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What You Need To Know About Your Beef Label

Part 3 of the 3 part series on meat and poultry labeling focuses on labels and terms you might see on your beef packing.

This post should need little introduction. As with poultry and eggs, here is a run down of some things you might see on a beef label, and my advice on picking your meat.

Organic – Organic livestock must generally be managed organically from the last third of gestation. This means they are allowed year-round access to the outdoors except for certain conditions like bad weather, raised on certified organic feed, and raised according to animal health and welfare standards. These animals must also be managed without antibiotics and growth hormones. Farmers can prevent illness using vaccines, and some medications like pain meds or dewormers are allowed if the animal becomes ill. You can find more info from USDA – this fact sheet was particularly helpful.

No hormones  – this can be used if enough documentation is submitted to the USDA stop support the claim.

No antibiotics – again, this can be used if enough documentation is submitted to the USDA stop support the claim.

Natural – this generally refers to minimal processing. Since the USDA does not define the word “natural,” the label must include an explanation of what the producer means by this.

Grass Fed – this generally refers to beef that is raised in a pasture and fed grass, forge, or hay (when grass is unavailable) following weaning. The USDA established standards for grass fed beef in 2007, but in 2016 revoked their definition. This means they’ll still regulate the grass fed process, but will no longer define the term. Their reasoning for this move was twofold: one was that few farmers (only 4 producers) were using their grass fed program, and second that private certification of grass fed already exists and has been working well.

Private certifiers include American Grassfed, Food Alliance, and Animal Welfare Approved. These three certifiers differ slightly, but for the most part certified animals must be fed solely grass (no grains, corn, soya, or legumes), must have access to open pastures to forage, and must be given no antibiotics or hormones.


As I’ve said in Part 1 and 2, how you choose your meat will depend on your budget and concerns. Remember, as I’ve written before, it is best to consume beef 1-2 times per week at most.

A quick review of research indicates that eating organic beef (versus conventional) does not necessarily reduce the risk of cancer associated with red meat (Hernandez 2015). Another study indicated that organic and summer finished beef has a lower omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio and a higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional and winter finished beef (Kamihro 2015). A 2011 study (Brown 2011) found no difference in health markers among women who consumed either a diet high in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA – a fatty acid found in dairy and beef thought to cause fat loss) from organic beef or one lower in CLA from conventional beef, though I have some questions about the length of study (only 56 days) as well as the nutrient profile (13% protein, 54% carbohydrates).

While I will admit I did not do an extensive review, I think it’s safe to say that more research is needed to compare the benefits of conventional versus organic beef products.

So, as before, your choice between conventional and organic or grass fed beef is based predominately on sustainability and animal welfare concerns. And that tends to be a more personal choice than I can advise.

Next week I’ll be back with some commentary on #Craisingate – the apparent argument between a few obesity researchers and advocates and couple of RDs on whether dried cranberries are a healthy snack or basically candy. Stay tuned for common sense!

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