There's a lot more to beef than just the cow. Today's bovine is quality-controlled from before birth to beyond the packing line, with specific cuts making their way across the globe in hours. And with more access to beef than ever before, customers are beginning to take an interest in how the cow they're eating was raised, pushing the farm-to-table movement right out into the pasture.
This largely catch-all phrase does not exclude the use of growth hormones on live cows or strong antibiotics. The United States Department of Agriculture merely stipulates that all-natural beef be "minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients."
The most common type of large-scale beef production relies on grain-fed cattle. The USDA is wide open on what types of corn and grain can be used, along with protein supplements and sweeteners like molasses. The overall effect is one of heavier, more marbled beef, rich with fat.
• Grass-fed Beef
The American Grassfed Association, a nonbinding organization of animal scientists, veterinarians and ranchers, certifies cattle producers based on a pasture-raised diet of only herbaceous plants and mother's milk. Generally leaner cows due to their more healthful diet, AGA certified cattle are also free of antibiotics and growth hormones.
• "Finished" Beef
Because pasture-raising cows produces leaner beef, many are "finished" on grain or corn, to add a final bit of flavorful fat to the resulting cuts of meat. Pasture-finished cattle works just the opposite: beef raised on grain is let out to pasture for a few months before it is processed, helping to lean out the meat and intensify flavor.
• Predator Friendly
A rare distinction, the notion is to work within existing ecosystems to create non-lethal ways of protecting a herd of cattle, rather than simply hunting their natural predators to extinction. The hopeful result is a balance between human and farming needs and that of a surrounding natural environment.
• Certified Organic
Beef that has been certified as organic must pass the USDA's Certified Organic Program, meaning the cattle is not served any form of animal by-product (grass or grain only), is hormone/antibiotic-free, is given seasonal access to pastures and can be traced from birth to processing. Buying organic is often a consumer-friendly way to ensure a higher quality of life — and thus, higher quality product — for the animal in question.
• Certified Humane
Humanely raised cows, as certified by the Humane Farm Animal Care nonprofit, are given access to fresh water and a healthy diet, are not egregiously enclosed or confined and can engage in their natural behaviors, among other standards. Similarly, the Animal Welfare Institute has specific and humane rules that govern the proper care and treatment of all animals on AWI-certified ranches.
While opting for one label over another is ultimately a personal choice, it's both environmentally and nutritionally important to consider where tomorrow night's steak dinner originated. Locally sourced, high-quality beef can come in all sorts of packages that carry a variety of labels; a conscious consumer's best bet will always be to get to know their local butcher. That's how you usually end up with the best cuts anyway, and — with a little cajoling — you might even be able to take a few bones home for Fido.
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