We get Letters v. 13 – USDA Natural vs. Organic

Here’s another one from the mailbag.

Hi Kate,

I was at Bristol Farms today, and I asked the butcher if they had any organic beef. He said, that all the beef they carry is USDA Natural, which means grain fed, but no hormones or antibiotics. I asked if they had any free-range beef, and he told me that all beef is free-range because meat cows have room to wander, and that the only difference between most “organic” beef and this “USDA Natural” is that the grains that are fed to the USDA Natural cows aren’t organic. Can you shed some light on this? My nearest Whole Foods is quite a jaunt. Is this USDA Natural worth anything?


- brian

Hi Brian! I’m not sure if what I’m about to say is confusing or not, so let me know if my explanation is lacking.

There is no such label as “USDA Natural”. Period. The confusing aspect is that when you see “Natural” on a product, the USDA is responsible for defining what “Natural” entails. In fact, the entirity of the definition can be found on the USDA website. Their definition for “natural” is:

A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as – no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.)

That’s all there is to it. But organic standards are much longer and better defined. They take up several pages.

So when you asked the butcher those questions, he was wrong on some fronts, correct on others. Hormones and antibiotics can be natural. Organic can be grain fed. It’s the particulars in which count. “Organics” have well defined particulars, “Natural” does not.

As for “Free-Range”? Well, “Free-Range” is generally applied to chickens. Even in the USDA regulations, they refer to poultry explicitly. The fact that they don’t mention beef is telling. My belief is that there’s no USDA sanctioned “Free-Range” Beef. If you see “Free Range Beef” it’s probably a marketing term.

The butcher is correct when he says that “meat cattle” has access to pasture. Note that he said “meat cows” when it comes to access to pastures (aka “free range”). Dairy cattle does not have such a luxury in some instances. Something to keep in mind.

When you look at the standards linked above, there is a big difference between “Natural” beef and “Organic” beef. When it comes to feed alone, there are several items listed that organic standards require. There are no such requirements for the “natural” label. As long as the feed has natural ingredients then it’s acceptable. Are there grain fillers out there that claim themselves as “natural”? I’m not sure, as I’m not a farmer and my elite google skills are failing me at the moment.

But I will ask you this — There’s the act of using cow remnants as grain filler. My question to you is: Aren’t ground up bones and tendons still “natural” products?

Now I’m not saying that Bristol Farms is one of those kind of places that feed their cows natural filler that contains cow remnants. But it does show that companies can and do push the limits on the definition of “natural”. To say that there’s no difference between “Natural” and “Organic” standards is the same as saying that there’s no difference between a Hershey Bar and chocolate made from a Chocolatier in Paris. While both are chocolate, one has more explicit standards than the other.

UPDATED: Removed bit about some cattle companies using cow remnants in their feed, as I had no hard proof for that statement.

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