Beef Labels and What They Actually Mean

Choices are everywhere, including the meat market.

It’s the season of choices and the grocery store meat section is no different. One of the defining characteristics of the beef community, and the food supply chain in general, is the abundance of choices on the grocery store shelves. It doesn’t matter how you want your beef raised and cared for, American beef producers will provide that option.

And because there are so many choices, there are accompanying labels to explain the production methods behind the package of beef. The following are common labels found on the grocery store shelves – this list is not all-inclusive but is a good start.

“Natural” beef – This is not a special label. The word “natural” may appear on all fresh beef because as it is all natural. According to USDA, natural beef has no artificial ingredients or added colors and is only minimally processed; meaning nothing has fundamentally altered the product.

“Organic” beef – This label indicated that the beef came from an animal that received no antibiotics or added-growth hormones, according to USDA. Before beef can be given this label, a government- approved certifier inspects the farm or ranch to make sure that the operation is in compliance with USDA standards. It’s important to note that organic beef differs from conventionally grown beef only in the way it is grown, not in the health or safety of the beef.

“Hormone-free” beef – Similar to organic beef, animals raised under the non-hormone treated cattle (NHTC) have not received any added growth hormone implants, but could have received antibiotics for an illness, as prescribed by a veterinarian. If an animal does receive antibiotics for an illness, the animal is not sent for butcher and processing until the antibiotic has fully withdrawn from its body.

“Grass-fed” beef – This label is intended to convey that the animal did not receive any type of grain during its lifecycle. However, an important side note of ranching and farming is that nearly all cattle spend the majority of their lives eating grass and forage. For example, the cattle that we sell are marketed as “grass-fed and grain-finished” because they graze or get hay their entire lives and are fed part of their diet in the form of dried distiller’s grains and soybean meal for the last 90 days of the lifecycle.

Conventional beef – You will likely not see a package of beef labeled “conventional” in the grocery store, as this is the default way to raise beef in the U.S. and the most commonly available beef. And while it doesn’t carry a specialty label, it is just as safe, healthy and nutritious as any other beef at the grocery store. The beef on our ranch is raised in this manner – if an animal is sick, we treat it with antibiotics per the advice of a veterinarian; we administer growth-hormone via a Tic-Tac-sized implant and we supplement our cattle with corn, dried distiller’s grains, soybean meal and other feeds in addition to the grass, hay and forages they receive.

We raise our beef in this manner because it works for our family; we believe it helps us be more resource efficient and it allows us to be flexible with our cattle and beef supply. Our beef may not be in demand by grocery shoppers seeking organic beef, but as I said before, the great thing about the ranching community is the variety of production methods. If we can’t provide it, someone else can.

As a grocery shopper, you have the ability to increase demand for your chosen beef variety by voting with your dollar. Your voice will be heard and beef supplied!

Until next time,
~ Buzzard ~

This post originally appeared on the Kansas Living website.