It can feel like a full-time job keeping up with the ever-changing standards, terms, and definitions used to label meat. What is organic meat? Is organic the same as grass-fed? Does it even make a difference?
It’s an unfortunate truth that a lot of people don’t know where their food comes from, and many Americans don’t seek out information about where or how their food is produced. If you want to know how your meat is raised, it’s important to understand what a label like USDA Organic can and can’t guarantee.
Seven Sons doesn’t use the organic label for our pasture-raised and grass-fed animals, because we hold ourselves to a higher standard. As regenerative farmers, we take a holistic approach to the health of our land, animals, and community. The organic label simply does not convey the level of care we take to produce ethical and sustainable meat.
To understand the differences, you need to dive deep into what the organic designation really means, and its limitations.
To understand the difference between organic and conventional meat, the first step is to know what farmers and producers must do to earn the organic label. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the regulatory agency that sets and enforces the rules.
According to the USDA, this qualifies meat as organic:
These regulations seem straightforward enough that there shouldn’t be any way to mislead customers who want to know what organic meat is. But the guidelines are so basic that large agricultural producers have a lot of wiggle room to meet the requirements – while still quietly engaging in practices you might not think fit within the USDA guidelines.
For example, the USDA requires that organic farms accommodate natural behaviors like grazing. But the broad nature of that regulation means it’s easy for big, industrial producers to offer the bare minimum. That means organic animals may have spent some time in a CAFO, in a crowded outdoor pen with no pasture.
The regulations also specify that organic meat animals receive 100% organic feed and forage. However, that can still mean your organic beef comes from grain-fed cattle, instead of 100% grass-fed.
Despite the weakness of these regulations, there are still significant differences between organic meat and conventional meat.
Considering the leeway the USDA gives when it comes to what qualifies as organic, the choice between organic vs. conventional meat can be tricky for consumers looking for ethical, sustainable buying options. Although the regulations are basic, organic meat production is still many steps above conventional practices.
A key factor separating organic meat from conventional meat is that organic regulations prohibit the use of growth promotants, whereas conventional meat regulations allow it. Studies show that growth promotants may have a carcinogenic effect on consumers.
By not using them, organically raised animals don’t receive synthetic hormones to make them grow faster, and the finished meat, therefore, can’t contain any traces of those hormones.
In conventional animal agriculture, many farmers add small doses of antibiotics and other medicines into the feed and water supply, as a preventative measure. Organic meat animals, by law, don’t receive this kind of medication.
This is beneficial since the use of antibiotics in agriculture is known to be a concern for human health. It also prevents producers from relying on antibiotics and instead creating a healthy, stress-free environment for animals – naturally reducing infections and disease.
Because organic meat animals must receive 100% organic feed and forage, the feeds supplied to them must not contain GMOs, and must not contain any prohibited agricultural chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers.
The USDA also limits what chemicals farmers can use more generally in organic animal production. This is important to human health and ecosystems due to the risks of heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
Although the regulations are minimal, the USDA requires organic animals to have access to outdoor spaces – not a requirement in conventional animal production. This, combined with other factors, means organically raised animals should be less stressed, healthier, and happier than conventionally raised animals.
Again, this isn’t always the case, so if you want to ensure your meat is humanely raised, ask the farmer!
If your goal is to make more ethical choices in your buying habits, organic meat is the winner compared to conventionally raised meat. However, at Seven Sons, we don’t use the organic label or seek out organic certification because we don’t think it goes far enough.
Can meat be organic and still raised on a feedlot? Technically, yes. Because the law doesn’t require animals to spend a percentage of their time outdoors – USDA regulations only require access to the outdoors, organic meat animals may spend very little time on pasture.
In addition, there’s no 100% grass-fed requirement for organic meat animals making it difficult to find 100% pasture-raised organic meat.
Another issue with organic meat is how farmers produce the feed and forage that the animals eat. To avoid prohibited weed-killing chemicals, many organic farms use intensive tillage to prevent weeds, which in some cases can lead to even greater soil degradation compared to that of some non-organic farming systems.
The unfortunate side effect of this over-tillage – which relies on the heavy use of emissions-producing machinery – is faster depletion and degradation of soils. The result of which is less water retention and carbon sequestration.
The biggest single issue that causes the rest of the problems with organic meat production is industrialization. The push to maximize profits at every step of the process means that big agribusinesses use the organic label to greenwash brands and sell to conscientious consumers. They adhere to the bare minimum, while still engaging in many of the unsustainable practices that make conventional meat such a problem.
While organic methods are a step above conventional meat production, we at Seven Sons believe that it’s the bare minimum. Our regenerative farming principles and protocols take the basic guidelines to the next level, resulting in a more sustainable process that positively impacts the environment, promotes animal welfare, and provides superior meat.
Regenerative grazing is the cornerstone of our livestock management, and all of our ruminant animals, like cows, sheep, and bison, live on a diet of 100% grass and forage, fresh from the pasture.
By practicing rotational grazing, no one section of the pasture suffers from overgrazing. Instead, the plants bounce back stronger than ever, with deeper roots that sequester more carbon in the soil and help maintain clean water systems.
All of our animals, including our poultry and hogs, spend the majority of their lives on pasture. We take advantage of the dynamics that each species brings to the environment, so we have all the pest control and soil turnover we need from the animals themselves – no need for chemicals, intensive planting, or overtilling.
If you’re looking for the best choice in sustainable, ethical food for your family, the certified organic label is certainly a step up from conventional agriculture. However, organic certification only takes you so far when it comes to food quality and ethics.
The best choice is to seek out 100% grass-fed and pasture-raised meat from farms implementing regenerative farming practices.
Do your homework and find producers and farmers local to you. This means you can visit the farms where your food comes from and know for yourself just what the conditions are like.
If you’re passing through Roanoke, IN, stop by our farm and say hello!
Learn more about sustainable agriculture practices and their environmental impact on our resource page.