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What’s the Beef? USDA Labels Explained

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Thanks to Taco Bell, we now know that the USDA requires “taco meat filling” to contain only 40% actual meat. What many of us may not know, however, is that since 1989, the European Union (EU) has banned the import of hormone-treated meat from the U.S. This is the very meat that most Americans eat multiple times each day (even in those scandalized Taco Bell burritos).

Naturally, the USDA was (and still is) outraged by the EU’s move, accusing them of unfair trade practices based on a lack of scientific evidence. On the other hand, there is still no scientific evidence to prove that these added hormones are completely safe, either.

So what does all this mean for those of us living in the U.S.? Namely, that we have to be our own judge and jury. To do this, we have to understand the ins and outs of how beef is produced and how each type of beef can impact our health. Here’s the scoop:

1) Conventionally Raised Beef

If you’ve never watched Food Inc., you should. Through this documentary, you’ll understand industrial farming practices and see how most cattle in America are raised. A variety of hormones are used to make these animals grow and fatten as quickly as possible. Antibiotics are used to help prevent diseases that arise in the overcrowded, unsanitary environment of feedlots. These animals are usually fed grains, often genetically modified corn and soy.


  • It’s the most affordable type of beef


  • Contains added hormones which may be harmful to our health
  • Contains a much higher concentration of Omega-6 fatty acids than grass-fed beef.  These have been shown to promote cancer when not in balance (in a person’s overall diet) with Omega-3s.
  • Fattier meat
  • May contain residual antibiotics


2) Grass-fed Beef

To qualify as grass-fed, the USDA states that “grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.” Grass-fed animals should never be fed a vegetarian diet of grains or corn, even though some farmers supposedly do this and still try to pass off their beef as grass-fed. If in doubt, read the fine print, ask the butcher, or contact the farm directly.


  • Contains no added hormones
  • Contains no antibiotics
  • Low in Omega-6 fatty acids, high in healthy Omega-3s
  • Leaner meat, fewer calories


  • More expensive than conventionally raised beef
  • Animals not fed a pesticide-free diet


3) Organic Beef

To be certified USDA organic, beef must come from animals that were fed on organic grain or organic grass exclusively (therefore, their food contains no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides). Additionally, these animals cannot have been treated with hormones, steroids, or antibiotics. Cattle must be humanely raised, and all production facilities are inspected and certified by the USDA.


  • Great for those wanting to avoid pesticides


  • Expensive to produce and buy
  • Not all organic beef is grass-fed, so it may contain more Omega-6s than Omega-3s


Terms that don’t mean much on their own:

Free-Range Beef
Even though this term is used, there is no official “free-range beef.” The USDA refers only to poultry as “free-range.” Properly raised grass-fed cattle should be “free-range” in that the cattle are regularly rotated to new pastures.

Natural Beef
To use the term “natural” on a food label, the USDA requires that: the product is minimally processed; the product contains no artificial ingredients; and the product contains no preservatives. The USDA has no specific restriction on how the animal was raised so calling beef “natural” really doesn’t mean much unless more details are provided.



USDA meat and poultry labeling terms
Congressional Report on US-EU Beef Hormone Dispute
Scientific American Magazine – antibiotics in meat and vegetables

Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

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  • Avoiding pesticides, hormones and other synthetic additives is always a good choice when possible…but how do we resolve the issue that Organic feed is still genetically altered? We find ourselves in a very tough situation with our food.

    In the Highest Vibration of Love
    Denise Baraka Lawrence

  • Thanks for your comment, Denise. You bring up a great point!

    I had difficulty finding information about livestock feed on the USDA’s site but according to a publication by the University of Arkansas, “[organic beef] Producers are required to feed livestock agricultural feed products that are 100 percent organic but may also provide allowed vitamin and mineral supplements.”

    To be labeled USDA 100% organic, products cannot contain any genetically modified (GM) ingredients. TrueFoodNow.org has a great shopper’s guide that explains all the details. That’s not to say that organic farmers haven’t found traces of GM grains in their livestock’s organic feed.

    It certainly is a tough situation. At the very least, we can educate ourselves and vote with our forks.

  • I read an article recently that suggested that more focus should be placed on getting people to eat fresh fruit and vegetables – whether they are organic or not. Re-educating peoples diets is a long journey – begin with small steps.

  • Dan the Gardener

    Recently, a study in the United Kingdom disclosed that around 33% of the food that is available in the UK contained unacceptable levels of pesticides and chemicals that are used in the growth of crops. Scary to think what we are all eating.