The minute people hear that I work for NOFA-NY, I start getting a lot of questions about food and farming. One of the most common questions I get is about beef – is grass fed beef and certified organic beef the same thing? To find the answer, I talked with Lisa Engelbert, a certification program administrator for NOFA-NY Certified Organic LLC—and also an experienced farmer at Englebert Certified Organic Farm.
Lisa explained that it’s important to remember that Certified Grass Fed and Certified Organic are two separate certification programs, although there is some overlap in their standards. In fact, beef may be certified grass fed, certified organic, or both!
What does “Grass Fed” mean?
To qualify as “grass-fed”, beef cattle must be raised and finished on a diet of 100% grass and grass-based feed over the animal’s lifetime, except for mother’s milk prior to weaning. All grain feed is prohibited, as is the use of antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones. However, grass-fed cattle may be raised on pastures and hay fields where chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides have been applied. Forages—specifically alfalfa—may be genetically modified. Currently, the American Grass-fed Association maintains standards for larger producers, while the USDA Grass-Fed Program has standards for farms processing up to 50 animals per year. Verification under these programs is still evolving, and is not yet as stringent as procedures for certified organic beef.
What does “Certified Organic” mean?
To qualify as certified organic, the beef must come from animals that meet the USDA National Organic Program standards. Certified organic beef must be free of hormones and antibiotics, and come from cattle that are raised on certified organic land. They must be fed only organically grown grass, hay or grain. Among other requirements, certified organic grass, hay or grain may not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They must also feed on managed pasture for the entire grazing season, and may not be confined 100 percent of the time in a barn or feedlot. Daily outdoor access is required during the non-grazing season. To qualify as organic beef, a calf must be managed organically from the last third of the mother cow’s pregnancy. Certified organic beef may also be fed organic grain and is not required to be on a 100% grass and forage diet.
An organic beef farmer must meet rigid requirements for farm management and record keeping, and annual farm inspections are required. The verification process enforces strong standards established by the USDA National Organic Program, with financial penalties for farmers using fraudulent practices to market “certified organic” beef.
What if I want both 100% grass fed AND certified organic?
Certified organic, grass-fed beef will be labeled as both “certified organic” and “grass-fed,” having met the standards for both programs. Starting this year, NOFA-NY Certified Organic LLC is offering grass-fed certification to its certified organic beef and dairy farmers.
Remember, buy locally and know your farmer!
When you buy locally and know your farmer, you can ask the farmer how their beef is raised. In many cases you can arrange a visit to see the farm in operation. Knowing your farmer, where your meat comes from and how it’s raised, are an important part of making the right choice for you and your family. And when you buy from a local farmer, you’re supporting an important contributor to your local economy! To find a farmer near you, check out the NOFA-NY Food and Farm Guide.