||The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (December 2010)|
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According to the USDA rules passed on October 22, 2002, certified organic beef must come from a fully verifiable production system that collects information on the history of every animal in the program, including its breed history, veterinary care, and feed. Further, to be certified as organic, all cattle should meet the following criteria:
- Born and raised on certified organic pasture
- Never receive antibiotics
- Never receive growth-promoting hormones
- Are fed only certified organic grains (corn is a grain) and grasses
- Must have unrestricted outdoor access
Organic vs. Natural
With the arrival of the Organic label, many people assumed that the terms “organic” and “natural” were interchangeable, failing to understand the strict regulations required to raise certified organic beef. The USDA defines “natural” beef as all meats raised for human consumption without additives and minimally processed. Natural Beef producers may choose not to use antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones, but there is no third-party verification system required by the USDA. Beef from feedlots can be labeled natural, according to the USDA’s definition.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows any fresh meat to be described as "natural" if it includes no artificial flavoring, coloring, preservative or any other artificial ingredients. Minimally processed products, such as ground meat, also count as "natural." To be marketed as "natural," the product can not contain any additives, such as monosodium glutamate or salt.
Grass-fed or Grain finished?
As organic cattle approach market weight, there are two feeding methods that producers most commonly use to deliver beef products to their customers: Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed. In the grass-fed program, the cattle continue to eat certified organic grass right up to the time of slaughtering. The USDA is currently developing guidelines to define the term Grass-Fed, and it is expected to call for an all grass diet of at least 95%. Strictly grass-fed cattle tend to be leaner than grain-fed. Grain finishing produces cattle with a higher percentage of fat. All grains must be certified organic to ensure the integrity of the program.
North America vs. Global Supply
Some American beef producers are expanding into the organic beef niche by exporting boxed beef from South America. While this is in technical accordance with the rules of the National Organic Program, it does not follow the spiritual status quo of the American organic movement. To make way for more pasture to raise cattle, great swaths of South American rainforest have been clear-cut, which puts South American beef at a disadvantage because most consumers don't want to be indirectly responsible for deforestation. Additionally, the ecological advantage of raising cattle on clean land without added chemical inputs in their feed is greatly diminished when the beef is shipped within the range of approximately 5,000 to 10,000 miles (8,000 to 16,000 km) to reach American markets.