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Keepin' It Natural

Let's explore some of the terms used in beef production.

What is natural?

The term "natural" when applied to beef products is a term subject to diverse interpretations.  Generally "natural" producers are guided by the USDA protocol.  "To use the term 'natural' on a food label, the USDA requires only three simple things: (1) the product must be minimally processed, (2)  the product cannot contain any artificial ingredients and (3) the product cannot contain any preservatives. 

The USDA has no specific restriction on management practices during the life of the animal." What you can expect from most all natural beef is no use of antibiotics, no GMO's, no added hormones, no feeding of animal products, no preservatives, nothing artificial.

The American Grassfed Association (AGA) defines naturally raised as including a 100% grass diet from weaning to harvest, raised on pasture without confinement, never treated with antibiotics or added growth hormones, born and raised on American family farms. AGA-Certified producers are inspected at least every 15-months by independent, third parties to ensure continuing compliance with the standards.

Natural beef is defined by USDA as being minimally processed and simply relates to post-harvest processing of the beef product. USDA is currently revisiting the labeling issue and is addressing "naturally raised," as well as "natural beef."

What is organic?

In general, organic farming refers to farming and crop conditions that employ cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers are not allowed although some bio-pesticides have been approved for use. Organic foods are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives. Many countries require producers to obtain special certification in order to market food using the organic label. The standards are heavily regulated but can vary somewhat from region to region. There is evidence that organic food is safer and healthier.
“Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) has a very clear vision — that organic farming will be the leading form of agriculture in America. OFRF cultivates organic research, education, and federal policy that brings more farmers and acreage into organic production. Founded in 1990, OFRF is a leading champion of American organic family farmers.”


What does grassfed mean?

Most cattle have a diet that is composed of at least some grass.  In practice, the term grassfed means that grass composes all of the animal's diet. The term is also written as grass fed or grass-fed.

Going a step further, many grassfed ranchers would use the terms pasture-fed, pasture-grazed, or pasture-raised to describe the diet and environment.  Pasture-raised cattle are never taken to feedlots where their diets could include grass hay and supplements of grain, corn, soy, and other ingredients to increase the energy density of the diet. 

The American Grassfed Association (AGA) defines grassfed standards as: "the animal is born, raised, and finished on open grass pastures where perennial and annual grasses, forbs, legumes, brassicas, browse and post-harvest crop residue without grain are the sole energy sources, with the exception of mother's milk, from birth to harvest. Hay, haylage, silage, and ensilage from any of the above sources may be fed to animals while on pasture during periods of inclement weather or low forage quality."

What is pasture-raised?

Pasture-raised is a term describing not only the diet but also the environment where that diet is consumed. Other similar terms are pasture-fed and pasture-grazed.
Pasture-raised beef is an unregulated term. For poultry, certification by the HFAC (Humane Farm Animal Care) requires 108 square feet per bird on rotated fields. Birds would outdoors year round with housing providing for nights and cold weather.Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) is an "organization dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals in food production from birth through slaughter. The goal of the program is to improve the lives of farm animals by driving consumer demand for kinder and more responsible farm animal practices."

What is pasture-finished?

The last 30-90 days preceding beef harvest is called the finishing stage.  Pasture-finished means that the cattle are not placed in a feedlot for the final days to be fattened with a grain diet, or grain-finished.  The best pasture finishing is available in spring when the grass is new and full of protein and rich in sugar.  
A second finishing option can happen in the fall if there has been sufficient moisture and warmth to stimulate new grass growth.
"To get beef from the pasture to your plate, cattle undergo a finishing process. Since World War I, it has been common practice for farmers to send their cattle to feedlots to be finished to ideal slaughter size and weight. ... Cattle can be either grain-finished or grass-finished. Grain-finishing is more efficient and takes less time than grass-finishing."

What is free range?

Free range refers to a method of farming where animals can roam freely outdoors rather than live completely in an enclosed space.  This ranging area can be fenced rather than completely open range but it must be large enough to offer the opportunity for extensive movement, fresh air and sunshine. However, free range beef is an unregulated term. 

The term is regulated by the USDA for use on poultry only, not even eggs.  The regulation for poultry is that birds be given access to the outdoors for an undetermined period each day, minimum five minutes. Pasture-raised is also an unregulated term except for poultry.  The HFAC (Humane Farm Animal Care) certification requires 108 square feet per bird on rotated fields.  Birds must be outdoors year-round but have access to night and cold weather housing.

What is sustainable agriculture?

Sustainable agriculture refers to farming and ranching using principles of ecology, being aware of and keeping balanced relationships between organisms and their environment.  While working to satisfy human food and fiber needs, the practice of sustainable agriculture seeks to enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which it is based. It seeks to make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources, integrates natural biological cycles and controls, sustains the economic viability of farm operations, and enhances the quality of life for all.

"The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is an alliance of grassroots organizations that advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities. NSAC's vision of agriculture is one where a safe, nutritious, ample, and affordable food supply is produced by a legion of family farmers who make a decent living pursuing their trade, while protecting the environment, and contributing to the strength and stability of their communities."

What are GMOs?
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. There is controversy over using gmos in food production. In question are their effects both on health and the environment, the effects on pesticide resistance, and contamination of the non-genetically modified food supply.

What are CLAs?

Conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs) are a type of good fat that may have health benefits particularly in fighting cancer. The most abundant source of natural CLA is the meat and dairy products of grassfed and pastured animals. It has been shown that grazing animals have from 2-5 times more CLA than animals fattened on grain in a feedlot.

What are Omega-3s?

Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for normal metabolism and are thought to provide a wide range of health benefits particularly for heart and brain matters. Diets rich in omega-3s show lower risk of coronary heart disease, improvement in cholesterol, and lower blood pressure. Studies have also shown evidence of omega-3 benefits for fighting cancer, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and Alzheimer’s disease.

Omega-3s are most abundant in seafood and nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds and walnuts, but they are also found in animals raised on pasture. Omega-3s are formed in the chloroplasts of green plants and algae. Cattle lose their store of omega-3 fat when they are moved from grass pastures (grass being rich in omega-3) to feedlots to be fattened on grain (grain not being rich in omega-3). Meat from grassfed animals has two to four times more omega-3 fatty acids than meat from grain-fed animals.