The World of Beef
I have grown up in an agriculture community all my life and around here beef equals dinner and money. I have come to learn that not all beef is created equal though. Different breeds and breeding stock were all I used to think was what made them different. However, as with humans, diet and lifestyle play a huge role in the final outcome.
To better understand the products you are purchasing and consuming, based on quality and health, this three part article series will go into what beef labeling means, why you should choose grass-fed beef over grain fed beef, and why a diet including grass-fed beef is a healthier and more sustainable option that vegetarianism or veganism.
What’s in a Name?
As with anything, other than literal crayons, nothing is black and white. When purchasing beef, you will see terms like “All-Natural”, “Naturally Raised,” “Organic”, “No-added Hormones”, “No Antibiotics”, “Humanely Raised”, Grass-fed”, and “Grass-finished”. Yes, all those terms, and even a few more, can be found labeling your beef products. With so many terms how do you know what they mean and what you are getting? Here is rundown of what the meaning is behind all the labeling you see.
All-Natural: No, this doesn’t mean they are in the buff…well, I guess technically cattle are, since they don’t wear T-shirts or party dresses, but this isn’t what the term is referring to. Any beef labeled “All-Natural” can’t be altered during processing. Alterations would include adding artificial ingredients such as spices and sauces, colorants, or chemical preservatives. The minimal processing the animal goes through at the processing plant isn’t considered an alteration. Beef donning the All-Natural label is not restricted by the diet of the animal and can come from an animal that has been fed grain, grass, or hay, organic or not. The animal is not prohibited from receiving additional growth hormones or antibiotics either. The term All-Natural can mean just about anything since there is no governing body actually regulating what the definition of that term must entail.
Naturally Raised: This is NOT the same as All-Natural. Livestock raised, and then subsequently labeled, as “Naturally Raised” have been raised with ZERO additional growth hormones or antibiotics. The exception on antibiotics though is ionophores. Ionophores are an antibiotic added to feed to increase feed efficiency by reducing or eliminating parasites in the animal’s gut. Ionophores are not thought to transfer antibiotic resistance from animals to humans. It should be noted that Naturally Raised also means that the animal is not fed animal by-products, but this point is somewhat moot as this is no longer practiced, at least not in the US, because no one likes mad cow disease. Naturally Raised beef doesn’t contain any artificial ingredients such as spices and sauces, colorants, or chemicals. A key point to note here is that Naturally Raised does have a certification program and all products must be certified by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
Organic: Now I know we have all read, heard, and spoken this term when referring to veggies, fruit, meat, etc. This label, when put onto beef, means that the cattle were fed a diet consisting of nothing but certified organic feed. However, that feed can be in the form of grain, grass, or hay as long as it was certified as 100% organic. The organic guidelines are strict and governed by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). To be considered as organically certified, a producer may NOT feed their livestock any feed that has been exposed to synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, had irradiation applied, and/or from a grower that has had genetically engineered products produced on their ground in the previous three years. Plus, organically certified beef cannot have been giving any antibiotics or additional growth hormones. Although the Organic label doesn’t prohibit the addition of artificial additives during processing, so be cautious of what has been added to your beef postmortem. It should be noted that there is an exemption in the Organic labeling certification. Producers selling less than $5,000/year are not required to be certified.
No-added Hormones: I like this term. Not exactly for what is provides to you as in information of your beef quality (which it’s good to know that no hormones were added), but that it reminds us that cattle, and ourselves as well, are exposed to hormones all the time. It’s how we survive. So being exposed to the hormones our own bodies produce is waaaayyyy different than adding in hormones. So, if you see the term “No Hormones” or “Hormone Free” on your beef product, well you know someone is lying. But if you see the terms “No-added Hormones”, “Raised Without Added Hormones”, “No Hormones Administered”, or “No Synthetic Hormones”, you know your beef isn’t riddled with a bunch of added hormones. However, it doesn’t tell you if the cattle were fed grasses or grains. A side note here: Hormones aren’t allowed in the hog, poultry, or bison business. The statement “no hormones added” cannot be on labels for pork, poultry, or bison products, unless it is followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry, pork, or bison”. The more you know.
No Antibiotics: Yeah, this one means just that. No antibiotics were put into this animal, ever. But again, doesn’t determine if the animal ate grass or grains.
Humanely Raised: Follow the math here: Bovine + natural, happy, healthy conditions = a happy bovine, non-stressed bovine = quality healthy meat.
However, what exactly does “Humanely Raised” mean? Yes, you guessed it; there isn’t a set, regulated definition. The spirit behind the definition is the following:
- Produced in an ethical and humane fashion
- Raised with minimal stress
- Access to ample feed and water
- No antibiotics
- No additional hormones
- Are not fed animal products/byproducts
- Anything that doesn’t come from a factory farm
- Animals raised on pastures
- Animals allowed to act naturally (this one is my favorite!)
- Product traceability back to the farmer
- Certified by a trustworthy, independent organization
- Processed in a conscientious manner
I want to believe this is how all animals, plants, and humans are raised and treated. Sadly, I know this isn’t true. There are several humane labeling programs, but they are NOT regulated by the USDA. These programs are verified by third-party, independent programs. So, take the “Humanely Raised” label as you wish. This is when it becomes extremely important to know who your producer is.
Grass-fed: This term can technically be applied to any animal that has ever been fed grass. My cat would qualify here. She’s been known to graze the backyard on occasion. The original spirit of the term grass-fed is that the animal is fed grass and forage, no grain, all its life, except when drinking mother’s milk. However, in some instances the term has come to mean any animal that has been fed a grass-based diet prior to grain finishing or an animal raised on pasture but butchered while still in a growth or immature stage. So, what you get is beef that’s similar to conventional feedlot beef and/or is very lean. While beef labeled grass-fed can be fed nothing but grass and forage all its life, it’s not a guarantee.
Grass-finished (100% Grass-fed): Grass-finished beef, sometimes marketed as grass-fed beef or 100% grass-fed beef, comes from cattle that have been raised on a grass and forage diet their entire lives (prior to weaning). While most cattle spend the majority of their lives in pastures eating grass before moving to a feedlot for grain-finishing, grass-finished beef cattle remain on a pasture and forage diet. To finish cattle on grass can take up to 6-12 months longer than finishing them with grain, increasing cost, but also quality of meat. Claims such as grass-finished, must be approved by USDA FSIS before they can be used on a beef product label.
Now that’s a lot of labels!
Yes, the labeling may seem like a whirlwind of mass chaos. And to make matters even more complicated, these terms not only apply to beef, but also to poultry, lamb, pork, dairy, or egg products.
So what’s a person to do?
First Option #1: Raise it yourself. If this is actually a possibility for you, then I would say go for it! As with anything, if you can do it yourself, you know what went into the process and therefore you know the quality of your final product.
First Option #2 (and probably a more likely one): Find someone local who sells 100% grass-fed and 100% organic beef that you have literally met in person. Knowing your producer is best way to ensure you are getting the most humanely raised, healthy, top-notch beef product money can buy. You can often find these types of producers at farmer’s markets or through local producer coops.
Second Option: If the only choice you have is to buy from the supermarket, read your labels carefully, and be sure to talk to the butcher that works there. They are often very knowledgeable about where the meat comes from and are usually very willing to help.
Third Option: The internet is a vast place and there are many places to purchase 100% grass-fed and organic beef. While it may be more difficult to find that personal touch on the worldwide web, there are many reputable sellers you can buy quality products from. Some of those include:
Connection is the key!
Get to know the producers and butchers that grow and process your beef. Get know know the animals you eat, where they come from, what they eat, and how they were treated. Connect yourself to your food and you will know if the animal was raised in the true spirit of honesty and quality. Anytime you choose to disconnect yourself from what you consume, you disconnect yourself from your health, wallet, and humanity.
Beefboard.org. 2017. Copyright 2017 Cattlemen’s Beef Board.
Chichester, L. 2017. University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Meat Labeling Terms. What do they mean? Parts 1-3.