May 17, 2012 - Raising and marketing cattle isn't as simple as it once was. Now, cattlemen are expected to classify their cattle and raise them within guidelines or "marketing claim standards" to distinguish them as conventional, grassfed, all-natural or organic beef.
Guidelines for raising livestock have routinely changed since 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln established the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is the governmental agency that oversees classifications of conventional, grassfed, natural and organic food production.
Many food industry standards and regulations have been put in place because of public outcry, according to Jeri Donnell agricultural economist for the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.
"In 1906, because of public outcry to a book called 'The Jungle,' written by Upton Sinclair, the Federal Meat Inspection Act became law," She said. "Mr. Sinclair wrote a book regarding the traditions in meat packinghouses during that time frame. Like I said, it is public outcry that started many of our laws and many things that took into effect things that it took to make a safer beef product."
In 1982, the Food Safety and Inspection Service defined "natural" as minimally-processed and no artificial additives. According to Donnell, even U.S. conventional beef practices follow a natural standard by that definition. So. it is no surprise that since then. the definition of "natural" has been modified.
While there are numerous management practices for raising conventional beef. cattle traditionally spend about 12 to 18 months on pasture and about 120 to 200 days on grain before being processed as a conventional beef product. These animals are permitted to receive processed grains, antibiotics and growth promotants.
"Really this is where that Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has already established markets for our conventional beef," Donnell said.
These "established markets" for conventional beef are actually part of what drives the interest in becoming part of the grassfed, natural or organic markets because there are, at this point, no established markets for these niche markets of the beef industry.
These niche markets are still fairly young in comparison to conventional beef markets. In 1990 the National Organic Program (NOP) was established, in 2007 the AMS defined "grassfed" and in 2009, "naturally raised." Each name has very specific guidelines that must be followed in order for a product to be classified as such.
Beginning with the NOP, the USDA Organic label basically symbolizes that the product has been raised and processed through approved methods and specifically synthetic fertilizers, sewer sludge, radiation and genetic engineering may not be used.
"If you adhere to these practice you can use the USDA Organic logo on your products when you market your products," Donnell explained. "But if you look closer into the fine print there is some other regulations that go along with organic. Specifically there is a three-year land transition period where those prohibited substances, sewer sludge, synthetic fertilizers, radiation and genetic engineering that cannot be used three years prior to marketing your first organic product."
This means that if a beef raisers is going from a conventional operation to an organic operation, or has purchased land in hopes of beginning an organic operation, they will have to let the land go without all of the above for at least three years before they can say that cattle raised on that land have been raised with organic methods.
"Particularly for beef it says that beef must be raised under organic practices since the last third of gestation so it doesn't just start from birth," Donnell said. "They have to receive 100 percent organic forage or grain diet. Animals must not receive any growth promotant, antibiotic or parasiticide and finally the fine print also says that they must have access to outdoors and pasture."
Those who can't realistically fit into an organic plan may opt for grassfed production. This market is similar to organic, but still has several differences. Grassfed beef is a voluntary standard. According to the marketing claim the USDA created in 2007, "grassfed" animals are to be fed only forage from pasture or harvested pasture. In other words, no grains of any kind.
Donnell warned that terms such as "grass-finished" or "finished on grass," are different from "grassfed" and potential beef raisers should be aware of what exactly is required for grassfed animals.
Finally there is "natural" beef which is different from organic and grassfed.
"You are allowed to use parasite control or a de-worming product," Donnell explained. "You can give animals a vaccination, you can prevent bloat and treat for bloat and you can also use ionophores, but it states that you can only use them at coccidiostats stage for parasite control. It also specifies what is not allowed and that is a growth promotant, antibiotics or any (animal) bi-products. So it is very specific in how those animals are raised and what management practices you use."
Many who choose to develop their beef in one of these niche markets do it based on their principles of how they feel animals should be raised and the kind of nutrition they believe their customers should get from a beef product. Regardless, all three of these niche markets are gaining ground in recent years and there is certainly money to be made if a producer commits to a respective marketing claim standard by which to raise their cattle.