OVERWHELMED, confused and unsure are just a few words to describe how many consumers feel when purchasing foods, particularly meat products.
Today, the average meat case at a large retail store has more than 135 different items in it, said Travis O'Quinn, assistant professor of meat science at Kansas State University. Those items differ in meat item type, packaging type and the marketing claims they bear.
"When consumers go into a grocery store and they're trying to make a decision about what meat product they want to purchase, many times they're overwhelmed by the options," O'Quinn said. "They don't fully understand what the labeling terms and marketing claims are telling them about the products."
O'Quinn, who is also a fresh meats specialist for Kansas State Research & Extension, recently teamed up with Londa Nwadike, food safety specialist for Kansas State Research & Extension and the University of Missouri Extension, to develop a publication that explains in more detail what meat labels and meat marketing claims mean.
Nwadike said she works closely with family and consumer science agents in local extension offices throughout Kansas and Missouri who have been getting many questions and comments from consumers such as, "I think I need to pay extra for organic because it's safer."
"A lot of times, consumers will think that if something is labeled as 'natural,' 'organic' or 'raised without antibiotics,' it is (microbially) safer," Nwadike said. "I often tell people if you know what those terms mean, you feel that is important to you and you can afford it, you can buy what you want. We want people to be informed so they are spending their money wisely, getting what they are expecting and aren't buying something just because it has a particular label."
Many marketing claims found on meat labels specify how the animal was raised, which are animal production claims. Some of these claims might include "naturally raised," "organic," "raised without antibiotics," "raised without added hormones," "grass-fed" or "free range."
Other marketing claims on a meat package relate to the product itself, such as "no additives," "fresh, never frozen" and claims related to the U.S. Department of Agriculture grade, tenderness, age or breed of the animal and certain branded products.
O'Quinn said from an animal production standpoint, the most easily misunderstood marketing claims relate to the terms "natural" and "naturally raised."
"When many consumers think of 'natural,' they think of a cow in a pasture, how the animal was raised, but that's not exactly what that term means," O'Quinn said. "The term 'natural' refers to a product that has no artificial ingredients, no preservatives and has been minimally processed. Most meat products for purchase in the meat case qualify for the 'natural' labeling claim."
Conversely, "naturally raised" means the animal was raised without antibiotics, growth promotants and animal byproducts, he said.
For the product itself, consumers probably recognize the USDA grade the most, O'Quinn said. From a beef standpoint, for example, USDA Prime, USDA Choice and USDA Select are official quality grades that segregate meat into groups based on the expected eating experience, with USDA Prime having the highest expectancy to be tender, juicy and flavorful.
Regardless, if the claim relates to animal production or the product itself, if it is on the package, USDA must approve it, O'Quinn said.
"However, materials at the point of sale and things in and around the meat case are not regulated by USDA," he said. "Often, we get marketing claims on those materials that confuse consumers further, because (marketers) are using terminology in these areas that is not approved."
Nwadike said consumers should know that any meat product sold in grocery stores and most other retail locations will be inspected to meet USDA's safety standards.
"We do see instances (of food safety breaches) in the news, but overall, the meat supply is safe," she said. "Different labeling and marketing terms are just differentiations of the product. These terms don't mean the product is more safe or less safe from a microbial perspective."
Although it's still early in the grass growing season, grazers have livestock they need to put out on grass, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) rangeland management specialist Julie Elliott said.
No matter what kind of year it will be, Elliott recommended that producers make a written grazing plan that includes projected cattle numbers (or stocking rates) and the turnout dates for each pasture.
"To start the planning process, review when the animals were in what pasture in the previous few years," she noted. "If livestock are in the same pasture at the same time year after year, the same plants are grazed year after year. Over time, these plants get weaker, while the ungrazed plants get stronger, which changes the plant community."
By changing the schedule, Elliott said producers won't be grazing the same pasture at the same time year after year, which provides a better mix of plants for the livestock to graze.
A good grazing plan, she said, also includes plans for when things don't go as smoothly.
"While you can't make a plan for all the 'what ifs,' there are some events that are more likely to happen than others," she noted. "Since droughts happen just about half of the time, one of those 'what if' plans should be for drought."
All too often, Elliott said the drought plan consists of one line: "Hope it rains."
"While hope is a positive attribute, it is not a plan," she explained. "Failing to take timely action can negatively impact the ranch for years. We know that a drought will come, and the ranchers who handle it the best are those who make and use an action plan."
To make an effective drought plan, it is essential to understand when precipitation will affect different forages, according to Elliott. Just like corn has to have adequate rain during pollination to have good yields, rains have to be timely to grow grass.
There is a strong connection between spring and early-summer moisture and total pasture yield, she noted. "On the other hand, mid- to late-summer rains impact green period and our attitude. They do not significantly increase grass production."
Specifically for western Kansas, Elliott explained that May and June precipitation can be a good predictor of season-long grass production.
"The most successful drought plans use critical (or trigger) dates," she said. "On each of these dates, the total effective precipitation since the previous fall is compared to long-term averages for the area."
For example, Elliott said if precipitation totals on May 1 are significantly below the long-term average, then early-season grass production will be reduced. Action can be taken to reduce the early-season forage demand of livestock, she noted.
Other important dates in relation to critical periods for rapid grass growth might include May 15, June 1, June 15 and July 1, according to Elliott.
"By tracking precipitation against long-term averages, a person can see the drought develop," she noted. "This allows them to take incremental steps to soften the drought impact. If total effective precipitation is less than long-term averages by July 1, we know that total grass growth will be reduced."
Rain after July 15 will extend the green period or green up the grass if it was already brown, Elliott noted, adding that it will not result in significant grass leaf production.
These dates and the possible resulting actions need to be decided now and written down, she noted.
"It doesn't work to wait until June 15 to discover dry conditions and then try to decide what to do. Life seems less stressful if you have a plan that will serve to guide you through a decision process you'd rather avoid."
To see examples, additional details and worksheets for all of the components of a drought plan, Elliott suggested that producers go to the "Managing Drought Risk on the Ranch" website at http://drought.unl.edu/ranchplan.