The Organic Beef Scorecard is based on volunteer surveys completed by brands. This information is supplemented by our own independent investigation and information gleaned through third-party labels and trusted sources. See below for the details, then read the rest of our report: Value Meal: The Benefits of Organic Beef Production.
Transparency and Disclosure
Most producers and brands that voluntarily participated in this survey received a high score for transparency and disclosure. Cornucopia deducted some points for leaving questions blank, for omitting information, or for declining an on-farm site visit. Brands that do not participate in our survey can receive some points in this section if they are fully transparent with a trusted third-party reviewer or if reliable information is found by our researchers.
Cornucopia considered each brand’s ownership structure and history, which is one measure of the validity of marketing claims. Farmers or ranchers who live and direct market on their farmsteads will have more control over their supply than corporate buyers coordinating purchasing from dozens or hundreds of individual farms. Some brands, including private label brands marketed by grocery stores, blindly accept the claims of their beef suppliers or finished products.
In general, a brand that sources beef from only one farm (or is a single-source farmstead ranch or farm) will be able to detail how they steward the land and animals. Brands that source beef from multiple operations tend to have less control and knowledge of production.
Cornucopia finds that brands with strong oversight of their beef quality are more likely to produce authentic organic products. Hands-on owners who either participate in the beef production or have a strong review process and internal standards garner a higher rating.
Commitment to Organics
Brands that focus exclusively on certified organic production are generally more dedicated to organic integrity. Cornucopia asks for this information to determine a brand’s commitment to organics. Split operations must juggle priorities in order to keep organic and conventional products separate (as is required by the organic standards).
For beef production, the question of commitment is somewhat more complicated than other categories. Consumer demand for 100% grass-fed beef is high, creating less marketplace interest in organic beef without other qualifiers. However, authentic organic beef offers a range of benefits not captured by either 100% grass fed or beef raised in industrial feedlots.
Cornucopia lists the brand’s organic certifier, but this does not impact the score. For more information on how domestic organic certifiers stack up, check out our certifier guide.
Other Labels and Standards
The USDA organic label is the only federal label that verifies how a product was made. While the USDA organic label is an important signifier, some third-party labels provide further useful information about a product.
This portion of our rating system is based on the standards and oversight of a select group of third-party labels. Cornucopia has researched the standards and enforcement of these labels and believes they add something meaningful apart from organic certification.
The Regenerative Organic Certified label stipulates extremely high-bar standards for beef producers; stay tuned for producers certified by this newcomer to the third-party labeling category.
The highest scoring in this category goes to brands that do not confine cattle to feedlots to finish them (prepare them for slaughter) and produce all or the majority of their feed on-site or locally. High scoring beef brands emphasize the natural diet of cattle in their finishing and are primarily or entirely grass-based.
Organic regulations require a minimum grazing period of 120 days, as well as access to pasture for each day the finishing period falls within the normal grazing period for the region. There is no minimum amount of forage or pasture organic cattle must eat during the finishing period; the animal may see green for just a few minutes. And for industrial producers who finish cattle in the high heat of summer, “access to pasture” doesn’t apply because grazing is over. In both those scenarios, the entire finishing period can be spent in feedlots similar to conventional beef, where cattle receive most of their calories from concentrated feed, albeit certified organic feed.
For a more in-depth breakdown on the nuances of beef finishing, check out our beef finishing infographic.
Pasture and Grazing Management
This rating is based on the following criteria: a) policies requiring pasture above and beyond USDA regulations, especially during finishing, (b) enforcement/oversight, (c) amount of acreage available per head on the brand’s largest farms (stocking density), (d) average days cattle are on pasture per year, (e) permissible exemptions, and (f) impacts on the pasture in question (i.e., evidence of overgrazing or poor management).
Quality of grazing depends heavily on the location and quality of pasture available to an individual brand. For brands that obtain beef from multiple suppliers, only their largest suppliers will be accounted for in this scoring mechanism.
In general, the highest rated producers use rotational grazing and other management practices that protect soil and water quality. Many beef producers in the top category note that they are really “grass farmers” who harvest their crop with the help of their beef cattle!
The highest rated brands produce beef with little to no negative impact on the surrounding environment and take extra steps to be good land stewards. Raising beef is potentially harmful to the environment, and this extra care to provide environmental benefits is a standout even in the organic industry.
Best practices include monitoring native species, water quality, runoff, and soil quality, as well as keeping cattle out of sensitive riparian habitats. Grazing cattle on public lands unsuited to cattle is a red flag.
Widespread grain fraud has impacted the organic farming community for more than a decade. Concerns relating to the international grain trade reached a fever pitch in 2017 after exposés from investigative reporters and investigations by Cornucopia pointed to an influx of cheap, imported “organic” grain of questionable legitimacy. This has pervasive effects on organic livestock operations, including beef that is finished on grain rations.
Sourcing feed locally or growing feed on-farm supports local economies and increases the likelihood that the feed is of high organic quality.
Cull and Death Rates
Rating is based on the health and longevity of a farm’s cattle, taking into account the farm’s death and cull rate. A high death rate can be an indicator of poor herd health, high levels of predation, or other concerns for animal welfare. The highest level producers typically have an annual death and/or cull rate below 5%.
The rating for “oversight” is entirely informed by how often brand representatives see and experience the land and livestock in question. This includes where the brand sources their young cattle (stockers).
Highest scores go to farms and ranches with closed herds (where cattle spend their whole life cycle on-site). Mid-level scores go to brands that buy confirmed organic stock elsewhere.