Niman Ranch pork chopsFrenched pork chops from Niman Ranch, a favorite of chefs in fine restaurants and the first brand name meat so acclaimed that it was named on restaurant menus.


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October 2005

Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Meat & Poultry

Organic & Natural Meat

Are They Better, and Better For You?


Humans have been eating meat for a long, long time. Before nomadic man settled down and learned to farm, he was a full-time hunter-gatherer. Today, one need hunt no farther than one’s local market. But once in the market, choices need to be made, and since the Mad Cow scare, more and more shoppers are choosing organic and natural beef. (Beef, lamb, pork and poultry are all raised organically, and the FDA currently is looking into organic standards for fish.)

Does organic meat taste better? Is it better for you?

In the former case, the answer is, often*.  In the latter case, the answer is, possibly; and it is certainly  better philosophically†.  If you believe that the less pesticides and hormones you ingest the better, then organic animals:

  • Are born and raised on certified organic pasture (land that has not been sprayed with chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides for at least three years)
  • Never receive antibiotics
  • Never receive growth-promoting hormones
  • Are fed only certified organic grains and grasses
  • Have unrestricted outdoor access (are not confined in pens)
  • Receive humane treatment

*There are several grades of meat; for the purposes of this article, we need to simplify comments and generalize about commercially-produced meat that is not sold as “natural” or “organic.” There are many producers of top-grade meats sold by the finest butchers and served in the best restaurants that are neither natural nor organic. Black Angus and Kobe/Wagyu are two high-end brands that are not. We cannot say that all producers give their animals antibiotics and growth promoting hormones, but these are widespread industry practices; and those who practice along the lines outlined above will seek organic certification or specifically call themselves “natural.”

†According to Business Week, research has yet to prove an adverse health effect from consuming the low levels of pesticides commonly found in U.S. foods. But choosing organic fruits and vegetables that carry heavy pesticide loads (i.e., not bananas where the skin is peeled and thrown away) makes sense for children and pregnant women. The direct health benefit is less clear for organic meat, poultry, eggs, and milk. The article opines that it might come down to one’s willingness to pay more to avoid supporting certain agricultural practices, such as antibiotic use in animals, which could promote resistant bacterial strains, or the use of growth hormones, which could prematurely wear down the animal. Consumer groups such as Consumers Union argue that milk from treated cows has higher levels of a growth factor linked to increased cancer risk. (“Does It Pay To Buy Organic,” by Carol Marie Cropper, September 6, 2004).

America's national organic standards were enacted by the USDA in 2002 and cover fruits and vegetables as well as meat. Organic herds are managed by independent farmers and ranchers who know their animals and are sensitive to their needs. The care and production techniques are very different from those of industrial producers. In general, industrial producers are  interested in keeping costs down and remain competitive. In contrast, their practices include:

  • Use of growth hormones to maximize size
organic beef
Organic beef from Organic Valley Family of Farms.
  • Indiscriminately-administered antibiotics to minimize the risk of disease
  • Low-quality feed, including pesticide-laden feed and feed that includes the meats of other animals (infected bits of brain and spinal cord meat in animal feed was the genesis of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or Mad Cow Disease)
  • Close confinement, no personal attention.

Certified Organic Beef is a fully verifiable production system that maintains information on the history of every animal in the program, including its breed history, veterinary care, and feed.

It’s easy to see that the journeys of the conventional meat and organic producers are vastly different, and so are the results. Of course, grades of meat vary and within the conventional category there are many levels of quality. But unless meat is certified USDA organic, no matter how good it tastes, you can’t be sure that the animal has not ingested harmful substances.  While no studies exist that prove that organic meat is safe and conventional meat is harmful—and we do not mean to imply that is the case—for those who wish to take every precaution to ensure they ingest the best foods, organic is the way to go.

An added value of dealing with organic ranchers and farmers is their commitment to sustaining the land. While practices differ from company to company, their efforts result in a product that is clean, healthy and aims to help the land, not harm it.

Natural vs. Organic

“Natural” is a non-regulated category that actually doesn’t mean much—virtually all fresh meat qualifies as “natural.” it is defined by the USDA simply as “meat that contains no artificial ingredients, and that is minimally processed.”

  • Products labeled “natural” cannot contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed (ground meat, for example).
  • There are no other stipulations: no mention of growing techniques, no restrictions on feed, veterinary care, or growth stimulants. If a natural producer decides to promote the fact that his or her cattle were raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, an additional label is added to the package.

But some producers who have chosen not to go for full USDA Organic certification are trying to create a cut above “conventional” meat from the butcher and supermarket: “natural” meats that are raised without antibiotics or added hormones and never fed animal by-products, even if they don’t fully qualify as “organic.” They are self-policing and embrace strict guidelines dealing with all aspects of their meats.

While there are fine companies like Coleman Natural Meats and Niman Ranch that take the label “natural” seriously, meat packing conglomerates take advantage of this loose definition, labeling meats “natural” even when the animals they came from were fed, raised and treated less than “naturally.”

Why do some fine producers prefer “natural” status to organic certification? The stringency of organic certification puts a lot of constraint upon a business. For example, since organic animals cannot be given antibiotics for any reason, an animal that gets injured and needs an antibiotic shot to cure a simple problem would have to be removed from an organic herd. Similarly, organic regulations require that even the straw cows sleep on be organic, since the animal might munch a blade. While some quality producers go to every length to ensure the health of their animals and the quality of their meat, they do not believe that organic vigilance brings their customers a tastier or safer piece of meat.

It is important to know the source of your meat when buying “natural.” Always read meat labels carefully and don’t hesitate to ask questions at the meat counter to determine the vigilance with which the meat was produced.

The Heritage of Your Meat

The difference is obvious at first glance: the marbling and color of these lovingly produced meats are much more distinct than their industrial counterparts. The real test, however, is in the taste. While each rancher’s meats will taste different based on his or her specific breeds and animal husbandry techniques, the taste is almost inevitably superior to other meats. Less marinade and prep work need to go into cooking organic and natural meats because they taste so good on their own.

Whether you want to provide your family with the best quality meat possible or support the nation’s independent ranchers on small sustainable family farms (or both), their treatment of the land and their livestock make a difference that affects the world. In an era when scientists are working on ways to cultivate meat tissue for consumption in laboratories, these ranchers are embracing the essence of farming and preserving quality and taste that can easily slip away.

Whether to shell out more for organic meat will depend on your budget and your philosophy. If you have any fear of threat of Mad Cow Disease, you can allocate your organic dollars to the meats in question: hot dogs and preground hamburger. Mad Cow or no Mad Cow, the organic hot dogs we had from Dakota Beef surely rank as the most amazing hot dogs of our experience!


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