(Updated March 2017)
Yesterday I shared with you the difference between grain-fed and grass-fed. My former colleague, Carrie Schneider-Miller, MS, RD, in the Nebraska Extension Food, Nutrition, and Health focus area also recently discussed Is Grass-fed beef better?
Today, in part two of the great Meat Labeling Terms series, we will discuss the differences between organic, all-natural, and naturally raised.
Sales of organic products continue to grow, especially organic food products. Organic products now make up just over 4% of total U.S. food sales (USDA:ERS, 2016).
Organically labeled meat means that the animal’s diet can consist of any grain or forage product as long as those feed items are certified organic. This program is the most strict with the most guidelines, and is governed by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). To be certified organic, a grain or forage resource must not have had synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation applied, and/or had genetically engineered products produced on that ground in three or more years. Additionally, the livestock CANNOT receive antibiotics or additional growth hormones (USDA, 2013) (many hormones are naturally occurring in the animal, but no additional hormones are given by producers in this program).
What organic does not certify or guarantee — The important thing to keep in mind here is that organic only refers to what the animal has consumed. The NOP does not regulate or govern what happens to the meat during processing. Meaning that the meat may have additional colorants or products (spices, sauces, marinades, etc.) added to the final product, unlike all-natural meats.
Research has indicated that organic foods are NOT considered to be healthier or better for you than conventionally raised foods. However, people who may have food allergies, chemical allergies, or intolerance to preservatives may prefer organic food products. Additionally, organically produced strawberries, corn, and marionberries may be higher in antioxidants than the conventionally raised form. Research has also indicated that because there is no preservative use, organically grown products may be more susceptible to bacteria, parasites, and pathogen contamination (Natural and Organic Foods, n.d.).
It is also important to note that just because it is organic, does not mean it is pesticide or chemical free. Organic producers use natural chemicals versus synthetic chemicals. For more information read this.
How can you tell if the meat you are purchasing is organic? Look at the label. If a product is organic it will have the USDA organic seal. This indicates the product is certified organic and has 95% or more organic content. For multi-ingredient products such as bread or soup, if the label claims that it is made with specified organic ingredients, you can be confident that those specific ingredients have been certified organic (National Organic Program, 2012). If someone is claiming that a product is organic, but they are not certified, be cautious – the NOP says that a product cannot be marketed as organic unless it is certified. The only exemption is if a producer sells $5,000 or less in goods annually, then they are not required to become certified (Labeling Organic Products, 2012).
It is estimated that 375,000 to 425,000 head of cattle are produced under an all-natural regime (Natural Beef Profile, 2012); this would be a large portion of meat in the meat case. Meat, poultry, and eggs that carry the “natural” label CANNOT be altered during processing; this would include the addition of artificial ingredients (spices, marinades, sauces, etc.), the addition of colorants, the additional of chemical preservatives, making the meat minimally processed (does not fundamentally alter the product) (Natural beef, 2013; Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms, 2015). It should be noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been trying to define “natural”, as the above criterion that applied may now be outdated. It was being explored to consider how agricultural technologies (i.e. pesticides, thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation) play into this discussion. Meat labeled as all-natural can come from an animal that has consumed any grain or forage product, organic or not. All-natural does NOT include any standards regarding farm practices; which means an animal can receive additional growth hormones or antibiotics. Additionally, there are no regulations on what the animal can or cannot consume.
Unlike organically labeled meats, there is no governing body for all-natural meat products. Again, it is a common myth the animals cannot receive growth hormones or antibiotics. This is false, each individual producer can decide if their animals can/need to receive growth hormones and/or antibiotics (USDA Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms, 2011). If you want to purchase meat from animals that have not received growth hormones or antibiotics then make sure you purchase your meat from a producer or retailer (look at the label) that you trust to provide meat that meets your requirements.
Naturally raised did have a certification program and all products were certified by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) (Today’s Beef Choices, 2003). On January 12, 2016 the AMS agency withdrew the Naturally Raised Marketing Claim Standard.
However, prior to this change, all-natural and naturally raised should not have been used interchangeably – they are NOT the same thing. The naturally raised marketing claim indicated that livestock used for the production of meat and meat products had been raised entirely WITHOUT additional growth promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control), or animal by-products (no longer a common practice).
Since naturally raised does carry the “natural” label, the meat does not contain any artificial ingredients (spices, marinades, etc.), colorants, chemical ingredients, or other synthetic ingredients – making the meat minimally processed (does not fundamentally alter the product) (Natural beef, 2013).
When trying to decide which meat option is best for you, it is important to purchase meats that support your values and beliefs, as well as meats that fit into your budget. Shopping around is always advisable too. You have many options when it comes to purchasing meat, you may be able to purchase meat directly from a producer, a small or local butcher shop, your local retailer, a Farmer’s Market, or a bulk retailer. Finally, you may decide you prefer the taste of one of the meat types over another, and purchase based on taste and family preference.