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By "Today" Food Editor
updated 9/8/2006 7:28:44 AM ET 2006-09-08T11:28:44
COMMENTARY

Our report on the “Five Things You Need to Know about Beef” prompted lots of questions and discussion about “grass-fed beef;" and now organic advocates are upset with proposed changes in labeling regulations that would actually change the definition.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is proposing to change the definition of “grass-fed beef” so that only 99 percent — rather than 100 percent — of a cow's diet come from grass foraging. The definition of grass also would be expanded to include such things as legumes and corn stalks left over from harvests. The rationale for the proposal, according to published reports, is that because some ranches are located in geographic areas where year-round grass foraging is simply not possible because of weather restrictions, those ranches ought not be penalized for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Opponents of the proposed rule change say that it would water down the meaning of “grass-fed."

For example, Dana Ehrlich, CEO of Verde Farms, tells us, “As a marketer of 100 percent grass-fed organic beef, watering down the standards does not help the consumer understand an already cluttered, confusing marketplace and reduces the profit incentive for farmers. Without that incentive, farmers will not increase supply, which means ultimately the consumers loses out as they are 'forced' to purchase conventional beef from the four large meatpackers that control 84 percent of the U.S. market.”

The fact is that grass-fed beef is leaner, richer in some vitamins and minerals, free from antibiotics, and more expensive. It’s a product that appeals to a small segment of the population of beef eaters that frankly want this product — and for USDA to change the definition to allow other producers to qualify for the label is downright unfair — to the current producers and the shoppers who buy the product.

Grass-fed ought to mean just that: Grass-fed.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.

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