Alternative Beef Production Systems – What’s in a Name?

Misperceptions about the definitions and claims of alternative beef production systems are growing about as quickly as interest in these systems and their resulting products, says a report by the US Economic Research Service.
calendar icon 3 August 2010
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USDA Economic Research Service

“Natural,” organic, and grass-finished beef serve as the primary descriptors of alternative systems to conventionally produced grain-fed, feedlot beef, but variations in practices and definitions generate a fair amount of confusion for consumers and producers. Beef produced from these systems may result in different products designed to fit specific market niches. Environmental benefits or taste/quality or other advantages may be claimed as a result of a particular beef production system.

Natural, Organic, and Grass-Fed Products May Be Different—or Not

The USDA definition of natural beef refers only to the product itself and not to specific animal production practices. To be marketed as “natural,” beef must contain no artificial ingredients or added color and must be minimally processed.

Production practices of natural beef are largely defined and regulated by the companies that market their products as “natural.” The USDA does not require any certification standard or have any regulations about how the animal should be raised. However, there are some common practices among natural beef production programs, such as prohibitions against the use of antibiotics, implants, and ionophores.

Certain quality or process practices verified by the Agricultural Marketing Service’s (AMS) Process Verified Program allow producers to qualify to make marketing claims ( For example, under the “naturally raised” marketing claim standard, beef cattle must be raised without the use of growth promotants or antibiotics and never fed animal byproducts. Ionophores may be used to prevent parasites; however, that fact must be explicitly noted on the product label with the “naturally raised” marketing claim.

Beef may be certified and labeled “organic” if it meets the criteria set by the USDA National Organic Program ( Production systems may be certified organic by the USDA, if they meet the following, although not inclusive, criteria for animal production:

  • Animals must be given no antibiotics or growth hormones (sick/injured animals must be treated but are removed from the National Organic Program).

  • Grain and forage fed to animals must be 100-percent organic (not having been treated with pesticides, synthetic/bioengineered fertilizers, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation for at least 3 years before harvest as an organic crop).

  • Ruminant animals must have year-round access to the outdoors and be provided with pasture throughout that geographic location’s grazing season.

  • Ruminant animals must obtain 30 percent or more of their dry matter intake requirement from pasture grazed over the course of the grazing season.

Cattle marketed as “grass-finished” must graze exclusively on grass, pasture land, or other forages their entire lives and, most importantly, be fattened solely on grass or forages prior to slaughter.

Grass-finished beef may qualify as “natural” under production programs established by the marketing firm; may meet the naturally raised marketing claim standard; and may be certified organic, depending on the criteria of the production system. Grass-finished beef is not by default “natural” or “organic,” and vice versa. Animals may be marketed as grass-finished, but disqualified from specific natural or organic beef claims because they were given antibiotics or implanted. Similarly, cattle raised on fertilised pastures would not be certified as organic.

August 2010

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