After a drawn-out debate, the U.S. Agriculture Department has significantly narrowed the definition of organic livestock to animals that spend a third of the year grazing on pasture.
The new rules also say that “organic” milk and meat must come from livestock grazing on pasture for at least four months of the year, and that 30 percent of their feed must come from grazing.
The old rules said only that animals must have access to pasture.
Once a niche market, the organic industry has grown exponentially in the last 20 years. Organic products are grown without pesticides, hormones, antibiotics or biotechnology.
For years there has been an ambiguous loophole in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic label, one that simply stated animals must have “access to pasture” to be labeled organic.
The problem with this definition is that it is entirely too broad. Is an hour out on pasture once a week sufficient? Once a month or every few months, even? As you can see, pretty much anything went under the old rules.
Now, the USDA has announced new rules that say organic meat and milk must come from animals that have had access to pasture for at least four months of the year. Further, 30 percent of the animals’ feed must come from this grazing time.
The new rules, which go into effect this June (farmers have a year to comply), are a step in the right direction -- one that will make the organic label an even healthier, more humane one.
What Does it Mean When a Food is Certified Organic?
The USDA Organic seal is currently your best assurance of organic food quality. Growers and manufacturers of organic products bearing the USDA seal have to meet the strictest standards of any of the currently available organic labels.
The USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced. The labeling requirements of the NOP apply to raw, fresh products and processed products that contain organic agricultural ingredients.
In order to qualify as organic, a product must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity. Crops must be grown without synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes, petroleum based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.
Organic livestock must also have access to the outdoors (now for the specified time minimums noted above) and cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones. Further, organic products cannot be irradiated, are not allowed to contain preservatives or flavor-enhancing chemicals, nor can they contain traces of heavy metals or other contaminants in excess of tolerances set by the FDA.
Additionally, the pesticide residue level cannot be higher than 5 percent of the maximum EPA pesticide tolerance.
There’s a difference, too, in the amount of organic ingredients a product may contain based on its label. If you want to eat 100% organic, simply looking for the “organic” label may not be enough:
- Products labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organically produced materials
- Products labeled simply "organic" must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients
- The label "made with organic ingredients" can contain anywhere between 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients
Animal Products are the Most Important Foods to Buy Organic
Ideally, I recommend that you buy as much of your food organic and locally grown as possible.
However, if you need to pick and choose which foods to buy organic, the most important foods to buy organic are animal products -- not produce. This is because animal foods, which are raised on pesticide-laced feed, tend to have higher concentrations of pesticides.
Non-organic meats have up to five times more pesticides than non-organic vegetables, and non-organic butter can have up to 20 times as many pesticides as non-organic vegetables.
So when prioritizing your purchases, look for organic meats, eggs and dairy products before anything else.
There is one exception to this rule, and that is you may be better off choosing fresh local foods over organic foods. Often, locally grown foods are raised according to organic standards at a more affordable price.
An Even Better Label to Look for on Your Meat and Dairy Products …
There is a label that goes above and beyond the organic label for meat and dairy products, and that is the grass-fed label.
The "grass-fed" label is your very best option when it comes to buying wholesome grass-fed beef and other meats. If this term is new to you, you can get up to date on why grass-fed beef is better for you here.
According to the USDA’s standards for the grass-fed label:
“Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.
The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state.
Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources.
Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen.
If incidental supplementation occurs due to inadvertent exposure to non-forage feedstuffs or to ensure the animal’s well being at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions, the producer must fully document (e.g., receipts, ingredients, and tear tags) the supplementation that occurs including the amount, the frequency, and the supplements provided.”
So in order to carry the “grass-fed” label, the animal must have foraged on nothing but grass for its entire lifetime.
One important caveat: These standards are voluntary, so in order for you to determine whether or not this standard is actually being met, in addition to the “grass-fed” label, the meat you buy would also need to carry the “USDA Process Verified” label.
Further, as pointed out by the American Grassfed Association, the definition of "growing season" means that animals could be confined for long periods, and can be kept off of pasture even when there is grass growing. And, many so-called grass-fed meats are actually finished on grains, which negates many of the healthy benefits.
The rules also do not restrict the use of antibiotics and hormones in the animals.
So although it aimed higher than any standards we had before, even the USDA grass-fed labels won’t offer you all the assurances you’d expect from truly organic, grass-fed animal products.
Tips for Finding Healthy Meat and Dairy
Grass-fed meat and dairy is almost always preferable to certified organic meat because most organic beef is fed organic corn; this is what causes the myriad of health problems associated with eating beef. If you can find organic, grass-fed meat, that would be ideal.
It may very well be the case that you can find top quality, organic, grass-fed meat and raw dairy that has no USDA seals of any kind.
This is because the USDA regulatory system has a tendency to favor big business, which can easily afford the USDA’s costly certification fees. Small farmers, who are often raising food in traditional, healthy ways, are not able to legally call their products “USDA grass-fed” or “organic” because they haven’t paid the USDA for that privilege.
So, your best bet, which circumvents the labeling confusion altogether, is to get in touch with a local farmer (try finding a farmer’s market or community-supported agriculture program in your area to do this) who can verify that the products are raised on pasture, without antibiotics and pesticides.
By going straight to the source, you’re likely getting the absolute best meat and dairy there is, USDA-certified or not.