beef has a higher perceived value, and therefore there’s a greater temptation for companies to increase their profits using claims.

This article exposes what I consider the most misleading claims you’ll encounter when shopping for beef.

Before we start down the list, keep in mind that every single day over 100,000 cattle are harvested for food in the U.S.[1], and 97% are packed in crowded feedlots and fed grain.[2]

However, when you visit the grocery store you’ll notice that almost every brand or retailer is trying to make claims that their beef is somehow different or better.

It doesn't add up.

Spend a few minutes investigating this the next time you shop at a grocery store, and you'll see what I mean.

The reality is that the beef industry has remained unchanged for decades, and currently, 85% of the beef sold at retail comes from the same four companies.[3

So with that added backstory, let’s get down to the truth of the matter...

Here Are the Top 6 Beef Claims to Look Out for

1. Grass-fed or 100% Grass-fed

It’s important to know that much of the beef you see sold as 100% grass-fed at retail stores across the U.S. is still produced in feedlots (CAFOs) and being fed grain by-products.

For example, I was once touring a ranch in Nebraska that raised cattle for several brands that claimed 100% grass-fed on the USDA-approved label. During the tour, the rancher was very honest in explaining that his cattle were fed a variety of diets, including soy-hulls and beet pulp, to improve weight gain. This producer was simply following the protocols given to him by the branded beef company he was contracted to raise for.

Technically, the USDA standards don’t allow for feedlot finishing or feeding of grain by-products for beef that is labeled as “100% grass-fed”. However, if you review the production protocols of the largest brands that claim “100% grass-fed” on their labels, you can easily see that these brands allow for grain by-products, including soy hulls, peanut hulls, beet pulp, DDGs (dried distillers grains), and many other non-starch grain by-products.

Keep in mind that there are only 16 Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) employees at the USDA who are responsible for verifying nearly 1 million label submissions per year. It’s simply impossible for so few people to ensure the accuracy behind each label claim.

The bottom line is that when you see the claim 100% Grass-fed on a USDA label it cannot be trusted without visiting the actual farm.

Grass-fed beef is better for consumers and the planet, but only if it’s produced with integrity. Learn more in our guide: What Is Grass-Fed Beef?

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2. Product of USA

This ends up being a meaningless claim because all meats that are imported from another country can legally claim “Product of USA” as long as they pass through a USDA processor.

This is one of the most egregious labeling loopholes in the food industry, as it undermines your ability as a consumer to know where your food comes from.

According to a recent report, an estimated 75-80% of all grass-fed beef sold at retail is imported from overseas and can be sold as “Product of the USA.”

As long as the imported beef passes through a USDA-inspected plant (which, for food safety reasons, is a requirement for all imported beef), it can be labeled as a “Product of the USA.”[2]

Back to Grass, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture

Whether you are buying an online monthly home delivery beef subscription box or visiting a local grocer, ask what state their cattle are raised in.

3. Certified Organic Beef

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The reason I include “Certified Organic” on this list is due to the fact that most of the organic beef in the U.S. is a by-product of spent dairy cows from organic dairies that mirror industrial-style production practices.

There’s been a lot written by folks like Michael Pollan on how the organic label has been taken over by the industrial food system, and the dairy industry is a major offender of this takeover.

In what has been considered one of the largest fraud investigations of the organic industry, The Cornucopia Institute revealed the following photo of an 18,000 cow organic dairy operation in Stratford, Texas. [4]

The photo above represents where organic beef can come from and explains why retailers can offer this “organic” beef at prices not much more than conventional beef.

I'm guessing this isn’t the picture you had in mind when you saw the word organic

Keep in mind that “organically” produced beef can still be fed grain and confined to feedlots for portions of their life. Unknown to most consumers, the “organic” grain that’s fed to the cattle can still be raised with chemical pesticides. 

You can visit the USDA’s website for a full list of approved synthetic pesticides for organic production. You can also read more about the limitations of this label – and what to look for instead – in our guide: What Is Organic Meat?

One final point: According to The Cornucopia Institute, nearly half the organic corn and over 80% of the organic soybeans used for livestock feed are imported from China and former Soviet Bloc countries that have been known for high levels of commercial fraud.

4. Humanely Raised Beef

In recent years there has been a host of 3rd party labels that are used by brands to convince consumers that their animals were raised and cared for humanely. Unfortunately, most of these certifications do very little to improve the actual welfare conditions on the farm.

The largest animal welfare certifiers, including the Global Animal Partnership, American Humane, Certified Humane, and others allow for conventional feedlot cattle finishing.

For example, GAP (Global Animal Partnership) is widely used by progressive grocery retailers. On the surface, their standards appear to be high. However, what most consumers are unaware of is the fact that there are up to 5 levels of GAP Certification.

While many retailers like to promote the high standards of GAP 4 and 5 approval, the majority of products that are sold only meet the lowest levels for animal care. One could argue that the higher levels exist to create a higher perceived value for the overall label claim.

Enforcing standards for animal care is very difficult as farms must carry out welfare practices daily – yet each farm is inspected only once per year at best.

In our view, ethically-sourced meat goes beyond a checklist of livestock practices. Our animals live on pasture, free to express their natural instincts and behaviors, as part of a healthy and sustainable farm ecosystem. We extend our values to

Look for producers who are willing to answer your questions about how they manage livestock, for the entire life span of the animals on the farm.

5. All-Natural vs. Naturally-Grown Beef

This can be a very confusing allegation as both of these claims have very different meanings when applied to beef production practices.

The claim “All-Natural” simply means the meat was not fundamentally altered during processing or does not include any artificial ingredients. This claim has nothing to do with the farm’s production practices which means beef labeled as “All-Natural” can come from cattle that were given artificial hormones.

However, when you see the term “Naturally-Raised” it does mean the cattle were raised without the use of artificial hormones or animal by-products. 

Keep in mind that this claim does not exclude the use of drugs and still allows for cattle to be raised in feedlots.

6. Locally Sourced Beef

In our region of the country, most states have introduced labelings such as Indiana Grown, Kentucky Proud, Michigan Made, and others. These programs were started with great intentions, but keep in mind that any product that is simply processed (not grown) within the state will qualify for these labels. 

For example, in the state of Indiana, branded meat companies can source cattle from any state and still qualify for Indiana Grown labeling as long as it is processed within the state.

(One nice tip to keep in mind about Indiana Grown Labeling is that products that are both produced and processed within the state qualify for a higher tier label that reads “100% Indiana Grown.”)

One of the advantages of buying local is the opportunity to see where your food comes from. If you’re local to Indiana, visit our farm!

Labels Are About Marketing (not Quality)

It’s important to keep in mind that health-conscious consumers like you and me use labels to evaluate and judge food integrity – while food brands use labels as a primary way to increase profits and sales.

In my opinion, food labels are one of the most unreliable methods for judging quality – after all, it’s just a paper-thin label. What matters is the integrity and honesty of the company behind the label. It all comes down to trust, and trust cannot be labeled, regulated, or enforced.

At Seven Sons, we believe that the only way we’ll ever have a food system of integrity is if we first have people of integrity. This includes farmers, lawmakers, and consumers alike.

We encourage you to find a farmer in your region who you can truly trust to raise your beef and other food products with integrity.

References:

[1] Factory Farms

[2] Back to Grass PDF

[3] 4 Companies Control Almost All the Meat You Eat

[4] “Factory Farms” Massive Production Quantities

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