Farmfront Board Member

Meagan Bryant

When you walk down the aisle inside of your favorite grocery store, it is easy to spot buzzwords that may grab your eye. With consumers’ rising interest in what is in their food, words that give more details stop and make you think. Organic, grass-fed, hormone or antibiotic free. What does it all mean and do these labels really fit the goals in your head? In the second installation of the no-nonsense guide to food labels we are going to dive into understanding the beef you buy.

Grain-Finished vs. Grass-Fed

What’s the difference between your cow being grain-finished or grass-fed? 


Grain-finished cows actually eat grass for the majority of their lives, they only spend 4-6 months at a feed yard eating a balanced diet of grains, local feed ingredients, like potato hulls, sugar beets, and hay or forage. These cows may or may not have been given antibiotics or growth hormones.

Grass Fed

Compared to grain-finished, grass fed cows eat grass or forage for their entire life. When they are at the feed yard for 4-6 months, they are given grass, forage, hay or silage only. These cows may or may not have been given antibiotics or growth hormones.
One thing to note is that cows have naturally occurring hormones, like all mammals. Cows that are given growth hormones or antibiotics have to go through a withdrawal period so that when the meat arrives at your plate those hormones or antibiotics are no longer present in the meat. So, either way those antibiotics or hormones will not be ingested by the consumer.

Organic vs. Naturally Raised

Naturally raised beef and organic beef are very similar. Both have much stricter rules including what supplements are given to the cows and what they are fed.


USDA Certified Organic beef can never receive any antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones. This beef may be either grain-or grass-finished, as long as the feed is 100% organically grown. These cows can spend time at a feed yard.
Any cow that becomes ill must be treated with antibiotics in order to get better, and therefore ensuring the animal is being treated humanely. If an organic animal becomes ill and is given antibiotics it will be sold to a non-organic farm.

Naturally Raised (sometimes called Never Ever)

The main difference between naturally raised cows and certified organic cows is naturally raised cows do not have to have 100% organically grown feed. Beef that is Naturally Raised is sometimes called Never Ever, as in never ever exposed to antibiotics or hormones.

Beef Raised without Antibiotics vs. Beef Raised without Hormones

If the beef you are buying is organic or naturally raised, you don’t have to worry about these labels because both organic and naturally raised cows cannot be given either antibiotics or growth hormones. Although, as noted above due to the withdrawal period, neither antibiotics or hormones will be in any meat when you eat it, so the decision is yours on whether or not you care about these labels!

USDA labels “beef raised without antibiotics” mean the cattle have never received antibiotics but may receive growth-promoting hormones and “beef raised without hormones” mean the cattle have never received growth promoting hormones but may receive antibiotics.

Certified Humane

Certified Humane labels are not handled by the USDA but a separate nonprofit certification organization. In order for food to have the certified humane label it must come from a farm where Humane Farm Animal Care’s precise, objective standards for the humane treatment of farm animals is implemented.

The Power is in YOUR HANDS! -er- WALLET!

When it comes down to it, I encourage you to research any labels you are unsure of the definition for, to make sure they mean what you think they are supposed to. If those labels don’t meet the standards in your head maybe you should re-evaluate your purchases. Remember consumer dollars drive the industry. If nothing else, always look for local means of food markets in your area, where you can approach the farmer and they can tell you about all their practices and why their products are worth it!


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