Understanding the Differences in Meat Terminology
By Shannon Borg
Chef Bill Baskin of Lone Mountain Ranch, near Yellowstone Park in Montana, is part of a growing number of chefs that are taking the time to truly understand where their meat is coming from. "When it comes to beef," says Baskin, "I try to get as close to the ranch as possible."
Baskin tours his favorite local cattle ranches, like Great Northern Ranch or Yellowstone Grass-fed Beef, so as to ensure that the beef that he sources from them were raised organically and humanely. "I try and find out what the cattle's environment was like, what they were being fed, and if they were living under stressful conditions," said Baskin. "Honestly, happy animals just taste better."
However, as chef Baskin was quick to point out, there are many ranches that avoid raising cattle organically. He stated that these particular ranches are often large scale facilities that try to produce as much beef as possible. "I'm from Texas, and I have memories of growing up near these sorts of ranches. If the wind switched and started blowing in the wrong direction, you'd get this horrible smell for miles. These places are hideous," said Baskin.
While chefs have always been concerned with the flavor, tenderness and cost of the meat they serve, many (like Baskin) are also concerned with questions of environmental sustainability, large-scale meat production and humane animal treatment. Although more and more chefs are buying directly from the source and learning first-hand how cattle are raised, the reality is that most meat is purchased from large scale suppliers. So chefs are left with the challenge of understanding the meaning of the different labeling terms for beef — all-natural, certified organic, grass-fed, grain-fed, pasture-finished — and the tastes and textures they imply. Here, we hope to lay out the different options available and offer you the information necessary to make informed choices in your own kitchens.
Meat Terminology Primer
The term "natural" may be the
most confusing of all. According to the United States Department
of Agriculture (USDA), a "natural" or "all-natural"
labeling on meat means that it has been “minimally
processed and contains no artificial ingredients,”
but does not prohibit growth-promoting hormones or antibiotics.
Although there is no official definition, this term describes
the usual process of large-scale beef production, during
which cattle are fed a diet of "specially formulated
feed, based on corn or other grains," according to
the USDA. This diet can also include molasses, cottonseed
and protein supplements (see animal
by-products). Grain-fed beef tends to contain more marbling
(fat distributed throughout the muscle) than grass-fed beef,
and have a more buttery flavor.
Grass-fed: According to the American Grassfed Association (AGA)’s
100% Grassfed Ruminant Program, a grass-fed cow must eat
only herbaceous plants and/or mother’s milk during
its entire life cycle. The natural diet of cattle, grass
is lower in saturated fats and higher in essential nutrients,
therefore creating a healthier, leaner product. To be certified
by the AGA, animals must not be administered any antibiotics
or hormones (other than naturally occurring in grass-fed
forage) at any time during their lifetime.
While all cows start out consuming mother’s milk and
then grass, most are then "finished" (grown to
a desired size and weight) on a diet of grain. But some
cattle are fed grass for the last few months of their life
to create the darker colored meat (see pasture-finished).
Grass-fed beef tends to cook faster than grain-fed because
it has less fat. Chef Danielle Custer of Bon Appetit Management
Company at the Seattle Art Museum says that grass-fed "tastes
more like beef," but in preparation, it is "important
to not salt it until just before use, and not to render
the fat too well."
Thundering Hoof, a ranch in Eastern Washington, produces
cattle, lambs and goats that are fed only in certified organic
pastures of grass and alfalfa, and describe these animals
as "pasture-finished." They receive no grain,
nor do they spend time in feedlots or confinement facilities.
The AGA, however, distinguishes between grass-fed, (never
fed a diet of grain, only grass and herbaceous plants) and
"pasture-finished," which they define as an animal
that has spent a certain amount of time before slaughter
eating grass, although it might have eaten a grain diet
for most of its life.
Grain-fed or milk-fed
Both milk-fed and grain-fed veal are male (bull) dairy calves.
Most milk-fed veal calves are raised in crates and fed a
completely liquid diet without access to solid food or water.
As a result of this milk-based diet, the animal becomes
anemic and the meat is light pink in color, with a mild
taste and soft texture. Grain fed veal is redder in color
and has a similar taste to beef but not as strong. These
calves are fed a milk-based diet for their first six to
eight weeks after which a corn and protein supplement is
gradually introduced to their diet. With grain-fed veal,
alternatives to crate confinement are sometimes used, such
as dairy calf hutches, group pens or pasture rearing.
The USDA banned the use of mammalian bone
meal in animal feed in 1997, but still allows such questionable
ingredients as chicken feathers, chicken manure and fishmeal
to be added to the feed of livestock as protein supplements.
Therapeutic antibiotics are used for the treatment of sick
or injured animals. Sub-therapeutic antibiotics are lower
levels of antibiotics than would be used to treat an infection
and are used as growth promoters for livestock.
The Wild Farm Alliance promotes the idea of "wild farming,"
or working with the environment and the natural tendencies
of animals, insects, plants, etc to create farming situations
that "nourish healthy human communities and help safeguard
natural communities." One example of wild farming is
using guard animals such as llama to protect flocks of sheep,
rather than hunting predators to the point of local extinction.
vs. Factory Farms:
The Husbandry Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the humane treatment of animals, defines a "family farm" as a family-owned farming operation in which the family generally supplies much or most of the labor for the farm, and generally raises fewer than 1,000 animals. A "factory farm," on the other hand, is defined as being a farming operation where animals are raised in high-density confinement and are treated as units in an industrial process.
To understand how labels help you choose the best meat product,
reviewing the USDA’s Certified Organic Program is
another good step to take. The USDA’s organic rule
and guidelines state that in order to be labeled organic,
cattle, pigs and sheep must: 1) not be fed any rendered
animal by-products; 2) must be traced through their life
cycle, 3) must not be fed antibiotics or growth hormones
and; 4) must be allowed to engage in natural behaviors,
such as seasonal access to pasture.
Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) is a nonprofit organization
created to offer a certification and labeling program for
meat, eggs, dairy and poultry products from animals raised
according to Humane Farm Animal Care’s Animal Care
Standards. The Certified Humane, Raised & Handled program
HFAC has created three main points, although the full standards
are more detailed and the process rigorous: 1) allowing
animals to engage in their natural behaviors; 2) raising
animals with sufficient space, shelter and gentle handling
to limit stress; and 3) making sure they have ample fresh
water and a healthy diet without added antibiotics or hormones.
The Food Alliance has both "fixed" standards — which
specifically prohibit the use of feed additives or sub-therapeutic
antibiotics, growth hormones and genetically modified stock — and
"scored" standards, which focus on more particular
practices such as feed production, pasture management, manure
management and animal pest management. The Animal Welfare
Institute has also set up operational standards called the
Humane Husbandry Criteria. Farmers who produce meat for
companies such as Niman Ranch voluntarily implement these
in order to receive AWI certification.
Asking the Right Questions
Beef comes from such a large animal, requiring a lot of
space to produce, that it can be difficult to find alternatives
to beef raised in large-scale facilities. Nevertheless,
a sense of security like chef Troxler describes can be achieved
through establishing a strong relationship with your meat
supplier, asking the right questions and if possible arranging
at least one visit in your search for alternative sources.
of Origin Labeling (COOL)
According to Public Citizen, a consumer watch
group, surveys show that 80 percent of Americans
want to know where their food comes from, and
that just as many are willing to pay a premium
for it. The USDA’s “country of origin”
labeling (COOL) program promised to label beef,
lamb, pork, fish, fresh and frozen fruits and
vegetables and peanuts with their country of
origin. The labeling program went into effect for all covered commodities — with the exception of fish and shellfish in September 2008; mandatory COOL labeling for seafood went into effect in March 2009.
Ranch, a San Francisco Bay Area company with small partner farms
throughout the Midwest sells sustainable raised beef, pork
and lamb. Mike McConnell, vice chairman of Niman Ranch and
founder of The Husbandry Institute, suggests asking questions
about individual producer practices: "If a label reads
'grass-fed,' how long did that animal eat grass — two
weeks or six months before slaughter? On large-scale farms,
are animals raised in confinement barns, on slotted floors
for liquid manure systems, or are they allowed access to
if your purveyor doesn’t have immediate answers for
you, the dialogue lets producers know what you desire from
for the Future
Chef Baskin and many other chefs agree that it is important
to find out what works for your customers and your business.
While many chefs are moving toward the use of certified
organic, grass-fed and other alternatives to large-scale
beef sources, they also want to continue to educate their
guests about what these terms mean and find the highest
quality beef, lamb and pork produced as close to home as
possible. The stricter certifications created by independent
organizations also reveal a growing commitment among ranchers,
meat producers, chefs and consumers to take the USDA organic
standard to the next level of humane and sustainable practices,
bringing both peace of mind and a higher level of quality
and taste to the plate.
This article was published courtesy of:
262 Beacon St.
Boston, MA 02116
© Chefs Collaborative, Inc.®, 2005. All rights
1. The Ontario Veal Association
2. The Humane Society of the United States
"Parsing Pork," Mike McConnell, The Husbandry
USDA National Organic Program
American Grassfed Association
Animal Welfare Institute
Certified Humane, Raised & Handled
Organic Trade Association
Purveyor of sustainably raised beef, pork and lamb
Purveyor of organic beef, pork and poultry
farm image courtesy of Apple Family Farms, McCordsville,