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Meat Labeling

Understanding the Differences in Meat Terminology

By Shannon Borg

Niman Ranch was one of the first large scale cattle producers to raise cattle organically
Niman Ranch cattle
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.

A 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.

Thundering Hoof ranch in Eastern Washington specializes in pasture-finished cattle
Thundering Hoof ranch

Grain-fed or milk-fed veal:

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.

Animal by-products:

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.

Predator friendly:

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.

Apple Family Farm is a prime example of a true "family farm"
Apple Family Farm

Family 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.

Understanding Certifications

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.

Scale: 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.

Country 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.

Niman 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 pasture?" Even if your purveyor doesn’t have immediate answers for you, the dialogue lets producers know what you desire from your product.

Choosing 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:
Chefs Collaborative
262 Beacon St.
Boston, MA 02116

© Chefs Collaborative, Inc.®, 2005. All rights reserved.
Editor's Note: Some of the information in this article may be out of date.


1. The Ontario Veal Association

2. The Humane Society of the United States

3. "Parsing Pork," Mike McConnell, The Husbandry Institute


USDA National Organic Program

American Grassfed Association

Animal Welfare Institute

Certified Humane, Raised & Handled

Food Alliance

Organic Trade Association

Wild Farm Alliance


Niman Ranch
Purveyor of sustainably raised beef, pork and lamb

Organic Prairie
Purveyor of organic beef, pork and poultry

*Family farm image courtesy of Apple Family Farms, McCordsville, IN

(Updated: 08/19/13 RD)

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