You may notice different labels — and prices — in the grocery store’s meat department. Grass-fed and organic items are frequently praised for being more “healthy,” but what exactly is the difference?
For more than a decade, demand for organic beef has increased. More people are interested to eat healthier food and are willing to pay more for it. To receive USDA organic certification, cattle ranchers must follow stringent guidelines that eliminate synthetic chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics in cattle feed and care. These regulations ensure that beef is free of chemicals and that consumers don’t pay premium prices for beef that does not meet the guidelines.
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Many consumers are willing to pay higher prices to make chemical-free beef a part of a healthy diet. Keeping residual chemicals and growth hormones out of cattle keeps them out of humans. That’s why FDA guidelines require that certified organic beef cattle graze on pastures that have been chemical-free for at least 36 months and why supplemental crops used as cattle feed must also be certified organic.
Certified organic beef animals must have access to organic pastures.
Some ranchers–and consumers–believe that eliminating stress for cattle leads to healthier animals and better-taste meat. Cattle raised for organic beef production must have pasture for grazing; this ensures they are treated humanely and given room to move.
The USDA requires diligent record keeping to assure consumers that products with “organic beef” labels are chemical- and disease-free. Ranchers must maintain an individual record of each animal raised as organic beef. This document identifies the animal’s parents, its birth date, major events in its life such as weaning and vaccinations, and any medicine it receives. These documents help ranchers react quickly if an illness enters the herd.
Ranchers hope to certify their beef as organic must raise cattle humanely and ethically. Cattle must be housed in enclosures that allow them to move freely and have access to the outdoors when weather permits. According to the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, any bedding used for cattle must be certified organic if there is a chance the animals will eat it. Sawdust treated with any kind of chemical is not an acceptable bedding material. Treated wood of any kind, including fencing material, is banned from areas where these cattle eat. This requirement ensures that the animals do not eat chemicals that ranchers are unaware of.
Some synthetic and natural substances such as aspirin and iodine are approved for the care of organic beef cattle. The National Organic Program, which is run by the USDA, keeps a current list of all accepted substances. These substances are safe for human use and have been approved to make sure animals don’t suffer to achieve organic certification.
It’s illegal to withhold medication from an animal if that medication is necessary to keep the animal alive. When organic beef cattle are sick and require medication, they must be treated appropriately and later sold as non-organic beef.
You are what you eat
First, it is important to consider the food and treatment of the cattle that you are eventually consuming. Animals from factory farms are not only living in poor conditions but are also more prone to diseases spread from feed pumped with antibiotics to aid in the increase of fat in the body. In addition, many of these farms contribute to climate change by using fertilizers and chemicals that pollute the land and water sources.
“The alternative to factory-farm meat — grass-fed meat — is not just better for the environment and better for the animals, but better for you, too,” Functional Medicine Director Mark Hyman, MD, weighs in.
Grass-fed meat is so nutritionally superior to factory-farmed meat that it is practically a different food.
In a 2015 study conducted by Consumer Reports comparing 300 conventional and grass-fed meat samples, researchers discovered that “18% of the conventional beef samples were contaminated with superbugs — the hazardous bacteria that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics — compared with just 6% of grass-fed beef samples, and 9% of samples that were organic or raised without antibiotics.”
Look for labels on meats that are certified by the American Grass fed Association (AGA). This ensures:
- Diet: All certified animals are only raised in open grass pastures.
- Treatment: Animals are free to graze, rather than being confined in cramped living spaces.
- Antibiotics and hormones: All AGA-certified meats are guaranteed antibiotic and growth hormone free.
- Origin: All animals are born and raised on family farms in the United States.
When you can’t choose grass-fed, choose organic
The second best option for AGA is meat certified organic by the USDA. Though USDA standards are lesser than AGA, they are much higher than those set for conventional meat, with prices comparable to conventional meat. When you see the USDA label, you are promised:
- Diet: Organic beef is raised on a blended diet of grain and corn, and grazing on grass.
- Treatment: USDA standards require cattle to live in a way that “accommodates their natural behaviors,” including not being confined in spaces for long periods.
- Antibiotics and hormones: Animals are not subjected to dangerous antibiotics and chemicals.
GMOs: For meat to be certified organic, animals are fed 100% organic feed and forage, avoiding all GMOs and synthetic ingredients. For more information regarding raise of organic beef please visit Pritish Kumar Halder
At the end of the day …
If you are in search of meat that is humanely produced and sustainable, look for these labels on packaging:
- Animal Welfare Approved.
- Certified Humane.
- Global Animal Partnership.
- Food Alliance Certified.
- American Grass fed Association.
- USDA Organic.