Understanding Meat Labels & Terms: Grass-fed, Pastured, & Organic
March 7, 2023
Imagine you’re in the grocery store buying a few steaks for dinner. You look at the meat selection and are overwhelmed by the labels: organic, grass-fed, pastured, etc.
What do they all mean, and how do you choose the right product?
Today, we’re breaking down a few of the most common meat labels in the industry. We’ll also bust some of the most common myths surrounding these labels (teaser: organic does not always mean good quality) and discuss why buying your meat from a family farm is always a good idea.
Grass-fed cows are raised on pasture. Instead of eating corn and grain, like feedlot cows do, grass-fed cows eat a natural diet of grass and roughage.
Here’s why this matters:
- Cows didn’t evolve to eat grain. In fact, cows don’t even have starch-digesting enzymes in their intestinal tracts.
- While cows consuming high-grain diets get fatter faster (an excellent thing for profit-driven commercial beef producers), they live pretty miserable lives. They get ulcers and abscesses, fermentation gasses build up in their digestive tracts, and they’re more susceptible to infectious bacteria.
- The meat grain-fed cows produce lacks essential nutrients and can be contaminated with pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics.
Fortunately, things are different for grass-fed cows. Instead of being packed into feedlots and consuming corn- and soy-based grain, grass-fed cows spend their lives grazing.
Because they are built to consume grass, they’re healthier (meaning they don’t need antibiotics to help them avoid or recover from disease) and happier.
The meat grass-fed cows produce is also nutritionally superior. It’s rich in Omega 3, Vitamin B, and Beta Carotene. It’s also a great source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is known to help prevent cancer.
Should You Buy Grass-Fed Beef?
Yes! Grass-fed beef is a great option for anyone who wants delicious, nutritious meat.
To find grass-fed meat, look for products that are certified by the American Grassfed Association, whose standards require meat animals to be fed only grass and forage from the time they’re weaned until they’re harvested.
Another way to find grass-fed beef is to buy from a local farmer rather than a commercial meat producer. Family farms have a genuine interest in keeping their animals healthy and happy and producing the highest-quality meat possible.
When we think of the word “organic,” most of us imagine a scenic farm with happy, healthy animals roaming free.
However, the “organic” label has more to do with what an animal eats than how it lives.
Here are the requirements organic farmers need to meet:
- Meat producers that want to qualify as organic need to feed their animals organic vegetarian feed (meaning it contains no animal byproducts).
- Organic farms must ensure all animals have “access” to the outdoors or pastures.
- They must avoid using hormones and antibiotics and can’t raise cloned animals.
While all that sounds good, it leaves a large gray area concerning animal husbandry practices.
For example, cows could be kept in a cramped, dirty feedlot, fed organic grain and a little grass, and still sell as organic.
This is a problem because cattle raised on grain - even if it’s organic grain - just aren’t as healthy as grass-fed cows. They also produce meat that’s lower in critical nutrients and beneficial fats. Most importantly, these animals usually live in dismal conditions.
Additionally, it’s essential to keep in mind that the cost of getting certified as an organic producer can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the operation, which is money lots of small family farms just don’t have.
Should You Buy Organic Beef?
While we’re all about sustainable, organic farming practices, we also encourage consumers to look beyond the organic label and consider how meat producers treat, feed, and maintain the animals used to produce those products.
Don’t rule out small beef producers because they’re not certified organic. Usually, their animal husbandry practices are outstanding, but they put their resources into maintaining healthy, happy livestock rather than pursuing the organic label.
Again, you’ll generally find more ethical and sustainable practices with small family farmers than with major commercial meat producers - even the organic ones.
Meat labeled as “pastured” or “pasture-raised" was raised outdoors on pasture. Like the “grass-fed” label, this one is not regulated. At the time of this writing, there are no requirements regarding how much pasture animals need to qualify as “pasture-raised.”
Most cows in America are pasture-raised for the first few months of their lives. They’re born in open spaces and spend their first few months on grass with their mothers. From there, many go to feedlots, where they’re kept in cramped quarters and fattened on corn- and soy-based grain.
Could those animals still be considered pastured? Likely, yes.
Should You Buy Pastured Beef?
Yes, but make sure you’re reading labels carefully. If you want to buy beef from cows that truly spend their lives on pasture, look for labels like “100% pasture-raised” or “grass-fed and finished,” which indicates that the cow spent its entire life on pasture rather than living in a feedlot.
How We Raise Delicious, Nutritious Beef
At CT Ranch, we raise about 6-8 steers yearly to produce our bulk beef. We keep our numbers low for a simple reason: our pastures can only sustain that many steers without overgrazing, and we’re in the business of quality over quantity.
Our cows are Angus, Hereford, and Brangus varieties. In addition to our beef cows, we partner with two local farms to get a few high-quality steer calves. These breeds offer superior genetics, which results in high-quality, delicious beef.
All beef steers from CT Ranch are raised naturally for the best taste and quality possible.
Want Better Beef? Buy From a Family Farm
While labels like grass-fed, organic, and pastured can be informative, they don’t tell you everything you need to know about where your meat comes from.
If you want to buy the best-quality beef on the market, we recommend supporting a small family farm that’s invested in its animals and the land they live on.
Here at CT Ranch, we use sustainable farming practices to produce delicious, healthful, sustainable beef. We rotationally graze our cows, move them to fresh pastures daily, and provide them with high-quality hay, as needed, when our pastures aren’t sufficient.
We never give our cows any hormones, antibiotics, or steroids, and we stand behind the quality of our meat and the happiness of our cows.