Beef, in general, is a quality, healthy product that has enjoyed a place in the world's diet for thousands of years. The world is a changing place, however, and as most of us are well aware, consumer's attitudes toward food, in general are changing. We'll address this in a second but first let's review some history. Beef cattle have been produced for meat consumption for hundreds if not thousands of years. The production efficiency has steadily improved and literally skyrocketed over the last century. Up until the early 1960's however, a lot of the beef that was produced for sale in the local markets or grocery stores was still produced on grass with a fairly limited amount finished in the mid west by relatively small farmer-feeders. Then in the early 60's groups of cattle producers got together and decided that they could be more efficient in their feeding if they got together and fed cattle collectively in larger facilities and the commercial feedyard was born. Cattle feeding became a science and subsequently drove countless research studies both in academia and in commercial settings to identify practices and products that improve the efficiency of production and the quality of the product being produced.
The results we saw included steam-flaking of corn, least-cost ration formulation applications, aggressive health management strategies, new antibiotics, growth promotants and enhancers of feed efficiency. Some of these changes were well received and proved to be of obvious benefit, some have, over time, come under scrutiny by consumers who are asking, do these compounds remain in the meat and are they good for me and my family and a concern or perception of the safety of beef became a concern. This, coupled with concerns raised by the BSE and Foot and Mouth issues have had profound effects on the cattle feeding and beef production industry here in the United States and around the world.
These concerns have provided for the advent of the natural and organic beef sub-industries. While the majority of beef consumed is still produced conventionally, few cattle producers, especially the feedlots, have not felt the effects of an increasing demand for natural or organic beef products.
One of the big questions many producers and consumers have is “what is Natural or Organic Beef and what's the difference.” This is a fairly challenging question to answer largely because it is so dynamic and ever-changing. This is true since to a large degree many of the natural or organic beef producing companies create their own set of standards. While the United States government (specifically the Food Safety Inspection Service Brand of the US Department of Agriculture) has defined what a “natural” beef product is, the “organic” products are less well defined. The following article will delve into this subject and hopefully provide the reader with at least a superficial understanding of this challenging industry.
Natural or Organic. What's the difference?
Consumers these days are very confused about what foods can be classified as natural or organic. There are few things that differ between the two. These different types of foods including beef can be very inconsistent with the labels, especially natural food labels. Beef labeled “Natural” can commonly be confused with organic beef and, as such, many people do not know the difference. Most of the beef that is in your grocery store can be classified as natural. Any meat that does not have an ingredients label can be called “natural.” The term natural is widely used in marketing and advertisements in order to find out exactly what is meant by a label titled “natural” you would have to contact the manufacturer or producer. We'll discuss this a bit more in a second. The labeling rules for naturally grown foods including beef means there are a) no artificial ingredients or color added, and b) minimal processing such as grinding, smoking or freezing. Many food and meat companies have different labels and now food labels must be approved by the USDA's Departments Food Safety and Inspection Service due to the unfortunate fact that there have been many false claims on food labels.
Based on this we see that the “natural” designation primarily applies to beef products after slaughter and more directly how they are handled from processing on. However, many Natural beef companies choose to produce the animals under specific conditions in order to provide additional claims. These might include:
1) “No Hormone Implants Used in Raising”
2) “Raised Without Added Hormones”
3) “No Antibiotics Used in Raising”
4) “Corn Fed”
5) “Fed An All Vegetable Diet”
6) “Raised In An Open Pasture”
7) “Free Range”
The system FSIS has a system in place for evaluating the necessary supporting documentation to ensure the accuracy of animal production claims, such as producer affidavits and raising protocols, will continue to be used whenever these types of claims are made. Many claims such as no hormones, no antibiotics, free-range, pasture-raised, grass-fed or grain-fed have to be approved for the labels by the Food Safety and Inspection Service to be allowed to be advertised in that manner.
As you can see, the “all natural” labeling caries with it a wide set of animal production parameters, most of which, outside of the two governmentally mandated requirements listed are at the discretion of the producer. This really comes down to how the producer wants to market the product. In general, however this will be a description of the production parameters put in place by the producer and commonly will include no implants, as well as little or not sub-therapeutic antibiotic use (i.e. CTC, OTC, ionophores such as Rumensin and Bovatec although these could be used since they never really enter the animal's system). There will also be varying guidelines on the use of therapeutic antibiotics (typically injectables).
Organic labeling and production is a little more vague, mainly since the USDA has not truly defined what organic really means. Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 to accomplish several things:
1) Establish national standards governing the marketing of certain agricultural products as organically produced products.
2) Assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent standard
3) Facilitate commerce in organically produced fresh and processed food.
The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is developing regulations for the use of the term "organic" on the labeling of food products. A proposed rule discussing this issue was published on December 16, 1997, in the Federal Register which resulted in about 280,000 public comments. In response to the proposed rules, commenters raised many complex issues. AMS is planning to reissue a proposed rule that will address these issues and seek further comment. As it stands right now the FSIS will permit the claim "certified organic by (a certifying entity)" along with the use of animal production claims and the term "natural." Once again FSIS has permitted the application of "animal production claims," i.e., truthful statements about how the animals from which meat and poultry products are derived or raised, on the labeling of meat and poultry products as described previously.
Organic production parameters are commonly more strict that natural programs and essentially eliminate anything not “organic.” This raises questions as to the definition of organic and what does or does not fall into that category. At this point, it eliminates all implants, antibiotics (therapeutic and sub-therapeutic) and certain feed ingredients such as urea or other man-made chemically produced compounds. A problem we can encounter here is that there are so many compounds that can be considered or chemical origin or man-made (vitamins, mineral complexes, etc.) Most of these types of products have already gone through a scrutiny process but questions always remain.
To better illustrate some of these concepts let's consider what one of the natural beef companies includes in it's production parameters. Harris Ranch Beef out of California is a prominent producer of natural beef. The following is not an endorsement of Harris Farms products and is only an example of what one prominent natural beef company includes in it's program.
As with most natural beef companies a significant concern is control of drug residues. In Harris' case they administer the Harris Ranch Natural Beef Residue Control Program. Their program ensures that beef products do not contain unwanted levels of drugs or pesticide residues. The Harris Ranch program surpasses the USDA guidelines established for natural beef products as do most programs. Under the Harris program, cattle in their feedlot and processing facilities are routinely tested for antibiotic residues. As well, all feed is tested for pesticide residues.
The residue control program involves a multi-step process:
1) Harris Ranch maintains long-standing relationships with cattle producers in the Western United States. These livestock producers understand company goals for beef production and select the breeds they raise based on performance traits. These producers are rewarded for supplying Harris Ranch with superior genetics that result in a quality beef product.
2) Cattle in Harris' program are fed a balanced ration of quality feed grains, hay, vitamins and minerals based on recommendations from their on-staff nutritionist. Corn, produced in the Midwest and shipped to our central California feedlot by the trainload, is the basis for the ration. All feed ingredients are lab tested to make sure there are no unwanted levels of pesticide residues.
3) Cattle on feed in the program are tested regularly to make sure there are no antibiotic residues present. Two separate tests are conducted, with one of the tests also checking for sulfa drug residues. Testing continues during processing to verify the results already gathered at the feedlot. Through a process known as a STOP test, Harris continue monitoring for antibiotic residues.
4) Harris maintains strict sanitary standards and continuous monitoring by a quality
assurance team and the USDA help ensure product quality all the way to the retail meat case. Pathogen reduction measures in the plant include steam pasteurization and organic acid washes to virtually eliminate bacterial contamination prior to packaging, boxing and shipping.
Every natural beef company will employ a process which they feel will guarantee the supply of quality, safe, beef products. Obviously one of the biggest questions is that of implant use. In Harris Ranch's case, for instance they may purchase cattle that have been implanted on the ranch. Cattle are kept on feed for a long enough period of time so that the hormone from the implant will clear the animal's system and no residues remain.
Since natural and organic beef programs use limited amounts of products like antibiotics, ionophores and implants (or none at all), potential performance or efficiency enhancement is reduced since these products are no longer available or present in the animal. This means a possibility for greater sickness and overall decreased gain and feed efficiency. Science and technology, in addition to the tools we are discussing have also produced other benefits. One is superior genetics. Quality genetics seem to fit better into these types of programs. Genetically superior animals perform better in many cases than the average, run of the mill feedyard animal ands thus can contribute better to a natural or organic program. Secondly is nutrition. We know dramatically more about nutrition for cattle in general at the cellular level and as such can formulate rations to stimulate immune response and greatly enhance gains and feed efficiency. Finally, we have better management. This can range from animal selection to feeding management to mill management. When we do not have the tools that in some many cases have become crutches for average management, genetics or nutrition, it is necessary to “ramp up” these production basics.
Consumer Demand and Producer Participation
Continued market research has shown a growing demand for natural and organic
products. The day may come when all cattle produced could fall into some form
of one of these programs but that is farther into the future. There are opportunities
for cattlemen to take advantage of these programs and potentially realize additional
profits by participating in these programs. The following is a list of a number
of the companies producing natural or organic beef: