Revised April 2012 by Gary Brester, professor, Department of Agricultural Economics, Montana State University, firstname.lastname@example.org
By Reginald Clause, value-added agriculture specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University, email@example.com. Revised June 2011.
The definition of “natural” within the context of beef production is more ambiguous than the definition of “organic.” According to the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service, all fresh meat qualifies as “natural,” but beef that carries a “natural” label cannot contain any artificial flavors or flavorings, coloring ingredients, chemical preservatives, or other artificial or synthetic ingredients. In addition, natural products must not be more than “minimally processed.” Some companies promote their beef as “natural” by not exposing animals to antibiotics or growth-enhancing hormones and by finishing cattle in pastures rather than feedlots.
Industry experts estimate that 375,000 to 425,000 head of cattle in the United States are produced under a natural product regime.
A variety of credence claims are often included on “natural” beef labels. Nonetheless, such claims can certainly be challenged by consumers or competitors. Consequently, many companies adhere to the USDA Process Verified Program which uses ISO 9000 series standards for the documentation and development of industry standards. For example, USDA Process Verified Programs include “Never Ever 3” which refers to production practices that refrain from using antibiotics, administering growth promotants, and feeding animal-sourced proteins to cattle. The program provides third-party verification of marketing claims. Research has shown that consumers tend to associate natural beef labels with local, family farms and perceive this as a valuable attribute.
Producers involved in raising natural beef have several marketing options. Some producers direct market to consumers through the Internet or servicing local orders. Others market beef directly to foodservice outlets, supermarkets, or natural food stores.
Examples of Natural Beef Companies
Laura’s Lean Beef of Lexington, Kentucky, was founded in 1985 and markets its products to almost 7,000 retail outlets in 47 states. The company states that it produces “Naturally lean beef from cattle raised on natural grains and grasses. Neither growth hormones nor antibiotics are used in the raising of the cattle.”
Another significant purveyor of natural beef is Coleman Natural Meats of Denver, Colorado. The company states that “Our animals never receive antibiotics or added growth hormones from the time they are born. Any animal requiring therapeutic treatment is treated and removed from the herd. No antibiotics are ever added to the feed, only vitamins and minerals.” Coleman’s Beef is marketed in supermarkets, club stores, and natural food stores in 41 states and the District of Columbia. The firm has about 700 family-ranch partners in 17 states.
The following information was gathered through companies’ Web sites. Table 1 presents 10 selected companies.
Table 1. Selected companies producing natural beef in the United States.
Alternative Beef Production Systems - What's in a Name? Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook, ERS, USDA
Natural/Organic Meat, National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
The National Organic Program, AMS, USDA.