Consumers of other organic products know that manufacturers are allowed to use the claim “organic” or “made with organic ingredients” when their products are less than 100% organic, but such is not the case with meat products. If beef (or other meat) is labeled “organic,” 100% of that meat must have been produced organically.
When you purchase organic-raised beef (which bears the seal “USDA Organic”), you are guaranteed of the following:
No CAFOs. CAFOs are not permitted at any time during the lifecycle of organically-raised cattle. Instead, the animals are sheltered in buildings that allow them exercise and some comfort. (As defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], a CAFO is animal feeding facility with 1,000 animal units or more. An animal unit is 1000 lbs of animal, so there would be more sows in a feedlot than steers.)
Open-Air Grazing. These cattle are allowed access to the outdoors and direct sunlight, and that includes being able to perform the natural behavior of grazing on pasture.
No Antibiotics or Growth Hormones. Organically-raised cattle are not allowed to be given antibiotics or growth hormones, period.
100% Organic Cattle Feed. When they eat cattle feed, it must be 100% organic cattle feed. Because cattle are vegetarian ruminants by nature, those raised organically are not fed any animal byproducts. If an animal is to be raised for organic beef, its mother must have been fed organic feed for at least the last third of her gestation period.
Full Traceability. Regarding diseases, while not everyone agrees that feeding cattle animal byproducts is responsible for BSE, traceability is an additional worry. Apparently, the U.S. is the only developed nation left without the ability to source and age-verify cattle and beef. If you eat ground beef, for instance, there’s nothing to guarantee that all of the beef is from one animal. Cattle producers are required to keep some records, yes, but if ground beef is suspected in an outbreak of illness (which has happened before and can include common illnesses such as food poisoning), it is next to impossible to determine from what animal or what farm the infected cattle may have come. As might be imagined, in an era of legitimate BSE fears, this has put some people off beef in this country, and it’s a huge hurdle in U.S. beef exports. By contrast, organic beef requires far more thorough record-keeping if a farm operation wants to be certified organic (and remain that way). Because of this, organic meat production offers full traceability from an animal’s birth to it’s ending up in a store as meat. Should organic beef be implicated in an outbreak of any kind of illness, investigators will stand a far better chance of being able to track down the source of that illness and take corrective action.
The restrictions applied to the raising of organic beef scale down multiple environmental, health and even some ethical dilemmas. As I’ve written many times before, an “organic” seal on any food is not an indication of a perfect system. But especially in the case of beef, which has become so problematic, any system of production that cuts back on the various concerns associated with its production must be viewed as beneficial. If you choose not to eat beef, that’s one thing. But if you do, if you give a thought to ethics, health concerns, and a lighter environmental footprint, consider beef that’s been organically raised.