Cattle farmers and ranchers raise cattle in a variety of ways, from a grain-rich diet in feedlots to a grass-fed and grass-finished diet on pasture. When you’re searching for the right beef to put on your table, it’s hard to know the difference between beef that is labeled “natural” as opposed to “certified organic”.
By government definition, most beef is technically considered “natural”. There really is no difference when you read “naturally raised” or “all-natural” on packaging. According to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), “natural” may be used on a label for meat for a variety of reasons, for example if it does not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative or if the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed. But be forewarned: this definition only applies to how the meat was processed after the cattle were harvested. This does not have anything to do with how the animals were raised.
In January 2009, USDA published a voluntary standard for “naturally raised” livestock that allows for third-party verification of these claims (Federal Register: Vol. 74, Num. 12).
Beef with a USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)-certified “naturally raised” claim comes from cattle that have never received growth promotants or supplemental hormones, have never been administered antibiotics and were not fed animal by-products.
These are murky waters to navigate, so if you care about a cattle’s full life-cycle to be truly natural, a simple “natural” label isn’t your best option.
In order for beef to be labeled as certified organic, the cattle must meet USDA National Organic Program (NOP) livestock production requirements. These guidelines are much more stringent that a “natural” label. In order to meet these requirements, the cattle must be fed certified organic feed (which can include grain) and may be given certain vitamin and minerals.
Organically raised cattle may not be given growth hormones or receive antibiotics. Any animal that is treated with antibiotics to ensure its health must be removed from the NOP. To be “organic” means the cattle must also have access to pasture, but there are no absolute requirements for how much time they are given. The standards for the “organic” label are set by the Organic Food Production Act, effective in October 2002, and it’s a good read to be more educated about the “organic” process.