Naturally raised, pastured, grass fed, grain fed, free range, organically grown, which is right for you? When it comes to buying meat at the grocery store, farmer’s market or from the farmer directly, you face a myriad of terms that can either clarify or confuse. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a number of descriptive terms that can legally be used in the marketing of meat products. Knowing the meaning of these terms can make purchasing of meat and poultry products less confusing.
A popular new trend both locally and nationally is “grass-fed” beef. While all beef cows and calves are usually kept on pastures, grass “finishing” is what we are really talking about.
Instead of moving calves to a confinement system and feeding them a higher proportion of high-energy grains, grass-finished beef keep on grazing, often utilizing intensive pasture systems. During the winter months, the cattle are fed dry hay or hay silage instead of grains. The benefit of this method is that the cattle are in a more natural environment, under less stress and can yield leaner cuts of meat.
Does grass fed equal organic? Not necessarily. Although grazing cows will wander about the farm spreading their manure naturally, the farmer often needs to spread additional fertilizer to maximize forage growth. Products such as fertilizer, fly sprays, wormers and the occasional use of antibiotics for sick animals are not allowed in organic beef. Also, organic cattle aren’t necessarily strictly grass fed. Organically raised cattle can be fed grain as long as the grain is organic, too.
What about “natural?” Meat products labeled “natural” must be without additives and must be “minimally processed.” The “natural” label does not signify the method of growing the animal. “Naturally raised” is a voluntary label standard that indicates that the animal has been raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control), and has never been fed animal by-products. Again, “naturally raised” cattle can be grain fed.