5 On Your Side

Experts: Specially-raised meats no safer to eat

Posted May 23, 2011 7:13 p.m. EDT
Updated May 23, 2011 7:16 p.m. EDT

"Organic," "free range," "hormone free" are the buzzwords of food, and Draft owner Dean Ogan knows them well! Ogan says they're what customers want. “The most important thing for us is to know where it came from, know who produced it, know the process,” says Ogan.

It's also important to families like KK Manley's. “From what I've seen, it is the healthier option,” says Manley. “I don't always do 100 percent organic, but I do try to buy the best quality meat whenever I can."

Ritchie Roberts is all about quality! The cattle at his Double R Cattle Services Farm near Hillsborough are grass-fed. “We’re really transparent about what we do,” says Roberts. He says because of the time and expense involved, his farm is not certified organic. But he doesn't add hormones or use antibiotics, so he considers his beef near organic. “I know what it's had to eat its whole life, and when you get it on the table, there’s a good, rich, beefy taste to it,” says Roberts.

Most specialty meats are more expensive than conventional meats, but are they safer or more nutritious? Are they worth the added cost?

“It's not a healthier alternative,” says Dr. Dana Hanson, a meat specialist in North Carolina State University's Food Science Department. “Are there hormones in organic meat? Are there hormones in conventionally produced product? The answer is yes to both of them,” says Hanson.

That's because hormones occur naturally. But while they can not be added to poultry or pigs, they are sometimes implanted in cattle so that they grow faster and leaner. Hanson says when you compare beef from cattle raised with and without added hormones, the hormone difference is miniscule. “It would be like less than a quarter ounce of water in an Olympic size swimming pool which is about 600,000 gallons,” says Hanson. “So we're talking very minute levels and levels that really don't have any impact on the consumer's health.”

The USDA, FDA and the World Health Organization all say hormone-implanted meat is safe.

As for antibiotics used to keep animals healthy and help them use food more efficiently, recent USDA tests of animal tissue, found less than 6 percent had measurable antibiotic residue.

“I think there is some misconception that animal producers are exposing the consumer to a high risk – an undo risk – with antibiotic residues, and that's just not the case,” says Hanson.

He says that the number one health concern with meat is making sure it’s cooked enough to kill dangerous bacteria, which is something both conventionally and organically produced meats have.

One big difference is cost. A couple of examples we found: Organic chicken breast was a whopping $10.99 per pound. That’s twice as much as the non-organic. Certified USDA organic ground beef is $7.99 a pound, $2.70 cents more per pound than conventional beef. A ribeye at Double R is $16 per pound. That’s $4 per pound more than a conventional ribeye.

So if these meats are equally safe and nutritious, why pay more for organic, near-organic, natural, free-range and antibiotic-free?

The answer may have to do with buying local.

“I know that my beef is all grass-fed and handled correctly and is super good and nutritious for you 'cause I know what goes into it. and I have control of that,” says Roberts. That means consumers then know what they are getting.

“It boils down to that sense of being able to support maybe a local industry and that's really where the benefits of organic come in,” says Hanson.

“We've found it important ourselves and our guests have found it important to know where their food comes from,” says Ogan.

But Hanson’s bottom line on health and safety: “The end result is a healthy food product in either scenario. To say that one is better or more healthy than the other is, quite frankly, a stretch.”

There are also debates about animal treatment, environmental concerns and how antibiotics may impact bacteria strains. But those debates are separate from the nutrition and safety of the meat we ultimately eat.