We’re getting accustomed to seeing new terms pop up on the packaging of our food. In the last decade or so we saw the proliferation of natural, then organic, then all-natural and healthy labeling. We’ve learned that some of these terms, such as certified organic, are strictly regulated. Others, such as healthy, wholesome, or good for you, aren’t regulated at all.
I wanted to help demystify some of the most common and important terms we’re seeing in relation to meat and dairy, according to regulations spelled out by the USDA AMS (United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service), and other legitimate 3rd party certifiers. All the rest is marketing language potentially without substance.
Confirm What You Hear
I’ve heard an old adage that goes something like,
noble are those who receive a message with eagerness, but examine the word to see whether it is so,
and I believe it holds true today. We need to be careful about what we read and what we believe. I recently received a well-meaning article warning against misleading grass fed claims. The writer asserted that the grass fed regulations have changed, unbeknownst to the general public, and that a “grass finished” claim is more legitimate than “grass fed.”
As is my usual practice, I searched and searched, but in this case could find no evidence to back his claim.
That sent me on a short tirade. I’ve provided here 5 livestock related terms, definitions and information sources to hopefully make it easier for you to be and stay in the know on what you’re eating. If you have disagreements or better information, please mention in the comments. Our goal is always and only to say what is true and do what is right.
Terms and Conditions
1. Natural vs. Naturally Raised Beef
The designation USDA certified “natural” denotes that the meat contains no artificial additives such as colors, flavors or preservatives, and refers entirely to the meat processing after butchering. “Natural” does not mean that the cow was raised naturally. It refers only to food processing.
The requirements for an “AMS Naturally Raised” certification are the following:
I. no growth promotants were administered to the animals,
II. no antibiotics (other than ionophores used to prevent parasitism) were administered to the animal; and
III. no animal by-products were fed to the animals.
USDA Certified Naturally Raised cattle may have been fed both grain and grass, and may have been subject to confinement for a limited portion of their life.
2. Certified Organic
Key requirements for beef/livestock to be USDA Certified Organic include:
- Year-round access to the outdoors except under specific conditions (e.g., inclement weather).
- Raised on certified organic land meeting all organic crop production standards.
- Fed 100 percent certified organic feed, except for trace minerals and vitamins used to meet the animal’s nutritional requirements.
- Managed without antibiotics, added growth hormones, mammalian or avian byproducts, or other prohibited feed ingredients (e.g., urea, manure, or arsenic compounds).
Note, however, that vaccines are permitted. The CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) also specifies a list of treatments permissible for certified organic livestock, including aspirin or alcohol. According to the AMS, if the animal’s health doesn’t improve after using approved interventions, the rancher is required to provide further treatment to ensure its survival and well-being. But once a prohibited substance is administered, such as antibiotics, the animal and its products can no longer be marketed organic.
Organic Does Not Equal Grass fed
Organic feed can include grains and grain by-products as well as grass. If the product is labeled organic but doesn’t designate “grass fed,” it’s probably not.
Some sources say that grass fed producers sometimes opt out of the organic certification process, although they’re following organic standards. In the case of grass fed without organic certification, your best bet will be to contact the farmer or get to know the brand.
3. Certified Grass Fed
You may see a variety of certifiers giving their stamp of approval on meat and dairy packages. You should always be able to find their website or contact the certifier directly for further information. Here are a few prominent certifiers and their specifications.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
USDA Certified Grass (Forage) Fed deals primarily with feed. This label requires:
“Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.”
USDA Grass Fed Certification does not prohibit the use of hormones or antibiotics. It does not indicate organic feed. It’s also possible that the product was imported to the United States.
American Grass Fed Association (AGA)
AGA-Certified Grass Fed has a stricter standard. Here are certification requirements:
- Livestock fed grass only from weaning to harvest (entire life),
- has never been grain fed,
- has not been confined,
- has never been given antibiotics or hormones, and was
- produced in the United States.
Food Alliance (FA)
Food Alliance Certified Grass Fed requirements:
- Livestock has free range of pasture for their entire life,
- has never been grain fed,
- has not been confined in pens or feedlots where other crops are grown,
- has never been treated with growth hormones or antibiotics,
- has been treated humanely,
- and the environment has been protected.,
4. Certified Grass…Finished?
You may hear a buzz discrediting grass fed claims, even from legitimate and well-meaning health journalists. To be clear, “grass fed” is a regulated, legitimate, legal term that can be verified and certified. Grass finished is not.
The “grass finished” claim addresses some producers who claimed grass fed before it was regulated, or without certification, although the animal was fed grain during the last months, or the “finish,” of the animal’s lifetime. All cattle are normally raised on grass until the final months of their lives. At the “finishing” time, conventional ranchers will feed the livestock grains. Grains are a more reliable and year-round food source, as opposed to seasonal pasture, and they fatten the animals up. They also make for a poor source of nutrition, and it’s the final months and weeks that determine the health of the animal and the quality of its meat. While “grass finished” is the right idea, there is no legal regulation or definition of this term. Good sentiment, but it means nothing.
In 2007 the USDA officially required that certified “grass fed” livestock must graze grass and forage for the animal’s entire lifetime. If it’s certified grass fed, it is also grass finished.
5. Pasture Raised
Pasture raised, free range or free roaming are all meant to indicate that the animal was never confined but had access to roam freely for its entire lifetime. This term has no legal ground; ie there is no regulation or certification process to claim it. That doesn’t mean that the labeling is false, but it does make it impossible to be sure without talking directly with the farmer or rancher, and preferably seeing the facilities.
Certified grass fed does, however, ensure a lifetime of pasture grazing and zero or minimal confinement.
I’m becoming more and more a proponent of building relationship with the ones who provide our food. That means personally meeting and getting to know our farmers and ranchers, seeing their facilities and getting to know their passion. The integrity of the person will be the best indicator of the integrity of his/her business practices.
In the meantime, we’ll have to rely on federal regulations, 3rd party inspections, and our ability to decipher the “codes” on food packaging to know what we’re feeding our families.
Hey! If you have comments or know of further or better sources to stay up-to-date on food regulations please share in the comments below!