According to a survey from Response Media, 95% of people want to know the source of the food they're eating. So if you're like most people, you probably spend some time scanning labels on the beef you buy, trying to understand what's best for your family. Is it Organic? Non-GMO? Free-Range? Humanely treated?
Sometimes, though, it can be challenging to sift through what food labels actually mean — especially when it comes to meat. For example, what exactly does it mean when a steak is marketed as being "free-range"? Why is free range better than conventional farming? How is it regulated? And how can you find meat that has standards even higher than free-range?
Free-Range Vs. Conventional Farming
Truly free-range livestock animals have access to outdoor spaces. Cows are ruminants and grazers, which means that their digestive systems are designed to digest grass. As herd animals, they're most comfortable when grazing outdoors with members of their herd. Free-range practices work with cattle's natural tendencies by allowing them to graze outdoors for their food without being confined.
Unfortunately, conventional United States farming creates very unnatural living conditions for cattle. On conventional factory farms, cattle are kept in indoor confinement for the majority of their lives as opposed to accessing pasture, regardless of the season. If they're not confined indoors, they're let outside onto "feedlots," which are crowded and do not allow room to roam or access to grass.
Instead of feeding cows their natural diet that they're designed to digest — grass — conventionally-raised cattle are given grain to eat throughout the year. As you can imagine, conventional livestock practices can have some unfortunate effects on cattle, the environment, and us:
- Antibiotic use. Because cattle aren't designed to eat grain, they become sick more often. As a result, they're given antibiotics which are then passed on to us when we consume beef — which can contribute to dangerous issues like antibiotic resistance.
- Inhumane Treatment. It goes without saying, but animals kept in confinement — away from grass, grazing, and normal herd behavior — certainly don't experience the same quality of life as free-range animals.
- Environment. While free-range animals are fed grass, grains fed to conventionally-raised livestock are detrimental to the environment. These grains — usually soy and corn — are grown as monoculture crops that deplete the soil of nutrients and require heavy pesticide and fertilizer use.
What Does it Mean to Be Free-Range in the United States?
In the U.S., there's actually no official certification for "free-range" when it comes to cattle, though there are Certified Humane free-range requirements for eggs and chickens.
However, when you buy beef that's labeled as USDA Certified Organic, that carries a guarantee that the livestock lived a far more natural, free-range existence than possible in conventional farming. For example, certified organic animals have to be allowed outside to graze during the whole grazing season. While they're grazing in pasture, they're engaging in natural ruminant behavior and eating what they're meant to eat: grass. This also means the animals are allowed to enjoy the fresh air, sunshine, exercise, and clean water that improves their quality of life.
In addition, certified organic farmers in the United States aren't allowed to restrain cattle from accessing pasture during the grazing season, except in the case of inclement weather. Cattle must be allowed to graze outside at least 120 days out of the year. To be certified organic, free range cattle have to have at least 30% of their diet from grazing.
Although these standards are certainly better than conventional farming, there are some drawbacks to America's standards. For example, animals only need to be grazed for 120 days of the year — which means they can be confined at other times. In addition, organic free range beef in the U.S. can be finished on grain, which means animals are fed a grain diet before slaughter. In the U.S., farmers are permitted to use feedlots for cattle during the non-grazing season and during grain-finishing of cattle.
Australia's Stricter Standards for Free-Range
In many ways, Australia has stricter standards than the United States when it comes to livestock standards. For example, Australia has the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS), which tracks every single livestock animal in the country throughout its entire life. When you buy beef certified as organic and free-range in Australia, you know you're getting the real deal.
Australian Certified Organic cattle must have "free daily access to pasture" except in exceptional circumstances. This means that organically-certified Australian cattle usually spend more time outside grazing than American cattle, which are often confined indoors for long periods of time during the non-grazing season.
In the United States, grain-finishing standards mean that even an organically-raised cow can be kept on a feedlot for one-fifth of its life. As opposed to American free-range standards, feedlots aren't allowed in Australia.
Even Better Than Free-Range: Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished Free-Range
Both U.S. and Australian standards for free-range animals offer a great alternative to conventional farming methods. Instead of living in cramped conditions and consuming indigestible grains, free-range cattle are permitted to roam in their natural habitat. This lessens the environmental impact of beef, makes for healthier meat, and creates a better life for cattle.
But if you're looking for the best-of-the-best when it comes to beef, look for a company that ensures their meat is both grass-fed and grass-finished. This means that cattle were never fed grain during the finishing period, prior to being slaughtered.
Why is grass-finished better than grain-finished? First, grass-finished means that livestock were allowed to graze naturally for the duration of the lives. In addition, there are amazing health differences in the quality of the meat. For example, studies have shown that feeding cattle grain instead of grass for just 80 days reduces the level of healthy Omega-3's in the beef while increasing unhealthy trans and saturated fats.
How Cleaver's Does Free-Range
At Cleaver's Organic, we believe meat is healthier and animals are happier when cattle is raised-free range. We work with a network of family farmers to ensure that our meat is both USDA Certified Organic and Australian Certified Organic. We never compromise on quality, and always exceed USDA requirements for beef.
To us, there's no alternative to free-range. In fact, we're proud of the fact that our beef is 100% grass-fed and grass finished. Interested in learning more? Feel free to check out FAQ page for details about our growing practices.