Organic vs. Naturally Raised Meat

Which is better?

Dry aging beef in a cooler

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In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which set the standards for organic certification of animals raised for meat and poultry production. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has set strict requirements for certification and diligently enforces how organic meat and poultry are labeled.

Despite the USDA’s efforts, there is still confusion amongst consumers as to what actually determines whether meat and poultry are labeled USDA Organic or naturally raised. Organic meat is substantially more expensive than conventionally raised meat, and consumers wonder whether the increased cost is worth it. Does organic meat taste better than naturally raised or conventionally raised meat?

Organic Meat

The USDA requires that meat animals must be raised under organic practices from the last third of gestation (for cattle, after 190 days) and the second day of life for poultry. For organic certification, meat animals:

  • Must be fed 100% certified organic grain or forage (that is, grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers or irradiation for at least 3 years)
  • Must not be administered growth hormones, de-wormers, or antibiotics of any kind
  • Must have access to outdoors and pastures, if a grazing animal

Maintenance of a farm raising organic meat animals is approximately one-third more expensive than a producer of conventionally raised meat animals. The producer also pays for USDA inspection and USDA organic labels.

Naturally Raised Beef

Whereas the rules and requirements for raising organic meat animals are clearly defined, the standards for meat animals deemed as Naturally Raised are more flexible. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) “recognizes” the term “Naturally Raised” as meaning:

  • Minimally processed
  • Does not contain artificial flavor, coloring or chemicals
  • Has no growth hormones, antibiotics or mammal, avian or aquatic by-products

The FSIS acknowledges that the standards for Naturally Raised are for marketing purposes, and following the standards is entirely voluntary. The FSIS further states that meat products marketed as Naturally Raised do not imply that those products are safer or better than conventionally raised meat. In addition, because there are numerous practices of raising meat animals—access or limited access to outdoors and/or pastures, types of feed, early weaning, humane slaughtering—it was determined that it would be too difficult to enforce the same type of government regulation as for organic labeling.

A Butcher’s Beef

There’s little doubt that organic and naturally raised animals live a better life than conventionally raised meat animals, the abuse of which has been widely documented. Consumers who buy organic meat can feel confident that the extra cost guarantees the animal was raised and slaughtered humanely. Unknown to most people, butchers also purchase organic meat at a substantial markup, which must then be charged back to the customer in order for the butcher to make a profit.

Sebastian Cortez, the co-owner/butcher of Sebastian & Co. Fine Meats in West Vancouver, British Columbia, pays on average 40% more for a certified organic beef cow than he does for conventionally raised beef. Cortez champions ethical and sustainable animal husbandry, but he admits that just because the animal is raised organic, there is no guarantee that its meat will be more tender or have better flavor. “Tenderness and flavor,” Cortez says, “are very dependent on the individual cow.”

Dry-aged steaks are the big sellers, so to meet the high demand, Cortez must also buy conventionally raised beef cows. Steaks, of course, are only a small part of a side of beef, and though Cortez charges more for organic beef, it is only a fraction of the price he paid for the cow. In order to turn a profit, he practices head-to-tail butchery with organic meats and turns less popular cuts into charcuterie, corned beef, and deli meats.

When it comes down to taste, there is not a marked difference between organic and naturally raised meats. Sadly, because conventionally raised meat animals—beef, in particular—are fattened unnaturally and fat adds flavor, most people enjoy their meat more. Organic and naturally raised meats are still somewhat perceived as elitist, and for some people, the extra expense isn't worth the peace of mind that the meat animal was treated humanely.