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The Differences between Conventional, Organic, and Grass Fed Beef

Updated on September 4, 2012
A well seasoned, perfectly grilled, grass fed tri-tip steak is a little bit of carnivore heaven.
A well seasoned, perfectly grilled, grass fed tri-tip steak is a little bit of carnivore heaven. | Source

With everyone tightening their budget belt it is increasingly difficult to decide between conventional, organic, grass fed beef and other meats. While you want to feed your family the very best you can afford you don’t want to take out a second mortgage to do it, right?

Every family is different and you need to understand the different terms in order to choose the right product for you.

The term "beef" is used to categorize any cut of meat from cattle that are about two years old. These cattle will weigh about 1, 000 pounds but will yield just less than 500 pounds of meat when butchered. The differences in conventional, grass fed, and organic are all in how the cattle are raised and finished before butchering.

Is grass fed, organic beef healthier to eat than conventionally raised or organic beef? There are many consumers and proponents of the organic lifestyle that believe that it is. It is important to remember that not all organic beef is grass fed and not all grass fed beef qualifies as organic. Conventionally raised beef is less expensive and easier to find - but even with that you will come across a variety of terms describing the meat on the package.

It can be confusing when you read meat labels at the grocers. Beef, USDA choice, USDA prime, all natural, hormone free, grass fed, organic, and grass fed are all phrases you will find on the labels. All of these may be displayed next to each other in the case, and with very different prices per pound! Before you decide which to buy take some time to learn the differences.

Educating yourself about the differences in organic, conventional, grain fed, grass fed and pastured beef will allow you to make the right decision for your family and your budget.

How Is Conventional Beef Raised?

At first there may not be a lot of differences in how the calf is raised. They will graze on pasture until it is time for them to be finished and butchered.

Conventionally raised beef will usually be given antibiotics during its life to keep it healthy. Sometimes it will also be given hormones to increase its size quickly. When it is time to finish the beef the cow will be transferred to a feedlot, a small, crowded area that doesn't allow the cow to move much. Here it will be fed a specially formulated feed until it is ready to be butchered. The feedlots are dirty, unsanitary, and unpleasant for both the animals and those that work with them.

Raising beef on pasture is healthier and more natural.
Raising beef on pasture is healthier and more natural. | Source

The Differences in How Grass Fed and Conventionally Finished Beef Are Raised

The main difference between the organic beef and the conventional beef is that the organic beef must be raised according to the USDA Organic standards in order to carry the 100% organic certification. It still goes to a feedlot but rather than getting conventional feeds it gets organic feeds formulated from a variety of organic ingredients. It does not get hormones nor antibiotics.

Grass fed beef comes from cattle that received at least 80% of their food from grass, hay, or pasture throughout their lives. It does not exclude cattle that are kept in enclosed areas and fed hay and silage. If the meat is labeled organic then the food that they eat must be certified organic.

Free-rage or pasture raised means that the animal have had continuous access to pasture and been unconfined throughout their lives. They spend no time at the feedlot but go from pasture to butcher. This sounds great but the only requirement is that they have access to pasture - the government does not regulate the size of the pasture. The pasture may have had chemical fertilizers and herbicides and residues may be found in the meat.

However, cows that are raised on organic pasture, as well as follow other USDA organic regulations can be called certified organic grass fed beef. According to many food experts this is the most flavorful and healthiest meat available. If it doesn't have the organic certification label then you can't be sure it is organic beef no matter what else the label may say.

Environmental Impact of Grass Fed Beef

Pastured, grass fed beef is a more natural beef. Since cows are allowed to live their lives the way they were created to there is less negative impact on the environment. If you must choose between organic and grass fed beef you should ultimately choose the grass fed over the conventionally raised organic.

Grass fed, organic beef may cost a bit more but the benefits to your health and the health of the environment are worth it.

Grass Fed Beef

Nutritional Differences between Grass Fed and Conventionally Finished Beef

Cows' systems are uniquely created to deal with the process of digesting grasses. These animals were never meant to eat grain - however finishing beef on pasture is a slow process that can take four years or so. By using grains the process can be accomplished in half the time, saving produces quite a lot of money.

The amount of grain required to finish a cow in a short period of time creates fat marbling which most people find very desirable. The meat that develops from grain feeding is high in saturated fat and has fewer omega-3 fatty acids than grass fed beef plus grass fed beef has been shown to have up to four times the vitamin E of its grain fed counterpart.

Organic grass fed beef may be the best, healthiest beef available. Since the pasture must be certified organic by the USDA there are no chemical residues in the meat. The cattle can't be given antibiotics or hormones.

Ethically, the cattle have a happier, higher quality of life and better living conditions. Since the finishing time is somewhat longer you can expect to pay premium prices for both non-organic and organic grassfed beef.

Who can resist a Texas beef brisket? This one is made with a homemade, spicy Dr. Pepper BBQ sauce.
Who can resist a Texas beef brisket? This one is made with a homemade, spicy Dr. Pepper BBQ sauce. | Source

What the Labels Mean

Conventionally raised beef will be the least expensive. The package will likely be labeled with one or more of the following terms:

  • USDA
  • USDA Choice
  • USDA Prime
  • All Natural
  • Raised without added hormones (or hormone free) or antibiotics

Sometimes packages of ground beef will list a variety of countries where the cuts of meat that were ground came from.

Antibiotics

Most conventionally raised beef will be given antibiotics to prevent disease when they are in crowded conditions of the feedlot. The USA requires a withdrawal period before slaughter so that as much of the antibiotic as possible is gone from the meat. When tested the meat should contain no antibiotic residue.

Hormones


Hormones promote quick growth, making it less expensive to get the cattle to the proper size. Some of the hormones commonly used on cattle are:

  • Estradiol
  • Progesterone
  • Testosterone
  • Zeranol
  • Trenbolone Acetate\

These are generally implanted in the ear of the animal during the last three months of its life.

All Natural

This label simply means that there is nothing added to the beef such as salt, MSG, etc. All fresh beef is all natural anyway. Basically this label just means that the distributor knows products that claim to be all natural are more popular with consumers.

Beef Carbonnade is a warming winter dish - delicious with less tender, inexpensive cuts of beef.
Beef Carbonnade is a warming winter dish - delicious with less tender, inexpensive cuts of beef. | Source

USDA Prime,USDA Choice, and USDA Select

The USDA inspects all beef but the grading is voluntary. All beef found in retail stores will be one of the three grades shown above.

Prime beef has more marbling (the fat that is streaked through the meat), has the most flavor, and is the most tender. It is also higher in fat and more expensive than other grades. This is generally the grade that the better restaurants use.

Choice has less marbling and is not quite as tender at the prime.

Select has less marbling than choice and is the least expensive of all. It is also the least tender and flavorful.

Most consumers will want to buy the Choice grade for tenderness, flavor, and cost. There are no nutritional differences in the protein, vitamins, and minerals in the different grades.

Sometimes packages of ground beef will list a variety of countries where the cuts of meat that were ground came from. One pound of ground beef may contain cuts from many different animals in a variety of countries.

Marinated and grilled beef skewers are great for entertaining.
Marinated and grilled beef skewers are great for entertaining. | Source

How Does Grass Fed Beef Taste?

Grass fed beef has a stronger flavor than grain fed beef. Some people describe it as almost gamey, although this varies greatly according to the breed of cow and the type of pasture that it is on. Wild onions, garlic, and certain grasses can give the meat a strong flavor.

The only way to really know is to try it. Try a couple of different cuts, from different distributors. If you are concerned about ethical treatment of the animals it is always better to buy from a local farmer. Often the small farmer will raise heritage breeds of cattle that you won't find anywhere else. You will get better flavored meat from healthier cows and support your local economy.

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      SEGoss 2 years ago

      Well written article, but I prefer grass fed because of difference flavor and taste so much better. When I account meat on certain grocery stores and read the article in great details of how the slaughterhouse do to their animals it sickens me to think about, as well as the odor, and how they smell when I cook the meat, I steer away from. I worked in the grocery store and when I purchase a meat and a chicken, one of them makes me sick, this is the reason I like to go back to the days when the animals were raised instead of going shortcut of customer's demands, leave them in the dark of how they feed their animals, they are about the products, not the customer's health.

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      Hope Nicole 3 years ago

      Although written very well, there are some extremely majored flaws in this article. The conventionally fed beef part is wrong... period.

      First, the word "butcher" is old terminology that is not correct, it is called harvesting and the facts that you have for how much the actual carcass yields during harvesting isn't correct.

      Also, "cow" is by far the FARTHEST from correct terminology. A cow is a female bovine that has had an offspring. Most cattle in the feedlots are steers.

      Feedlots, are not small. At all. In fact, they are extremely large and each pen that holds cattle are well over an acre in size. They are dirty because they are outside... in dirt, therefore, they can be dirty. However, they are not infested with large mounds of feces or dead animals laying everywhere, and the fly population is dramatically small.

      Until you have toured a feedlot or walked the life in the shoes of the workers at feedlots, do not undermine or state the opinions of others, because I have met multiple Feedlot managers and they love their job.

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      Chrsity 4 years ago

      Very enlightening article! So grateful you took the time to compose an article rich in factual-detail. Most people never give the time to explain themselves, so thank you!!

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      Author

      ChefMarye 4 years ago from Texas

      Thank you!

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      Sue 4 years ago

      So helpful!!!