Friday, March 13, 2009

Decoding Food Labels: "Naturally Raised Beef" Isn't

Once again, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has bowed down to agribusiness and decided to define "naturally raised beef" as anything but. The word "raise," you'd think, would have some relationship to how a steer spends its life, able to roam a pasture and eat grass, or confined to a filthy feedlot.

But this new definition says absolutely nothing about the conditions in which an animal is actually raised.

All this term will now mean is that the steer has not been treated with antibiotics, hormones or any substances that promote its growth, or fed byproducts of other animals. It's those byproducts--left over pieces of dead animals--that have lead to worries about mad cow disease, and caused European countries to rightly turn away most American beef.

This "naturally raised" definition, by the way, refers also to pork and chicken.

Critics have said that instead of calling it "naturally raised," the term should have been "naturally fed."

But the rule doesn't require that steers have access to pasture of even the outdoors, and there's nothing natural about feeding corn to cows, which is what they get in those feedlots. In fact, as Michael Pollan pointed out in a PBS radio interview, fattening beef on corn--made possible only because U.S. agricultural policy subsidizes corn production--does terrible things to the cow's intricate system of transforming what should be grass into wonderful milk.

If you want to eat beef from cows that have actually lived a decent life, eating grass on a pasture, the label to look for is "grass fed" with the logo of the American Grassfed Association. That logo means that the animal has eaten only mother's milk, grass or hay for its entire life.

What a concept. Unfortunately, it's hard to find such beef. Only four giant agribusinesses control the slaughtering of more than 80% of beef consumed in the U.S. Antitrust anyone?

What's the solution? Spend more for grass-fed beef, and consider that steak a luxury treat for once and a while. By eating less beef, you'll also be reducing your carbon footprint as effectively as if you bought a hybrid car. You'll be healthier, too.

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