Ethical Meat in Australia: Organic vs Grass Fed vs Grain Fed Beef
If you google organic vs grass fed vs grain fed beef, you’ll find a heap of articles from the US. You’ll also find lots of scare articles from ‘wellness’ sites and paleo sites about why you should only eat grass fed or organic beef. But what about beef in Australia? Should we be concerned about grain fed or grass fed, or should we only be buying organic?
A few years ago, my husband and I were living in a rural area of Australia, and we got to know a few cattle farmers. I remember one of them telling me that he’s quite happy to buy beef from the supermarket, because Australian beef is so good. He reckoned that the only reason he’d buy beef from a butcher is if he wanted it aged a bit more.
Now that I’ve researched Australian beef standards, I’d have to agree with him. Beef in Australia is among the best, if not the best, in the world. We have incredibly high standards for the health and welfare of our beef cattle. Australia also has a national tracking system (NLIS) that means every single animal’s movement is tracked through the whole of its life. If you’re eating red meat in Australia, you definitely do not need to worry about the quality or safety of it.
That’s not always the case in other countries. But before we get on to that, let’s have a look at what grain fed, grass fed and organic beef really means.
What is grain fed beef?
Cattle in Australia have to be fed grain for more than 60 days before they’re classified as grain fed.
Grass fed beef comes from beef cattle raised in pastures, rather than on feed lots. In Australia, 97% of sheep and cattle are grass fed at any one time. Grass fed cattle can still be fed grain, but this usually only happens if the pasture is poor and their feed needs supplementing. It’s more expensive for farmers to feed cattle grain, and in Australia, we’re lucky to have lots of good grazing land.
However, grass fed beef has yellower fat, and some markets prefer whiter fat, so these cattle are ‘grain finished’. Other markets prefer their cattle to be grain fed. As an example, Wagyu beef is grain fed.
There’s a big difference between the way that cattle are raised in Australia from the way that cattle are raised in the US. There’s a great explanation of the differences between Australian and US feedlots here.
One of the major differences is that Australian grain fed cattle spend 85-90% of their lives in pastures. No cattle in Australia spend their whole lives in a feedlot. US grain fed cattle are also fed primarily on corn, whereas here they eat mainly wheat, barley or sorghum.
What does grass fed actually mean?
Cattle can be certified grass fed by PCAS (Pasturefed Cattle Assurance System). PCAS Certified grass fed cattle can never be fed grains. They must be grass fed their whole lives.
If you want to buy grass fed beef that’s never been grain fed, you need to look for the PCAS certification. You can now buy grass fed beef in supermarkets. Coles, Woolworths and Aldi have all recognised that customers will pay a premium for grass fed beef.
Coles introduced their own grass fed standards, which they say are based on PCAS standards. Their standards do say that there are no grain products allowed to be fed to cattle. I’m not sure why they don’t just use PCAS certification so that it’s clearer for consumers, but then that’s one of the reasons that I don’t shop at supermarkets.
Aldi’s grass fed beef meets Meat Standards Australia’s quality standards, but these standards allow grain supplementing if pastures are poor. Which makes it the same as any other beef in Australia. So while it’s good meat, it’s not worth the extra money that you’re paying for something that says ‘grass fed’. There have been a few articles in the newspapers saying that Aldi is misleading consumers with it’s grass fed claims.
As always, the answer is to look for certification if 100% grass fed is important to you.
What is organic beef in Australia?
There’s no single standard for organic meat in Australia, but there are a number of certified organic producers. Like grass fed, anyone can claim that their meat is organic, so to truly know what you’re getting, you need to look out for one of the certified organic logos. ACO is one of the most recognisable.
Generally speaking, organic meat is grown and produced without synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, growth hormones or antibiotics. Farming standards include ways of protecting soil, air and water quality, as well as working to protect natural habitats. Animals have to be free range, and have access to pastures and pesticide free and GMO free food for their whole lives.
Animals are treated ethically, from ensuring that they live in a natural social environment, and their general welfare, to the way that they are transported to abbatoirs. Organic meats also have to be processed without synthetic colours, flavours, preservatives etc.
Organic is the best of the best when it comes to animal welfare and what the animal is being fed on, as well as what they’re being supplemented with.
But if you’re on a budget, and you’re wondering what you should be buying organic, I’d have to argue that beef shouldn’t be a priority. I’ll be posting again soon about chicken, and my gut feeling is that chicken is one meat that you should always be buying organic. Stay tuned!
Do you go out of your way to buy grass fed or organic beef? What’s your opinion?
Image By Ryan Thompson on Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture