Elite meat

Shoppers sold on organic produce find its main-course counterpart - certified beef, poultry, and pork - to be elusive.

Natural, Free-range, Grass-fed, No growth hormones, No antibiotics added.

The many names for livestock and poultry raised outside the industrial farm system can perplex shoppers. They pay more for such products than conventional ones in the belief they are healthier and better for the environment. But the nomenclature is meaningless unless consumers know exactly how the meat is produced.

" 'Natural' is virtually a meaningless word," says Amiel Cooper, who produces organic beef from his herd of Charolais cattle in South Newfane, Vt. "People aren't aware of the different terms in the labeling of beef; it's very confusing."

The new green USDA "organic" stickers are the shoppers' only guarantee that the meat they buy meets federal organic standards that took effect last October. To qualify for the stickers, growers must raise animals without antibiotics or growth hormones, must give animals chemical-free grass or feed, and must treat them humanely.

So far, however, ranchers have not rushed to win certification, even though food purity and security are reportedly rising public concerns. Less than 1 percent of all livestock and poultry raised in the United States is organic, according to the 2001 USDA census, the most recent government data available.

The pressure may be growing. Concern over antibiotics recently prompted McDonald's to tell its direct suppliers, who provide 20 percent of all its beef and most of its poultry, to stop using antibiotics by the end of 2004. The new policy won't affect antibiotics used to treat sick animals.

But some ranchers say they face too many obstacles to go organic and remain profitable. "We want to be organic, but we'd have to hire someone to do the paperwork, pay twice the price for organic feed, and find a certified slaughterhouse that would take a small amount of animals," says Jon Konove, a Brimfield, Mass., rancher who produces what he calls "premium natural" beef from his herd of Black Angus and Hereford cattle.

Mr. Konove's River Rock Farm ground beef already commands between $4.50 and $5 a pound at local farmer's markets. "If we ask customers to pay more [for organic meat], we'd price ourselves out of the ball game," he says.

Other ranchers share Konove's skepticism about organic meat boosting sales. "It's easier for people to understand a radish or broccoli that's organic than meat," says Mr. Cooper.

Overall, the organic-food market has reportedly grown by as much as 20 percent a year since 1990. Sales of organic meat have recently grown at a faster rate - about 30 percent a year, according to Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass. But meat and meat products, Ms. Haumann says, still represent only about 4 percent of total organic-food production. [Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the rate of organic-meat sales.]

In 1997, certified organic livestock in the US totalled 18,500 animals; organic poultry added up to less than 1 million, according to the USDA. Four years later, the totals were 71,200 and more than 5 million, respectively.

"There's been a huge amount of growth in organic livestock since 1997," says Catherine Greene, an agricultural economist with the USDA in Washington. "But it's still a tiny part of the overall organic market."

Specialty-store shelves are more likely to stock "natural" meat products than organic. "The organic meat supply isn't really there," says Craig Nelson, assistant meat buyer for Andronico's, a chain of high-end supermarkets in California. "Customer requests for natural outweigh those for organic, and the higher price [for organic] is a factor, too."

While no government sticker or label certifies meats and poultry as "natural" or "grass-fed," federal officials say they are working to protect shoppers. "Labels must be approved before they're applied to products to ensure they are truthful, accurate, and not misleading," says Robert Post, director of the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service's labeling program.

A 1982 USDA policy memo states that the term "natural" can be used to label meat that doesn't contain artificial ingredients or food colorants and isn't more than minimally processed. But that definition doesn't prohibit the use of antibiotics, which are used to treat disease in animals. Nor does it prohibit the use of growth hormones, though such hormones are not typically used in pigs or poultry.

A recent nationwide survey commissioned by the country's largest natural- and organic-foods supermarket chain, Whole Foods Inc., found that 74 percent of Americans are concerned about the presence of antibiotics in meat production. But less than half of those surveyed were aware that beef and poultry bought at supermarkets commonly are raised on feed that contains antibiotics.

"We're saying 'never' about antibiotics [being in the meats we sell]," says Margaret Wittenberg, vice president of governmental affairs at Whole Foods, in Austin, Texas, explaining its meat-purchasing policy.

Still, meat labels that qualify antibiotic use and other practices can be ambiguous. A label that states "no antibiotics administered 120 days before finishing" leaves consumers who are unfamiliar with agricultural production principles wondering if antibiotics were given to the animal before its last 120 days. "It usually takes around four months, or 120 days, for the animals to eliminate the antibiotics from their system," says the USDA's Dr. Post.

The term "free-range" is also unclear. "A claim of free-range poultry can mean the chickens are outside for 20 minutes a day," says Michael Levine, meat manager for Organic Valley, a cooperative of more than 500 organic family farms, based in LaFarge, Wis.

The bottom line is that people are often left guessing how the meat they buy was raised. The job of informing customers is often left to producers' websites and specialty retailers. Whole Foods began offering pamphlet primers in May. "Because 'natural' can mean a lot things, we wanted to clarify it," says Ms. Wittenberg.

Ranchers in Marin County, Calif., are working with their local government to create a "grass-fed" beef standard so consumers understand whether an animal is raised entirely on grass or is grain-fed. "We feel grass is better for the cows; it's more natural for grazing animals," says Sally Gale, who, with her husband, Mike, produces grass-fed beef on their 600-acre Chileno Valley Ranch, about an hour north of San Francisco.

The Gales administer no growth hormones or antibiotics to their Black Angus cattle, which graze on verdant pastures free of chemicals. "Our customers appreciate the fact that we take good care of the animals and the land," says Ms. Gale. Customers who buy directly from family farms like the Gales' know where their beef comes from. They buy part of or the entire animal before it is slaughtered. When cut and wrapped, beef from the Gales' costs about $3 a pound.

At specialty stores, customers buying ground beef labeled "natural" may wonder if the meat has come from more than one source, as can be the case with conventional ground beef.

Ranchers like Cooper and the Gales sell only their own products. Organic Valley, a cooperative, buys only from its network of certified-organic farmers, but may mix its own organic meat together to make ground beef.

Coleman Natural Meats, the country's largest producer of "natural" meat, buys from its network of 750 certified farms. "They're Coleman-certified," says Penny Wolfis, a marketing analyst for the Denver company. "We don't buy from ranchers who aren't already part of our program."

In the end, ranchers say it comes down to education. "People want to eat good meat," says rancher Katie Breckenridge, who produces natural, range-fed beef from Black Angus cattle on a 10,000-acre ranch in Picabo, Idaho. "But I don't think they understand how it's grown."

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