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Looking Beyond the "USDA Organic' Label on Organic Meat

The market basket turns greener every year, with chains such as Wal-Mart and Chipotle touting organic or natural products and American shoppers spending more than $51 billion on natural and organic products in 2005. The Natural Foods Merchandiser trade magazine also notes that organic food sales grew 15.7 percent, with organic fresh meat among the fastest-growing categories. Shoppers who choose meat with the USDA Certified Organic label are guaranteed that U.S. Department of Agriculture standards have been met: primarily no trace of antibiotics, chemicals or pesticides. The treatment of animals, however, is largely up to the individual farmer.

If consumers aren't concerned about this from a compassionate standpoint, some local organic meat producers and sellers say they should be concerned with how animals' treatment affects the expensive end product.

"Everyone draws their own line differently," says Stoughton organic farmer Scott Trautman, who raises what he calls happy, low-stress animals. His beef and chickens are grass-fed, a popular trend in producing leaner meat that is higher in cancer-fighting omega-3 fatty acids, or what's referred to as "beef with benefits" by Kate Clancy, a nutritionist and senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization of citizens and scientists whose research substantiates these claims. Although Trautman's farm is USDA Certified Organic, his meat is not. He calls himself a "beyond-organic farmer," sacrificing the USDA label on the end product for the benefits of using a nearby and humane butcher and processing plant that is not organically certified (because of the cleaning process used between butchering organic and other meat). Trautman says quality of life right up to "harvesting" means a quality product.

Trautman warns consumers who think an organic "free-range" label guarantees their poultry roamed the back 40 before it was harvested to take a closer look. According to Organic Consumers Association Web site, the free-range claim is moot since the USDA does not regulate its meaning for poultry.

At the Willy Street Co-op, shopper Mike Moon, a local coffee roaster, rattles off the first names of his meat suppliers. "I know their practices and have seen what they do," he says. "It's important for me to buy local."

Lynn Olson, services manager for the co-op, reiterates the sentiment by stressing that knowing your farmer is far more important than trusting the USDA-certified label. Olson says the quality of meat is predicated on individual farming practices over any other factor.

"We generally like to support growers who are using sustainable practices," says Olson, pointing out that the co-op provides a range of organic to conventionally raised meat to cater to a broad variety of customer economic needs. But choosing the best meat product isn't as simple as choosing a USDA-certified label, she says: "Whether they are certified organic or not means nothing to us. We actually go out to their farms to witness their sustainable practices." The bottom line on buying meat, Olson maintains, is to know the farm.

Wisconsin has the largest percentage of sustainable farmers in the nation, which means knowing your meat supplier's farming practice is as easy as taking a Sunday drive in the country.

Defining organic terms

Free-Range, Free-Roaming and Pasture-Raised

Hard to monitor and substantiate claims that animals have had continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their lives. Claims may be supported by a visit to your meat supplier's farm. For details, see Organic Consumers Association, http://www.organicconsumers.org

Natural

Although there is no certification or inspection system for natural products, the label usually indicates a product has undergone minimal processing but does not necessarily relate to growing methods or the use of preservatives, according to http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com

Organic

Natural and organic are not interchangeable. Other truthful claims, such as free-range, hormone-free, and natural, can still appear on food labels. Only food labeled organic has been certified as meeting the following USDA organic standards. see http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/Consumers/brochure.htm

* No antibiotics or growth hormones
* No conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.
* A government-approved expert inspects the farm.
*Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

Sustainable

Food, agricultural systems and rural communities that are considered healthy, environmentally sound, profitable, humane and just, according to the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, http://www.sustainableagriculture.net/vision.php