Choices of Beef
Grain-Finished or Grass-Finished
For more information on the different ways that beef is produced, visit www.ExploreBeef.org.
Cattle farmers and ranchers use resources available in their area to
raise cattle in a variety of ways to provide beef choices consumers see
in grocery stores and at restaurants. There are more than 1 million beef
farmers and ranchers throughout the United States who offer a variety
of beef choices to meet the changing lifestyles of consumers, including
Grain-Finished, grass-finished, certified organic and natural beef.
While each kind of beef offers specific value to consumers, all beef
is safe and nutritious. Beef goes through a rigorous inspection process
and is subject to strict government guidelines to ensure the highest
levels of safety. Today’s lean beef is one of the most flavorful and
efficient ways to meet the daily value for 10 essential nutrients like
iron, zinc and B vitamins. There are 29 different steak, roast and
ground beef choices that meet U.S. government guidelines for lean.
Grain-Finished beef is the most widely produced beef in the United
States. Grain-Finished cattle spend most of their lives grazing pasture
before moving to a feedlot for approximately four to six months where
they are fed a carefully balanced diet that usually includes grain.
Feeding cattle a grain-based ration for a small period of time helps
improve meat quality and provide a more tender and juicy product for
While cattle are in feedlots, owners and managers ensure they have a
balanced diet; access to clean water; room to grow and roam; and
overall, humane treatment. To help improve their productivity,
Grain-Finished cattle may receive growth promotants that have been
rigorously tested and proven safe.
Natural Beef and Naturally Raised
By government definition, most beef is natural. According to USDA’s
Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), “natural” may be used on a
label for meat if it does not contain any artificial flavor or
flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative or any other
artificial or synthetic ingredient, and the product
and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed. This
definition only applies to how the meat was processed after the cattle
were harvested and does not apply to how the animals were raised.
Marketers also have been applying the term “natural” to beef labels based on how the animals were
raised. In January 2009, USDA published a voluntary standard for
“naturally raised” livestock that allows for third-party verification of
these claims (Federal Register: Vol. 74, Num. 12).
Beef with a USDA Agricultural
Marketing Service (AMS)-certified “naturally raised” claim comes from
cattle that have never received growth promotants or supplemental
hormones, have never been administered antibiotics and were not fed
Grass (Forage) Fed or Grass-Finished Beef
Similar to “naturally raised” beef, grass-finished beef refers to how
the cattle were managed prior to harvest and specifically, to the type
of diet the cattle consumed. While most cattle spend the majority of
their lives in pastures eating grass before moving to a feedlot for
grain-finishing, grass-finished beef cattle remain on a pasture and
forage diet their entire lives.
In October 2007, USDA published standards that give beef farmers and
ranchers specific guidelines about the type of diet acceptable for
cattle qualifying for the “grass (forage) fed” marketing claim.
Grass and forage should make up the animal’s diet for its entire lifetime, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.
It is difficult to produce large quantities of grass-finished beef on a
year-round basis due to seasonality. For this reason, grass-finished
beef can be more expensive, and some grass-finished beef sold in the
United States may be imported from countries with more temperate
Grass-finished beef may have a slightly different fatty acid profile
than Grain-Finished beef; however, the difference is not significant.
Grass-finished beef can contain more conjugated lineoleic acid (CLA)
than other kinds of beef, but research has not determined whether this
results in a significant health benefit. Research also has shown that a
3.5-ounce serving of grass-finished beef offers 15 milligrams more
omega-3 than other kinds of beef; however, beef is not a primary source
of omega-3 fatty acids.
Certified Organic Beef
Beef labeled as “certified organic” must be from cattle that meet
USDA National Organic Program (NOP) livestock production requirements.
Grain-Finished beef, naturally raised or grass-finished beef may be
eligible for USDA’s NOP certification if the additional requirements are
The Organic Foods Production Act, effective October 2002, sets the standards for all food labeled organic (http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/FactSheets/ProdHandE.html). For beef, this means:
- Cattle must be fed certified organic feed but may be given certain vitamin and minerals.
- Organically raised cattle may not be given growth promotants or
receive antibiotics. Any animal that is treated with antibiotics to
ensure its health must be removed from the NOP.
- Organically raised cattle must have access to pasture – they may
be temporarily confined for specific reasons. However, most cattle in
the United States, regardless of how they are raised, meet this