Learn About Organic Beef

Feeding of cows in the cow shed with free grass.
Meinrad Riedo/Getty Images

Organic beef that carries the "USDA Organic" label has been raised and processed in a way that meets strict guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA conducts inspections to verify that several important criteria have been met before the beef can be called USDA-certified organic meat. But does this make it healthy beef, or eco-friendly green beef?

First, let's look at what the USDA demands from organic beef ranchers. The animal must be born and raised on pastureland that has been certified to be free of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and other amendments. All the feed that the animal receives must also be certified as organically grown grasses and grains. The feed also cannot contain any animal by-products.

Additionally, the animal cannot be considered "organic" if it is given any antibiotics, even if it is diseased -- if it does fall ill and is given antibiotics, its meat must be sold as conventional beef. Also, no hormones can be given to the animal. Finally, the animal must have ready access to open pastureland.

Green Beef from Organic and Grass-Fed Cattle

These organic standards are in stark contrast to the processes used to bring conventional beef cattle to market: those animals are often fed a steady diet of drugs, have little or no access to pastures, and are raised in crowded feedlots, often known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or "factory farms." In addition to eating grains and grasses that are grown with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, their feed often contains animal by-products that can include animal feces.

Organic beef is different from grass-fed beef, which may or may not be raised in accordance with USDA organic guidelines. Some beef and other meat products are labeled "all-natural" or "green beef," though these terms are meaningless and usually have no verification to back it up -- all-natural beef, for example, may contain drugs like antibiotics or growth hormones.

As with grass-fed beef, organic beef is somewhat more expensive that conventional beef, depending on the source and local prices. Proponents of organic beef sometimes claim that this so-called "green beef" is more nutritious, though this is debatable. It may, however, be healthier to eat since it contains no hormones or antibiotics, and raising organic beef cattle is definitely healthier for the environment than any factory farm could ever hope to be.