Livestock specialist explains labels on beef products during Farm and Ranch Show

The smell of barbecue filled one of the annexes at the Victoria Community Center on Wednesday as hungry attendees of the South Texas Farm and Ranch Show filled the room in preparation for Ron Gill’s luncheon presentation.

Where did that beef come from?

You might not know even if you had bought the meat from the grocery store yourself, said Gill, a professor and extension livestock specialist with Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension program.

In addition to the required nutritional information and safe handling instructions on packing, Gill said there are dozens of claims and beef certifications available to bring attention to a product.Most of these, Gill said, don’t really affect the quality of the product.

“That’s one good thing about a cow,” Gill said. “She’ll bring it back to the middle.”

In a sea of misunderstood labeling, Gill said the term “natural” takes the cake.

“From a USDA standpoint, natural means natural,” Gill said. “From a meat standpoint, natural means meat and nothing else.”

Gill’s second place for most misunderstood was the term “no antibiotics.”

He said the term means that a cow hasn’t been treated for illnesses like respiratory infections or pink eye. He said it has nothing to do with the misconception that most meat has antibiotics pumped directly into the beef itself.

“There’s nothing that could be more illegal than that,” Gill said.

As far as sales are concerned, Gill said the most important label is the USDA’s beef grades, which denote the tenderness, juiciness and flavor, in addition to the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass.

“This probably helps us sell more than any other label claim,” Gill said.

Gill said most people don’t even know who’s in charge of regulating beef labeling. He himself only found out when he began researching for the presentation.

But, like the multiple meanings of the labels themselves, Gill said figuring out the organization in charge can be complicated.

The USDA’s Food and Safety Inspection Service oversees label claims for products with more than 2% cooked meat in the product. The responsibility falls to the Food and Drug Administration if there is less than 2% cooked meat in the product, and the Federal Trade Commission oversees certain instances involving food advertising.

Gill said the goal of his presentation about beef labeling was to help consumers know what they’re buying at the supermarket and to inform producers how they can cater to niche markets.

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