What is organic beef?
The destructive nature of industrial meat production casts a long, harmful shadow. But authentic organic beef production deserves our collective support.
This farming system actually contributes to the public good, providing ecosystem services and supporting local economies.
Authentic organic beef offers the best choice for you and your family. Many people choose organic beef to avoid the health, animal welfare, and environmental concerns associated with industrial beef production. What’s more, authentic organic beef is more nutritious. And according to a new study from researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, certified organic meat is less likely to be contaminated with dangerous bacteria.
What makes beef certified organic?
The organic label is the only federally regulated label that addresses how your food is produced, not just what can be expected in the end product.
Certified organic beef, like all food produced under the organic label, must meet certain minimum standards to qualify for the label.
The rules specify what beef cattle eat, which medications they can or can’t receive, and how they are raised. Organic production also stipulates animal welfare standards that go far beyond those in conventional systems. Farmers and ranchers need to establish living conditions that accommodate the health and natural behavior of the animals. Organic beef provides basic assurances about the origin of your beef, as we all as how it was raised and processed.  
The cattle must be:
- Fed 100% organically produced feed, including certified organic pasture. This means all feed is also grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and free of genetically-modified organisms.
- Raised by farmers who are legally required to pay attention to the needs of the soil, using “practices that maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil and minimize soil erosion.” [ 7 CFR § 205.203]. The foundation of most ecosystems, soil health is a good indicator of ecosystem health. Healthy soil provides essential ecosystem services. With careful site-specific management, healthy soil makes the land and our food system more resilient and can help mitigate climate change.
- Raised without growth hormones and antibiotics (which are common in the conventional industry).
- Separated from conventional products during all stages of production, processing, and handling to ensure there is no contamination.
These baseline assurances alone make organic beef the most appealing product to many consumers.
What isn’t guaranteed by the USDA label?
Organic rules and regulations provide a minimum benchmark for certification. Organic producers must foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Regulations also require producers to maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil and minimize soil erosion. But concepts like “biodiversity” and “soil health” are not strictly defined. These rules are open to some interpretation, leaving the power with individual certifiers who decide whether a beef producer is adhering to guidelines.
Some read the law with an eye on gaming the system. Unethical producers throughout the organic marketplace seek to take advantage of consumers by habitually cutting corners and mimicking conventional practices of exploitative livestock production.
Cornucopia investigates and supports the exposure of fraudulent actors on behalf of authentic organic farmers suffering from an uneven playing field. One case Cornucopia investigated involved the “laundering” of cattle with a suspect history into the organic marketplace. The National Organic Program is responsible for enforcement and the information gathered by Cornucopia has been helpful to the agency as it works to stamp out fraud.
What is authentic organic beef?
The best organic beef comes from vibrant pasture that grows in concert with the local ecosystem. Calves stay with their mothers at least until they are wea
ned, and the animals are able to express their natural behaviors within the herd. These animals graze for most of the year on pastures managed to promote native species, optimal soil health, and high-density nutrition. (See our illustration for a visual of the different systems represented in the marketplace.)
Authentic organic producers go above and beyond the minimum standards required by organic regulations. Many use regenerative and agroecological principles to mimic natural processes.
These farmers and ranchers see cattle as a vital part of a well-functioning ecosystem: Balancing stock numbers and grazing times correctly benefits plant growth, which, in turn, enhances soil life and builds humus. Utilizing good management, cow manure becomes a valuable fertilizer instead of a pollutant. These practices have obvious benefits for farmers: reduced input costs, greater autonomy from corporations, diversified income streams, and improved marketability.
For these producers, organic farming and ranching isn’t a marketing tool, but a way of life. Cattle on such farms and ranches come pretty close to the idyllic image many of us hold when we put that steak on the grill.
It’s all about the feed
The key to authentic organic beef is high-quality certified pasture, the most important source of feed for organic cattle. Ideal pasture conditions for raising beef vary depending on the location, climate, and breed of cattle. “Pasture” can be anything from organically managed and planted land to prairie or grassland with wild characteristics. Authentic organic beef producers are hyper-focused on nourishing and supporting the needs of their pasture.
That often includes managing the cattle to prevent overgrazing. Plants have an optimal grazing point from which they grow back rapidly; grazing them below that point means the plant may die, regrow sluggishly, or simply not regenerate, leaving the cattle without good fresh forage and damaging the overall pasture health. Bare soil and weak plants stamp out most of the ecosystem benefits of well-managed pasture. Bare ground is exposed to the elements: the sun dries it out and, without a protective layer of vegetation, rainfall leads to erosion and runoff. Overgrazing also impacts microbial life, harming the ability of the soil to act as a sponge for water and nutrients.
Best practices include some method of rotational grazing that prevents overgrazing and allows sections of pasture to rest and regenerate after a grazing event.
Pasture: An Organic Crop
All authentic organic beef cattle will spend part of their lives grazing. And in certified organic production, there is a rule for that. The “Pasture Rule” dictates how ruminant livestock must be managed during the grazing season. In the transition between weaning and finishing, animals must:
- be provided pasture for daily grazing that is managed for compliance with organic crop regulations, with some exceptions for temporary confinement and finishing for slaughter stock,
- graze on organic pastures for the duration of a region’s grazing season (which must be at least 120 days a year),
- be provided a specified minimum amount of feed intake from pasture, on average, over the course of a year. This minimum benchmark is 30% of an animal’s dry matter intake (DMI).
Because organic pasture must be managed as an organic crop, it cannot be sprayed or treated with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. This benefits the cattle, environmental health, and human health.
How is organic beef finished?
Many of us associate the fat marbling in beef with good taste — and that goes for organic as well as conventionally produced meat. Fat marbling occurs during the “finishing” process: the period, a few months prior to slaughter, when most beef cattle are fed grains high in calories by producers trying to fatten their animals as efficiently as possible.
Our acquired taste for fattier meat is a boon to the meat industry: producing more meat in a shorter time by fattening cattle in a feedlot makes for better profits.
Organic beef finishing looks different from conventional finishing, but the story is nuanced. Organic beef cattle must have access to pasture for each day that the finishing period corresponds with the grazing season for the geographic location (although there is no minimum amount of forage or pasture organic cattle must eat during finishing). For example, in the Northeast, the grazing season may run from May to October; in the south-central part of the country, the grazing season may be as short as two months in spring and two months in fall to avoid the summer heat.
If the finishing period falls outside the grazing season, organic beef can be finished on feedlots without access to pasture—though the organic rules limit the length of this finishing period. So, if a producer in Texas finishes cattle in the high heat of the summer when grazing has wound down, the animal may not see pasture at all and spend the rest of their time in the feedlot, receiving most of their calories from concentrated feed. “This is a far cry from what consumers expect from organic beef,” says Kestrel Burcham, The Cornucopia Institute’s policy director.
If the beef is certified organic and 100% grass fed, the cattle are finished on pasture during the grazing season and may receive supplemental forage, such as organic hay. 100% grass-fed meat is typically leaner, and it takes much longer for “grass finished” cattle to reach slaughter weight. (Grass fed and finished cattle take more time to reach the desired slaughter weight than cattle finished on grain; a finishing process that doesn’t rely on grain to fatten cattle may take six to 18 months longer.)
For a more in-depth breakdown on the nuances of beef finishing, check out our beef finishing infographic.
Know your farmer and rancher
The surest way to find beef you can trust is to know the farmers and ranchers who produce the meat you eat. Those who truly believe in organic will proudly reflect on their values and management practices.
The organic seal is more trustworthy than other labels due to its unique third-party oversight by USDA accredited certifiers and federal enforcement. And when it comes to organic livestock production, rules that dictate the management and use of pasture have mostly prevented the consolidation seen in conventional agriculture.
Still, some homework is required to recognize the spectrum of management approaches that impact environmental sustainability, animal welfare, and human health implications.
Broadly speaking, organic beef producers are differentiated by their:
- management practices, especially as they relate to ecological and economic sustainability;
- finishing practices; and
- labeling and marketing choices.
See 10 Reasons to Shop for Authentic Organic Beef to learn more about the benefits offered by producers who go above and beyond the regulatory floor to fulfill the true intent of the organic label.
How do grocery stores source their inventory?
Trader Joe’s does not have its own beef ranches, produce farm, and pasta manufacturing plant. Costco does not raise cattle. Kroger does not have an egg facility.
Thanks to the proliferation of grocery store brands, such misconceptions aren’t entirely obvious. At a minimum, these products, also known as private label brands, imply a stamp of approval packaged with an enticingly low price. But private labels lack transparency, especially when the product is certified organic beef.
So where do these store brand products come from? Typically, chain stores buy products wholesale at the lowest available market price and package them with their own branded labels. Because the chain store buys the cheapest products available at any given moment, a single store brand could come from numerous sources over time.
This variability in product sourcing makes it difficult for consumers to determine where and how the beef was produced. Store brand organic beef may come from highly rated producers or from “organic” factory farms. While cheaper might be more popular, it does not translate to a higher quality product! This lack of transparency leads Cornucopia to recommend caution when buying store brand organic or grass-fed meats.
Consider buying from co-ops and other independent grocers who stock truly local and organic food, pay their staff a fair wage, and grow communities. Cornucopia’s organic beef scorecard is a useful tool for identifying organic brands you can trust.
 Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. May 12, 2021, “Organic Meat Less Likely To Be Contaminated with Multidrug-Resistant Bacteria, Study Suggests.” https://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2021/organic-meat-less-likely-to-be-contaminated-with-multidrug-resistant-bacteria-study-suggests.html
 See 7 CFR § 205.239 – Livestock living conditions.
 Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. 2020. “Organic Beef.” Accessed May 12, 2020. https://www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/livestock/beef/organic-beef
 By Linda Coffey and Ann H. Baier. November, 2012.”Guide for Organic Livestock Producers.” National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/GuideForOrganicLivestockProducers.pdf
 7 CFR § 205.2. Organic production. A production system that is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.
 7 CFR § 205.203(a)
 Kestrel Burcham. 2019. “The “Organic Pasture Rule”: How the Law Sets Minimum Standards for Grazing.” The Cornucopia Institute. https://www.cornucopia.org/2018/12/the-organic-pasture-rule-how-the-law-sets-minimum-standards-for-grazing/#_ftn1
 This includes providing pasture in compliance with § 205.239(a)(2) and managing pasture to comply with the requirements of § 205.237(c)(2) (essentially managing pasture like an organic crop).
 7 CFR § 205.240(b)
 7 CFR § 205.240(a)
 7 CFR § 205.239(d). “Ruminant slaughter stock, typically grain finished, shall be maintained on pasture for each day that the finishing period corresponds with the grazing season for the geographical location: Except, that, yards, feeding pads, or feedlots may be used to provide finish feeding rations. During the finishing period, ruminant slaughter stock shall be exempt from the minimum 30 percent DMI requirement from grazing. Yards, feeding pads, or feedlots used to provide finish feeding rations shall be large enough to allow all ruminant slaughter stock occupying the yard, feeding pad, or feed lot to feed simultaneously without crowding and without competition for food. The finishing period shall not exceed one-fifth ( 1/5) of the animal’s total life or 120 days, whichever is shorter.”
 James MacDonald, Robert Hoppe, and Doris Newton. March, 2018. “Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture.” https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=88056