A Savy Consumer’s Guide to Beef Labels


beef labels

Let’s decipher a couple common labels on that beef you buy from your local supermarket.  Or say you buy your beef from a local farmer, let me help you decipher some of that lingo he may throw at you when you ask about how his cattle are raised.

So much of the meat department in the grocery store is ruled by labels.  Occasionally, I will peruse this aisle out of pure curiosity (we raise all our own meat protein products), but it is very overwhelming, even for someone who works in this industry! So let’s do a little rundown of some of the most common beef labels you may see in the grocery store, and what they REALLY mean.

Grass Fed Beef: 

This is a question I get frequently, “are your cattle grass fed?” The answer to that is that they are NOT grass FINISHED, but as explained below, our cattle have access to grain for the first part of their lives and from there, we transition their diet into a roughage/grain combination in a feedlot setting.

So the next time you see a label that says “grass fed” at the grocery store, that doesn’t mean that was all the cow ate it’s whole life. All cattle at one point or another, are grass fed. Don’t pay a higher price for this!

“One of the biggest misconceptions about the cattle industry is that if cattle are “grain-finished” they don’t get to eat grass! Even grain-finished cattle spend the first part (6-12 months) of their lives exclusively on grass pasture. From there, they are transitioned onto a diet of grass, roughage and grain in a feedlot (6-8 months), before finally being finished on grain in a finishing yard during the “fattening” stage of their lives (4-6 months). Keep in mind also that all of the grain fed to cattle (corn, sorghum, etc.) is part of the “grass” family of crops! This is why the term “grass fed” means nothing…..because all cattle are “grass fed.” Make sure to look for the label “grass-finished” if you want beef raised exclusively on grass.” (1)

Antibiotic Free: 

All meat is antibiotic free.  I cannot stress this enough, but allow me to elaborate.

Just like we get sick, or our children, sometimes the infection we are fighting is overwhelming our immune system and our doctor determines that the fight would better be fought with an antibiotic.  Similarly, cattle can get sick, and under the expert advice from a large animal veterinarian, at times an antibiotic can help our animals fight whatever it may be, that they need help fighting off.

So what happens when a cow gets an antibiotic? Well, there is a withdrawal time for slaughter so that the antibiotic has time to completely metabolize out of the animals system.  This protects the quality of the meat and ultimately no antibiotics are transferred to the beef product.  The Food Safety and Inspection Service, under regulations and policies adopted from the US Food and Drug Administration, have a National Residue Testing program for all meat, poultry, and egg products.  Read more here.

Antibiotic use in livestock is not a common practice, as some groups would like consumers to think.  They are only used when necessary, used sparingly, dosed and administered under the advice and consult of a licensed veterinarian.

You can also read more about drug withdrawal times, here.

Antibiotic use in certified organic beef is not permitted.

On a side note, the fact that certified organic producers can’t use antibiotics,  makes me cringe.  In the past years, we have dealt with pink eye on some of our best heifers (momma cows).  If we had not gotten them an antibiotic in time, those awesome mommas would have endured a lot of pain and ultimately gone blind.  A blind cow is scary, for them and for the people who would have to work with them everyday.  Also, a  blind heifer wouldn’t ever be able to care for a calf properly, and so the slaughterhouse would have been in her future.  This would have been tremendously upsetting for our family, we love our cows! But with timely antibiotic administration, our cows recovered and are the happy healthy mommas you have seen in previous posts.

Some people will argue (like a specific large chain supermarket that I will not name) that antibiotics are rarely needed if cattle are raised at pasture versus a confined space.  Again, not true.  All our cows and calves are raised at pasture and in fact, this puts them at a greater risk for pink eye, as described in the story above, versus cattle who are raised on a concrete surface.

Natural or Certified Organic Beef:

While the word “natural” beef sounds very nice, it truly means nothing.  There is no regulations to the word natural when it comes to food labels.  So the maker of your favorite chips, could technically put the word “natural” in front of it and in turn, put a higher price on the bag of chips for the same product.  Most labels have some sort of regulations they have to follow in order to label their product, but “natural” seriously has none. The only thing is, “natural” food has “guidelines”, that state “natural” should mean nothing synthetic or artificial.  Just guidelines….so basically, the word natural is undefined in the world of supermarket labels.  Whenever I see something labeled “natural” in the supermarket I just shake my head.

Organic beef, now I realize how popular the label organic has become.  The organic world has become highly regulated by the government and organic producers have strict guidelines, similarly to conventional farmers, they must follow to use the organic label.  Organic beef does not mean that beef was never given vaccinations, or that the cow never ate products that pesticides touched or grass where weed killers were used. In fact, organic producers are allowed to spray specific organic pesticides and organic herbicides, similarly to conventional beef producers.  How the two differentiate is that organic producers just have a specific list of these specific organic products they can use.

Beef will be labeled organic when their feed is 100% certified organic (remember this does not mean that the feed has never been touched by organic pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides).  Beef may be given certain vitamins or minerals. Organic beef must have access to pasture at some point of their lives but the rest of their growing time, may also be confined.  Organic beef also must never have been given growth hormones or antibiotics.  If a cow is given this they are not allowed to be labeled under the USDA’s National Organic Program registry.

What other labels do you see in the grocery store that you want deciphered? Always remember to be a savy and smart consumer in this crazy world of labels. Virtually all labels you see in the grocery store have been influenced one way or another from the world of marketing.  I hope this post helps you next time you’re at your supermarket trying to decipher those labels!

Ultimately, keep calm and eat more beef!

xo, jenn


farm boy


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