apples to applesThe organic food industry has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two decades , but the primary focus has been on organic produce. Livestock and animal meats are also available in organic varieties, but one can reasonably assume that the reason why the market hasn’t boomed for organic meats in the same way as produce is fundamentally because of the price tag. Organic meat can fetch nearly twice the price and this leads most people to ignore organic meat entirely, or at least beg the question: is there any real difference?

The answer is: absolutely. There are enormous differences. In order to earn the ability to label your livestock organic, you have to meet a number of criteria including how they are fed, how they are cared for medically, their living conditions, the hygiene protocols, and other exacting standards. While conventional livestock farmers also have standards they must meet, theirs are lower than you might have ever imagined. Let’s explore these differences in the largest sector of the livestock market: beef.

Since the fast food craze started in the 1940s, the leaders of the fast food industry have driven up the demand for large volumes of inexpensive beef. In order to meet this demand, livestock farmers have had to adjust their practices in order to raise cattle to maturity faster, in greater numbers, and at the lowest expense possible. The idyllic image of the handful of cattle grazing on an open pasture does not apply to these beef factories.

factory farmCows are penned together, thousands at a time, to the point that many of them do not even have the room to lie down. This overcrowding leads to increased animal stress which has similar effects on cows as it does to humans, it decreases immune system effectiveness and leads to an increased susceptibility to diseases. Also, when such large numbers of animals are crowded together it leads to an increase in communicable diseases, especially when so much animal waste is concentrated in one area. Not only does it impact the health of the animal, it also contaminates the local environment: the soil, the air and the groundwater which are all vital resources in any community.

Because of this increased risk of infections and diseases, the cows are routinely administered antibiotics as a prophylactic measure. While this may seem like a wise move to prevent sickness in the animals, what it actually creates is antibiotic resistant bacteria, predominantly E. Coli. How often have we heard news stories of E. Coli contamination of livestock meats? Supermarkets have to recall meat batches and post large warning signs. The source of the problem is the overuse of antibiotics in livestock.

organic cowsOrganic cattle cannot be administered antibiotics as a preventative measure. In the event that the cow does become sick and requires treatment from an antibiotic, that cow’s meat can no longer be labeled organic. Organic cows cannot be overcrowded to the point that they have to compete for food, are subject to unreasonable stress, are without shade, adequate sunlight, room to lie down, and may only be herded in the feedlot during the non-grazing season. When the season permits, the organic cows must be allowed to graze in open pasture on organic grasses that have not been sprayed with pesticides, nor fertilized with chemicals. This grazing period cannot be less the 120 days. That idyllic image of cows grazing in open pasture, that’s what organic cows must be allowed to do.

Organic cows may only be fed organic plant-based feed. Conventional beef on the other hand, in some circumstances, one would be hard pressed to call it food. The following is a list of ingredients legally allowed to either replace or be included in cattle feed:

  • Same Species Meat
  • Feathers, Hair, Skin, Hooves, and Blood
  • Manure and Other Animal Waste
  • Plastics

  • That’s right, plastic. Plastic pellets to be exact. Because cattle feed contains insufficient amounts of fiber to provide the animals with the roughage they need to maintain healthy bowels, cattle farmers have the permission of the government to add small plastic pellets to the feed. You can read all about the chemicals contained in small plastic pellets here, and about the effect they are having in the global environment.

    Since the discovery of mad cow disease (also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE)  in the United States, the federal government has taken some action to restrict the parts of cattle that can be fed back to cattle.

    It is still permissible, however, for most livestock animals to be fed meat from their own species by ‘rendering’. Rendering is an industrial process in which animal carcasses, parts, and other wastes are ground up, heated, and further processed to create a variety of products, including animal feed ingredients. Meat and bone meal, blood meal, and feather meal are some examples of rendered products.


    Pig carcasses can be rendered and fed back to pigs, chicken carcasses can be rendered and fed back to chickens, and turkey carcasses can be rendered and fed back to turkeys. Even cattle can still be fed cow blood and some other cow parts.

    Under current law, pigs, chickens, and turkeys that have been fed rendered cattle can be rendered and fed back to cattle—a loophole that may allow mad cow agents to infect healthy cattle.

    Rendered animal feed may also legally contain road kill and euthanized house pets like cats and dogs. Rendered feathers, hair, skin, hooves, blood, and intestines can also be found in feed, often under catch-all categories like "animal protein products."

    The reason why these products are used to supplement animal feed is because it is simply cheaper. Expired animals within the herd and recycling the wastes produced by the animals is cheaper to use than having to purchase new feed or raise organic agricultural products to use as feed. None of these rendered animal parts may be fed to organic livestock.

    Rendered animal parts are not the only substances fed to cattle. The primary agricultural feed used for cattle is corn and soybeans. These grains, though they do contain nutrients, they also feed harmful bacteria like E.Coli and encourage its growth in the digestive tract which further increases the need for antibiotics.

    hormonesBesides antibiotics, there is another substance administered to many cattle to help reduce costs and increase production. Cattle take up a lot of space. Factory farms try to maximize the amount of cattle on their land, but unless they can get rid of the cows they have quickly, they won’t have room for the next batch of cows. To speed up the process of maturity in cattle to get them to market quicker, the inject them with growth hormones. The same is often true for dairy cows which are injected with hormones to keep them producing milk even when they aren’t pregnant or nursing their calves. These hormones end up in the meat and the milk and we ingest them.

    Some people might think that extra hormones might be good, especially if you’re an aging baby boomer, but what if you are a pregnant woman? A child? Ill? Or just simply don’t want synthetic hormones altering your body chemistry?

    Organic livestock cannot have any added hormones, natural or synthetic.

    By now it should be clear that properly certified and labeled organic meats are produced with superior standards, but does this translate into increased nutrition?

    organic cowsSome say yes, others say no, but the majority of the studies and research typically ask the wrong question. The debate is focused on trying to measure the levels of nutrients in the beef and trying to prove whether or not the organic meats have more nutrients. The results of the studies go back and forth between yes and no, and they will always go back and forth because the nutrient levels are not the issue. The contamination is the issue. No one is arguing about whether or not there is water in the pool, we’re arguing about whether or not it’s better to swim in a pool of pure water, or one that has chlorine, bromine, muriatic acid, cyanuric acid, and other chemicals in it. Many people want to choose the cleaner option, but balk at the price.

    Organic livestock farmers can’t add hormones to speed up the maturity, the have to let nature take its course. They can’t recycle dead cows, cow feces, and plastic pellets and feed it to their cows, they have to obtain organic feed which is always more expensive, even if they grow it themselves. They can’t have as many cows per acre of land as the factory farms which mean a lower and slower supply. Without a doubt the organic cultivation of livestock will nearly always have a larger price tag than its factory produced counterpart.

    But is that 3-4 dollar savings worth it in the long run? If buying organic meat cost you an extra dollar per day since you were born and you live to be 75, it would cost you $27,375. That’s a lot of money. Not to be prophetic, or extreme, but what does chemotherapy cost? $50,000? $100,000? What is your fertility worth? What is your immune system worth? The health of your children? Many people roll their eyes at such statements, but do some research on the health effects of synthetic hormones, plastics, and antibiotics on the human body and ask yourself, is it worth it? Would you pay a dollar a day for at least a better chance that these things won’t happen to you? Two dollars? Ten? What is it worth to you? It’s a question only you can answer. crossroads