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Where's the beef? What do meat labels really mean?

MOORHEAD, Minn. — Scanning the labels in the meat aisle can make your head spin. What does it mean when meat is labeled "organic," "grass-fed" or raised without antibiotics?" And does it make a difference for you and your family?

Lynn Brakke, a longtime area organic farmer, and Linda Bartholomay, a licensed nutritionist and registered dietitian, can help get to the bottom of these questions.

"On a label you might see on beef is that it has not had any antibiotics, or that the beef has been raised without hormones," Bartholomay explains. She has developed a keen eye for labels from her more than 25 years of working with nutrition. "These two labels (no antibiotics and no growth hormones) may be applied to various products without them being certified organic."

The Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Products Inspection Act require food manufacturers to get prior approval before any meat and poultry products can be labeled and marketed.

"Certified organic" for beef, a coveted label by some, means that the animal has not received any antibiotics or growth hormones, Bartholomay says. To be certified organic, a farmer needs to go through numerous inspections over a three-year period.

Brakke says "grass-fed" is another popular buzzword that is used to describe the cattle's feed. Beef can receive the grass-fed label if the cows were 100 percent grass-fed after being weaned from their mother's milk, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In early 2016, the American Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) — an arm of the USDA — withdrew its Grass (Forage) Fed Claim for Ruminant Livestock because "they do not have authority to regulate grass-fed or naturally raised." Instead, the AMS clarified its goal to collaborate with standard development organizations to establish a marketing claim baseline.

Its sister organization, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, ensures that meat labels contain information that is truthful and not misleading.

Bartholomay says the "naturally raised" label refers to cattle that have not received any hormones.

"If someone says this is purely a grass-fed animal, this does not guarantee that they have had antibiotics or growth hormones," Bartholomay says. "Their feed may be more plant-based, but it doesn't necessarily guarantee that you are getting antibiotics or growth hormones."

Bartholomy and Brakke say all labels describe how the animals were raised — naturally-raised, no growth hormones, no antibiotics and organic — and what they ate (grass-fed or partially grass-fed).

"Personally when I'm at the grocery store, I try to look for the labels that have no growth hormones or antibiotics," Bartholomay says. "That might go for dairy or as well looking at your meat."

Brakke recommends getting to know an area farmer to learn about how they raise and grow their products. Consumers can then know exactly what kind of product they are purchasing.

Grass-fed vs. Grain-fed

In recent years, grass-fed beef has become a popular buzzword for restaurant menus and grocery stores.

Brakke started raising organic beef 10 years ago with a small herd of 30 head at his farm in south Moorhead.

"Once I started selling my organic beef, my customers asked me why I wasn't doing grass-fed beef," Brakke says. "I began researching grass-fed beef and what it meant for the product."

Now with about 100 head of cattle, Brakke says he decided to only feed his cattle grass while still raising them as organic. "You want to do grass-fed if you're trying to sell the best product you can," he says.

Brakke ultimately made the switch because it's better for the cow.

"Cattle are made to eat grass, but cattle will gain weight faster on grains at a cost," he says. "Most often they will not live as long on grain than just grass."

In this region, most cows are partially grass-fed because during the winter farmers supplement their cattle's feed with grain. The USDA says three-fourths of cattle are "finished" (grown to maturity) in feedlots where they are fed specially formulated feed based on corn or other grains.

Bartholomay says any grass-fed beef have some slight health benefits like more naturally occurring vitamins, and the overall fat content of grass-fed beef is a little bit lower than grain-fed or partially grain-fed beef.

The debate about if grass-fed beef is healthier for any person is still undecided.

"Whatever kind of beef you buy, it will have some fat content in it even if it's a leaner cut," Bartholomay says. "So it's important to pay attention to portion control and include enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains because we know people are not getting enough of those in their diets right now. "

Becoming 'certified organic'

Bartholomay and Brakke say that to become "Certified Organic" involves numerous inspections over several years. When Brakke decided to become a certified organic farmer more than 25 years ago, the transition took about three years.

"During the transition period, you farm organically, but you have to sell the production in the conventional market," he says. "After the three-year time period, you can market the product as organic."

He says for him, switching to organic seemed like the best option for a variety of reasons, including a desire to keep improving his products.

Inspections by the USDA occur (at least) annually. Brake's shortest inspection only lasted a few hours, but in other instances an inspection has taken a couple of days to complete.

Find specific certified organic farms or businesses by searching the Organic Integrity Database at