Like your meat chic? then no doubt you've puzzled over the many pedigree labels stamped on meat these days. This month new federal rules for organic food become law, and you can expect to see another designation: usda organic. This means that neither the animal you eat nor its mother in the last three months of pregnancy received antibiotics or hormones. Itenjoyed a diet consisting of only certified organic feed grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, on soil free of chemicals for at least three years. Only a tiny percentage of ranchers are expected to live up to the exacting standard. And only a small percentage of consumers are expected to pony up the price for organic, which runs two to three times that of conventional meat. What do those other meat labels mean? Not always what you think. Herewith, a primer:
NO ANTIBIOTICS, NO HORMONES
At the time of slaughter, no antibiotics or hormones were detected in the animal's flesh, though they may have been administered earlier.
NATURAL ACCORDING TO THE USDA
The meat is free of synthetic ingredients, artificial flavor and artificial color and has been minimally processed. This designation may make you feel good, but unless you were expecting Naugahyde, it's not saying much.
These animals grazed in pasture and never set hoof in a feedlot. Typically produced by small farms and snapped up by upscale restaurants, this meat is hard to find in the grocery store.
Think again. Argentine beef, prized for tenderness, is banned in the U.S. Chances are this was raised elsewhere and shipped via Argentina. The usda is devising a new, clearer label on beef's geographical origin. Voluntary guidelines are expected this month and mandatory ones in 2004. --By Janice M. Horowitz