Origin labeling on meat


Lobbyists and members of Congress have managed to hold off the enforcement of a five-year-old law that required country-of-origin labeling on meat and produce as well as fish. Of course stores could do this voluntarily. I regularly see New Zealand lamb at my local Whole Foods. But "critics say meatpackers simply do not want consumers to know that an increasing amount of hamburger meat and produce is being imported." Hamburger meat!? Yikes. Ground beef is especially susceptible to contamination1, even from the local market, so it's important to purchase it from a reliable source. It seems critical to know if that source is another country, given recent Mad Cow scares, Chinese food contamination issues, humane treatment concerns, and locavorian intentions. Consumers deserve the right to make an informed decision.

1 With a steak, bacterial contamination remains on the outside of the meat, so cooking kills it off even if the interior of the steak is still medium rare. With ground beef, the bacteria get all churned up inside, hence the recommendation to cook ground beef to well done. When you purchase ground beef (rather than grind it at home), it's likely to be made up of meat from many different cows, increasing the likelihood that one was contaminated. If one's contaminated, the whole batch of ground beef is now contaminated.

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Actually, you've hit on the difference between 'ground beef' and 'hamburger'. We buy all our beef from a local farm, where they pasture-raise the animals. I was talking to the owner last weekend, and he explained to me that 'ground beef' is meat that comes from one single animal, while 'hamburger' is ground meat that can be a mix from any number of animals. At this farm, they only sell 'ground beef'. If you think about it, your odds of getting sick from eating meat of a single animal is about one one-hundredth what it would be if you were eating 'hamburger' that is meat mixed from, say, one hundred animals.

Huh, really? I've never heard that distinction before. I wonder how common it really is. Anyone else aware of this?

I've been telling my students the same thing about cross-contamination from packaged ground-beef/hamburger for years. And I've heard about a distinction between the two either but I found this ( Not sure I believe it.

Don't worry about the imported hamburger ... at least for those reasons. I used to work as a butcher's boy in a grocery store. When we had the ground beef sales we got the imported beef. It comes as big slabs of frozen, uncut beef from a country with a Z in the name (Zimbabwe or New Zealand). The slabs are run through a bandsaw (used blades go to the local high school shop class) until they are 1"x1"x24" sticks. Then they go in the grinder, still frozen. Supposedly there was no real problem if the customers wanted to refreeze the product.

When the meat wasn't on sale, there might have been quality meat cuts that had gone brown in the mix. Everything comes out a nice, bright red.

New Zealand Lamb is pretty much a brand identity: it has been marketed as such in the UK for a long time, as has Danish bacon. I wouldn't be surprised if the exporters and NZ Meat & Wool stipulate country-of-origin labelling rather than the retailer making that choice, as part of its brand strategy. That's to say, it's closer to an A.C. or D.O.C. than a 'Foreign: Buyer Beware' label.

The beef imported from NZ into the US comes from 100% grassfed cattle. The majority of these are Holstein-Friesian bulls. This grassfed beef is very lean (95% chemical lean) and is very consistent in quality. If you ate only this imported beef (with its lower fat content, lower saturated, higher omega-3, higher CLA content…) you would be making a very healthy eating decision. Also, I would wager that NZ beef has a lower incidence of contamination that beef produced in the US. Unfortunately the story turns ugly when US meat packers combine this imported lean meat with fat from feedlot-finished cattle in the US, creating a nutritional nightmare.

- Paul C

This is something that we as consumers should absolutely press for. Make sure your local store knows you care about origin labelling. Let us customers come to whatever conclusion we want about whether the location is one that is desireable or not. I agree with a few of the earlier comments that foreign is not at all automatically bad (ie, NZ is a very high quality producer of tasty grassfed natural and sometimes organic meats, etc). However, origin labelling will also make it easier for consumers like me in the store to quickly make choices to support more local or at least American producers, which is something important to me. I care more about trying to buy more locally, or at least regionally, so this would help me do it more easily. The industry push back that it is "too hard, etc" is a load of BS. High quality stores like the one I shop at regularly are already doing origin ID on all of their seafood offerings. If they can do it there, they can do it on the load of Argentinian hamburger also...

Hi Meg,

Although you don't specifically link New Zealand with Mad Cow - it should be noted that New Zealand are is free from all manner of these diseases. (CJD, BSE, Scrapie, etc). They have active monitoring programs and conduct random tests of livestock.

I won't clog up your site with links to supporting information, but they're readily found through Google.

The major source for contamination - if what Michael says about the importation of frozen meat is true - will be from the processing equipment used to grind/cut the frozen meat, plus any packing equipment. Especially if that facility is processing multiple-origin meats in the same equipment.

To ensure no cross-contamination of any kind, equipment must be cleaned and sterilised prior to processing different meat sources. How much the facility sticks to that, well, that's something you'd need to ask.

FWIW, I'm from Australia, and our livestock is also free from these diseases. I'd feel just as comfortable eating NZ lamb/beef/pork/etc as Australian.

I'm also a supporter of knowing where your food comes from, and where possible purchasing locally grown/produced food. Not only is it better for the environment (less shipping costs), but it's more likely to be fresher than anything imported. The other good thing is that it's supporting local farmers. (After all, if you don't buy the stuff you grow locally - why should anyone else trust it?)

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