Uncertainly certified

If nothing else, the recent mad cow scare will force Americans to think about, albeit reluctantly, the conditions in which their 99-cent hamburger was formed. The spate of above-the-fold stories and nightly network news coverage will no doubt serve as a wake-up call both for the industry and consumers. Already, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved new, if relatively hollow, regulations on slaughtering sick cows as a way of telling us the problem is under control, so go back to your T-bone.

But to whatever degree the scare forces reform onto corporate farmers and meat-processing plants, it will likely also push more carnivores to look at so-called "organic" and "natural" beef as a safer replacement.

While these products are typically pricier than supermarket fare, they promise consumers meat that was never tainted with genetically modified organisms, preservatives, hormones or any of the other questionable ingredients in a batch of ground round. In some cases, your extra money also buys the knowledge that the cow you're eating had a nice life before being slaughtered.

"Organic" meats, which make up about 1 percent of the American meat industry, are regulated by the USDA. For meat to be certified organic, the animals have to be fed a diet of organic grains with no animal byproducts, synthetic pesticides, insecticides, herbicides or genetically modified organisms and must never have been given hormones. Organic cattle ranching cuts back on technology and produces quality instead of quantity. Whatever complaints there are about the agriculture department's budget-starved inspections -- and there are many -- at least the program is in place.

Not so for "natural" meats, the kind often found at organic food stores and specialty shops. The USDA loosely defines "natural" meats as being "minimally processed" and containing no artificial ingredients. Unfortunately, that's where the government checks out, putting natural-beef retailers on the honor system.

Natural-meat producers and retailers generally abide by standards similar to their organic counterparts. But the definition of "natural" varies from producer to producer and retailer to retailer. Whole Foods Market, for example, says its natural meat goes beyond the government's definition of natural: It comes without any hormones or preservatives, is sold in whole-muscle form and comes from cows fed all-vegetarian diets. Moreover, spokesperson Kate Lowery says that Whole Foods employs third-party auditors to ensure its meats are indeed natural.

But because there are no government standards, consumers essentially have to take the retailer's word for it.

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