Consider the origin story of your steak. Did the cow lives in a crowded, stressful environment? Was its winter feed purchased or raised? That’s where it starts to get complicated, but don’t worry, I’m here to explain.
Just taking a closer look with Pritish Kumar Halder in this article.
What does organic mean?
According to the USDA, organic cattle are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and are not administered antibiotics or hormones. You’ll easily be able to tell that beef is organic if you see the “USDA Organic” label.
How Is Organic Beef Raised?
For more than a decade, demand for organic beef has increased. More people are interested in eating healthier food and are willing to pay more for it. To receive USDA organic certification, cattle ranchers must follow a stringent set of 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.
How are organic cattle fed?
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.
Diet from organic pasture
Organic cattle must spend ample time munching on grass: For at least 120 days annually, or more depending on climate, they must get a minimum percentage of their diet from organic pasture. These requirements, referred to as the “pasture rule,” are a minimum benchmark for all organic cattle. Outside the grazing season, organic cattle must have free access to the outdoors year-round, except under specified conditions (e.g., blizzards or electrical storms).
What’s the finishing period?
The period of a beef animal’s life when the producer is working to fatten them for slaughter is called the “finishing period.” The length of the finishing period is dependent on the producer and their goals (for example, a 100% grass-finished producer will typically take longer to finish their cattle).
During the finishing period, beef slaughter stocks are exempt from parts of the pasture rule. Essentially, they can be kept in feedlots and finished on organic grain or other concentrated feed, though they must still have some access to pasture if their finishing period falls during the typical grazing season. The rule for finishing also requires that the confinement cannot be longer than 120 days.
Some ranchers–and consumers–believe that eliminating stress for cattle leads to healthier animals and better-tasting 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 hoping to certify their beef as organic must raise cattle in a humane and ethical manner. 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 an 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.
How is conventional beef raised?
The majority of beef raised in the United States comes from industrialized conventional agriculture. The factory farm model evokes a dystopian novel. It confines cattle in crowded feedlots, where they are fattened for slaughter as quickly as possible. This singular focus requires an unnatural diet of feed grown on distant farmland drenched in pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
Effect of Industrialized conventional agriculture system
The presence of so many cattle in one location often overpowers the local environment, polluting waterways with runoff, clouding the air with particulates that carry disease, and compacting the soil. Unsurprisingly, these living conditions hurt the cattle too. Their environment is so unhealthy; they are medicated to prevent them from getting sick.
In industrialized systems, cattle are given hormones and antibiotics. These factory farm conditions can even lead to human health crises, including antibiotic resistant bacteria and diseases that spread from animals to people.
What is diversified organic beef farming?
“Diversified farming” can refer to the sustainable and intentional practice of incorporating ecological diversity within the whole farm system. When implemented properly, this production style is site-specific, meaning the farmer thoughtfully incorporates a variety of crops or animals (or both) that will thrive together in the specific climate, microclimate, and field. Of course, “diversified farming” can more simply refer to operations that produce more than one product. Pairing diversified farming with agroecological principles leads to a number of benefits, including increased ecosystem services. Efforts to improve the sustainability and resilience of our food systems must include the diversification of agriculture.
Diversified farms and ranches encourage functional biodiversity
Beef from diversified farms and ranches requires the management of multiple crops and livestock species while maintaining and improving the ecological value of the land. By investing in potentially costly diversification strategies, authentic organic producers create resilient ecosystems that benefit us all.
Many diversified farms raise beef cattle as part of their farm ecosystem. Cattle pair well with many other types of production; for example, they can be rotated with other types of livestock on pastures, with each livestock receiving some benefit from the rotation. In addition, cattle provide manure which provides fertilizer for growing other food crops.
Greenwashing and Regenerative Organic
Greenwashing—making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product to attract buyers—is particularly troublesome. Many brands use the term “regenerative” to describe practices that are, at best, token efforts to improve a bad situation and, at worst, degenerative. While practices like no-till and responsible pasturing are valuable tools, regenerative-organic goes much further.
To be truly regenerative, the whole farm ecosystem must be considered. That is the case with authentic organic beef producers who consider the health of nearby waterways, carbon sequestration, and impact on biodiversity, as well as soil and pasture health.
Does organic beef taste different?
Authentic organic beef may taste different. That’s because the animals had access to forage during the final months of their lives (rather than being removed from pasture to be fattened on concentrated feed including grain). Some eaters describe it as tasting more like beef!
Organic beef from cattle that are removed from pasture to be fattened on grain will taste the same or similar to grain-finished conventional beef (though the product will have lower health risks for humans).
Organic and 100% grass-fed steak may have less fat. A different product calls for experimentation in the kitchen.
You may also notice a difference in appearance with your grass-finished organic beef: the fat may have more color to it, indicating greater levels of nutrients.
Is organic beef good for you?
Powerful health benefits and advantages of organic beef include:
- The absence of antibiotics and growth hormones (more on this below).
- More essential nutrients and vitamins than conventional beef, assuming the organic beef is also finished on pasture.
- Little to no pesticide residue. (Non-organic animals are typically given a diet of pesticide-laden grains, legumes, and other feed, and the pesticides can accumulate in their fat over time.)
Finally, Key to authentic organic beef
The key to authentic organic beef is high-quality certified organic pasture. Ideal pasture conditions for raising beef cattle are somewhat dependent on the location, climate, and breed. Authentic beef producers work to nourish and support the needs of their pasture above all else.
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Composed by: Suma Sarker