THOUGH NOT LABELLED ON SUPERMARKET BEEF, IT IS IMPORTANT TO KNOW HOW 'CONVENTIONAL' BEEF IS RAISED IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND 'NEW' LABELS POPPING UP IN THE MARKETPLACE
Conventional Beef Production combines the elements of grass, grain, auction barns, and feedlots. Typically the production chain is broken into many parts with each aspect being overseen by specialists in each area. This is large-scale mainstream agriculture that is commodity priced and driven by the global market supply and demand. Animals in this system typically head to the feedlot for finishing at age 12-15 months.
Antibiotic-Free - As implied, this means that the animal has not received antibiotics. The consumer trusts this means no antibiotics throughout its entire lifespan and not just for a withdrawal period. Keeping animals antibiotic-free is extremely challenging when raising cattle conventionally due to frequent moves and interactions with other cattle sometimes in crowded conditions. It is important to note that 'health benefits' of antibiotic-free beef is not the same as grass finished beef. There is a growing body of science showing that the use of antibiotics in livestock management is affecting human antibiotic resistance.
Hormone-Free Beef -This suggests that no growth hormones were used on the animal during its life and the consumer is therefore protected from added hormone residue.
Natural Beef - This label conjures up images of cattle being raised without management from humans - perhaps the way cows would live in the wild. Without a standardized definition, this label is open to the interpretation of the person selling or buying the product. Maybe it's free of additives like hormones, antibiotics, chemicals etc. OR maybe the cattle never leave the farm until slaughter but have been exposed to additives OR maybe it addresses grain versus grass finishing. Watch out for this label as it really can mean anything.
Certified Organic - This indicates that the producer has followed the rules set out by a certifying organic association. It is primarily a guarantee of what is NOT in the beef - certain chemicals, hormones, pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. This label is as subjective as other labeling terms and doesn't guarantee a healthier product. You should look for a more comprehensive label than simply certified organic.
Free Range - This label is popular in the poultry and pig markets but is being used more and more in the beef industry. As suggested, it paints the picture of animals roaming free over the range. There is no time frame indicated on this label so more information is needed when making your selection.
Grain-Fed Beef - This represents the status quo for most beef production today. It became 'mainstream in the early 1900's when the tallow industry became important. At that time, the fat from beef animals was rendered into oil and became a valuable secondary by-product of the beef industry.' (Julius Ruechel) Feeding grain to cattle produces a greater amount of visible and intramuscular fat so producers could create and sell more tallow.
The taste difference between grain and grass finished beef is very subjective depending on the consumers palate. Grain fed beef has a milder flavour and more visible 'white' fat. Grass finished typically has a yellower fat and a stronger (dare I say gamey) flavour. In both instances, great care must be taken at the finishing stages to produce a high quality, nutritious product. (The yellower fat in the grass-finished animal is from the high anti-oxidant levels present).
Grass-Fed Beef - This label indicates that at some point, the animal ate grass. It does not guarantee that beef is free from chemical residues or that it never ate grain. This is not a standardized term so not as clear as it suggests. Most cattle spend the bulk of their lives on pasture and aren't fed grain until the finishing stages of production (which can be done in a feedlot OR on pasture).
Grass-Fininshed Beef - This label implies that the animal was fed on grass during the finishing stages of life i.e.. fattened for slaughter on grass. An animal being finished on grass will be 23-28 months of age when slaughtered. Because again there is no standardized definition of grass-finished beef, some producers may add a bit of grain to the end stages believing that this will help make the meat taste and behave more like 'conventional' raised beef. The science is out on this one but some studies show that even a bit of grain can alter the omega 6:omega 3 ratio that true grass-finished producers pride themselves on. When done properly, cattle finished on pure grass can be tender and flavourful!
What Should You Feed you Family?
Every product has its place in the market but understanding labels and what they say - or as importantly don't say - will make your beef buying decision easier. When possible, it is a wonderful benefit to know your rancher/farmer. Then you can ask directly the questions that are pertinent to you.
Grass finished beef typically costs more than conventional because the cattle live a full year longer than those finished in a feed lot. Considering that a serving of beef is 4oz., you can have quality AND quantity if purchasing a healthful and sustainable food is important to you.
I hope all this information helps you understand the common terms being used today both in producing and advertising beef. Please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any feedback, questions, or concerns about what you have read here!
Mitchell Bros. cattle are raised on native fescue (montane grass), pure spring water (right out of the hills), and sunshine (straight from heaven).
No grain - EVER
Processed in the late summer and fall in Strathmore AB (Pure Country Meats)
Dry aged 21 days
FOR THE RECORD, we label our beef FANTASTIC and stand behind every cow we sell - but not too close :)