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Animal Health Guide

The Many Labels of Beef

We are fortunate to have choices in most things, especially our food supply. These choices can become complicated if you are not aware of labeling implications and various marketing strategies. When it comes to beef products your choices are laid out by a variety of statements that appear on the label describing the various production practices used to raise that beef. There are a plethora of labels we could disseminate, but we will stick to the most common; grain finished, grass finished or grass fed, certified organic, naturally raised, and pasture raised. We will begin to decode these labels with this thought: All cattle eat grass for most of their lives until the finishing phase, which accounts for the last 4-6 months at which point grain would become more prominent in the diet under conventional production. While cattle can certainly be finished on grass, this process often takes longer and could account for more resources. Another important point to note is that all of the below methods of cattle production have a place in the beef market, and when discussing with consumers it is best to take an educational approach and simply know the facts of each method and encourage each person’s right to choose.

Grain Finished:

  • This would be the “industry standard”, these cattle spend the majority of their lives eating forage and the final 4-6 months of their lives at a feed yard where they will consume grains. They may or may not receive approved antibiotics to treat or prevent disease and/or growth promoting hormones. These cattle tend to reach production weight at a younger age. This production method dates back to early research that still holds true, grain-finishing allows us to compensate for decreased efficiency in cattle as they age through the energy-dense grains.

Grass Fed:

  • These cattle spend their entire lives consuming forage as their diet and may also receive antibiotics and growth promoting hormones. These cattle can still spend time at a feed yard receiving forage. These cattle typically produce leaner meat and tend to have lower USDA quality grades, which indicates fat within the muscle, as compared to grain-finished cattle.

Certified Organic:

  • These cattle may consume grain in the diet, Certified Organic does NOT mean grass fed.
    All feed must be certified organic by the Agriculture Marketing Service. These cattle can still spend time at a feed yard. These cattle NEVER receive any antibiotics or growth promoting hormones.

Naturally Raised:

  • These cattle “never ever” receive antibiotics or growth promoting hormones, but they can be grain or grass finished. Naturally raised does NOT mean Certified Organic.

Pasture Raised:

  • This is a tricky one. These cattle are kept on pasture throughout their lives, but can still be fed grain under this label. Pasture raised simply refers to where an animal eats, not what it eats.

References:

  1. Penn State University, Grass-fed Beef Production. 2018. https://extension.psu.edu/grass-fed-beef-production
  2. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Decoding the label: know your beef choices. 2015. https://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com/resources/infographic-library