I know you have seen lots of claims about 'Natural' or 'Organic' or 'Grass-fed' on meat labels in the grocery store and in menus at restaurants. Along with that, there always seems to be something on TV or the radio or the internet about organic this or natural that and people making claims why this product or that one is better than all the rest. What most people don’t realize is what those claims really mean when they are printed on a meat label or in a restaurant.
Organic. The United States Department of Agriculture (through the Ag. Marketing Service) manages the National Organic Program which certifies producers that produce and handle organic produce. Organically raised livestock must be in compliance with the National Organic Program rules beginning at the last 1/3 of gestation. They must be only fed organic feed and allowed to graze only organically-managed pastures. They are not to be given hormones or any other growth-promoting agents, and only allowed to be given vaccines when they are not sick (nothing else). There are requirements that they must be allowed access to outdoors. All of these regulations are certified by agencies accredited through USDA. In order to place the USDA organic seal on the label of a product, it must be made with 95% or greater organic ingredients. Meat labeled as “organic” is very expensive because it costs a lot to produce.
Natural. Lots of people think that ‘Natural’ is the same as ‘Organic’. It is not. According to USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, a product with the word ‘Natural’ on the label must be …
A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as "no artificial ingredients; minimally processed").
So, ‘Natural’ is pretty open-ended. It usually comes with another claim like ‘no antibiotics added’ or maybe ‘grass-fed’. Other than that, it’s pretty similar to all the other meat you see. If it doesn’t say ‘grass-fed’, it’s probably not. If it doesn’t say ‘no antibiotics’, they may have been given. Realize that antibiotics have regulations for food animals that ALL producers must follow, natural or not.
The USDA has a nice webpage explaining requirements for several phrases we see on meat labels.
Grass-fed. Most people understand that, in the United States, producers feed cattle grain for the last 3 or 4 months of their life. This is an efficient way to get the cattle to gain weight and fatten to a point where American consumers like to eat beef. Face it, most of us like juicy, tender beef, and that comes from fat beef. Some people don’t like their beef fattened this way. Several countries around the world don’t feed cattle like this. Some cattle spend their entire lives eating grass. Grass-fed beef is generally leaner and has a stronger flavor than grain-fed beef. Some people like it that way (not me).
To be labeled ‘grass (forage) fed’ meat (most likely beef or lamb), the animal must have only been allowed to eat grass or hay for its entire life (except milk when they are babies). They should also be allowed continuous access to pasture during the growing season.
Grass-feeding takes a longer time to get cattle large enough to slaughter, and there is not as much meat on grass-fed beef. So, it costs more.
I am not trying to say that meat labeled as ‘Natural’ or ‘Organic’ or ‘Grass-fed’ is any better or worse than any other meat you may find in a grocery store or a restaurant. I will tell you that it is also not any safer or more nutritious than other meat. I just tell people, eat what you like, and when it comes to food labels, know what you are paying for.