Standards for Organic Beef in the U.S.
USDA Organic Certification, unlike under-determined labels such as “natural,” requires that stringent regulations be met. These regulations depend on the type of food product and specifications can vary widely between products. So what does the USDA require when it comes to beef?
According to the most recent, relevant rules passed in late 2002, certified beef can only come from cattle that are 1) born and raised on a certified organic pasture, 2) fed only organic grains and/or grasses, 3) have unrestricted outdoor access, 4) never treated with antibiotics, and 5) never treated with growth-stimulating hormones. (In contrast, for a meat to be labelled “natural” merely requires that there is no artificial coloring, flavoring, preservative, or other synthetic ingredients.)
Ensuring that these criteria are met requires that the entire beef production system be fully verifiable, meaning extensive information on every animal’s breeding history, veterinary care, and feed must be documented and made available.
Organic Vs. Grass-Fed Beef in the U.S.
USDA Organic Certification does not mandate that cattle be grass-fed. It does, however, require that the food source–whether grass or grain–must be certified organic. This helps ensure the overall sustainability of the organic beef industry from top to bottom.
Grain-finishing remains more common as it produces fattier meat and larger cattle, but grass-fed beef is becoming increasingly popular. The USDA is currently drafting guidelines to define what the term “grass-fed” can be applied to. Policy experts anticipate that it will require at least 95% of cattle’s feedstock be composed of grass.
Grass-fed beef tends to be leaner, healthier, and more ecologically friendly, but requires slightly more finesse when cooking due to the reduced amount of fat in the meat. Nonetheless, it has gained many proponents within the food industry and especially among the health-conscious. Understanding the difference between organic beef, grass-fed beef, and just plain beef will help consumers make more informed decisions.
[Photocredit: ThriftyMama; AspenRanchRealEstate]