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Confusing Beef Labels Explained

Everybody has an opinion when it comes to the choicest cuts of steak. But what about the ways in which cattle are farmed and fed? There’s a veritable barnyard of different beef labels out there which can lead to serious shopper confusion. Is it better to buy grass-fed or grain-fed? What’s the difference between organic and hormone-free? And what exactly does ‘biodynamic’ mean?

Steak and Cow from Shutterstock

Australian consumer organisation CHOICE decided to cut the fat from the farming jargon with a simple guide to beef labels. Its table will give you an idea of the various farming methods employed in Australia and how it affects the taste of the beef.

Grass-fed or pasture-raised Beef that has been pasture-fed. It is said to have intense beef flavour and firm texture.
Grain-fed or feedlot beef Cattle are fed a high protein, grain-based diet to maximise weight gain. The industry standard requires steers to remain in a feedlot for 60 days and heifers for 70 in order to be sold as “grain-fed”. Grain-fed beef has fat ‘marbling’ and this is said to give it a soft texture and buttery flavour.
Organic beef Feedlot feeding is not permitted although in certain cases farming systems that are ‘naturally ideal’ for finishing livestock may be permitted when the natural environment is not suited to fattening animals. To be labelled organic, cattle must only eat feed that is certified 100 per cent organic. Look for certified organic beef, for example the Australian Certified Organic or the Organic Growers of Australia logos.
Biodynamic beef Biodynamic farming incorporates organic principles with extra emphasis on soil health.
Free-range beef Similar to beef advertised as grass of pasture fed, free-range generally means animals have not been confined in a feedlot.
Hormone-free Cattle on a feedlot which haven’t been injected with slow-release hormone growth promotants (HPGs) as is sometimes done to speed up fattening before sale.

While taste is very important, there are other factors you might want to consider when choosing beef, including whether the food was ethically produced.

“When people order a grain-fed steak, they may not realise that this means cattle are in a feedlot for 60 or 70 days on a protein-rich diet with the primary objective of fast weight gain,” a CHOICE Food Policy Advisor notes.

If the humane treatment of farm animals is important to you, CHOICE recommends sticking to grass fed and certified organic beef.

As a general tip, a good, fresh steak will be firm to touch, have whiter bone (where applicable) and a bright cherry red colour.

Once you’ve chosen your steak, take a gander at our various cooking tips below.

CHOICE