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About Our Food
Although the USDA hasn’t yet released an official definition, 100% grass-fed generally means meat from cattle (or sheep) that have lived outdoors on pasture and eaten only grass or other plants their entire lives, from weaning to slaughter. In cold or dry climates, where grasses and other pasture plants die off or grow more slowly during some months of the year, these animals will be fed hay (or moist preserved plant mixtures called silage) while fresh grass is in short supply.
“Local”, according to the USDA definition, refers to food grown within 400 miles of where it’s sold. At This Old Farm, 99% of the animals we process come from farms within Indiana, and almost everything we sell stays in the Midwest. Shorter travel distances mean fresher food and fewer gallons of fossil fuel to get it to your table.
Note that “grass-fed” isn’t necessarily the same as “100% grass-fed”. Meat that is labelled ‘grass-fed’ may come from animals that were fed corn or other grains for nearly all of their lives, and only finished on grass a few weeks before slaughter. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you’re not sure what’s in the package. Ethical vendors will be able to tell you the history of the products they’re selling.
Ecological Sustainability and Animal Well-Being – Cattle (and sheep) are grazing herd animals. Their digestive systems are meant for grasses, not grains. On pasture, the cattle are able to enjoy the life and diet they were meant for. With proper land management, the pasture doesn’t need any chemical fertilizer and their is little loss in top soil. The manure from the cattle goes back to the pasture as natural fertilizer that grows more grass for the cattle. That is the beauty of grass-fed livestock on pasture.
Because 100% grass-fed cattle are not confined, there is less chance of the spread of disease between animals, and less risk of harmful bacteria contaminating the meat. Studies have shown that E-coli bacteria associated with food contamination outbreaks are common in confined beef, but rare in 100% grass-fed beef.
Health Benefits – Grass-fed beef is considered more healthful than conventional beef for several reasons. It is much lower in total fats, including saturated (“bad”) fats than beef raised on corn or other grains. For example, a sirloin steak from a grass-fed steer has about one half to one third the amount of fat as a similar cut from a grain-fed steer. That means you’re taking in fewer calories per ounce. Grass-fed beef gives you more “good” fats, like Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega 3’s are crucial fats for human health. Their consumption is associated with lower triglyceride levels, a decreased likelihood of high blood pressure, less inflammation, and even some protection against Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Appearance – Grass-fed beef typically is darker red in appearance, while conventional beef tends to be pink or bright red.
Taste – Often people who buy grass-fed beef say that there is a vast difference in taste from conventional beef. Because grass-fed beef has less fat marbling, some describe the meat as “meaty” or “rich in flavor.”
Because grass-fed beef has less marbling than conventional beef, it needs to be cooked more slowly and at lower temperatures. If grass-fed beef is cooked too fast or too hot, it will be dry and chewy. This is why we typically cut our grass-fed steaks at 1½ inches instead of the traditional 1 inch for conventional beef.
It is important to note that 100% grass-fed doesn’t necessarily mean organic. Meat which comes from animals that are entirely or partially grain fed can be USDA Certified Organic as well. To be labelled organic, meat must come from a farm that is USDA Certified Organic, and processed in a USDA certified facility. Organic certification requires a rigorous application and inspection process that covers much more than how the animals are fed. Farms may not refer to themselves as organic unless they have met the certification requirements and paid a certification fee. If you want meat that is both 100% grass-fed and organic, look for both “100% Grass-Fed” and “USDA Organic” on the label. See more under “What Does Organic Mean? below”, or visit the USDA websites at www.ams.usda.gov or www.usda.gov/organic
Here is the USDA definition and descriptions of organic: Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.
The National Organic Program regulates all organic crops, livestock, and agricultural products certified to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards. Organic certification agencies inspect and verify that organic farmers, ranchers, distributors, processors, and traders are complying with the USDA organic regulations. USDA conducts audits and ensures that the more than 90 organic certification agencies operating around the world are properly certifying organic products. In addition, USDA conducts investigations and conducts enforcement activities to ensure all products labeled as organic meet the USDA organic regulations. In order to sell, label, or represent their products as organic, operations must follow all of the specifications set out by the USDA organic regulations.
For meat to be labeled USDA Organic, the farm and 100% of the feed, whether grain or grasses/pasture, and the processing facility must be certified organic. Here’s what the USDA says: If you see the USDA organic seal on a product label, the product is certified organic and has 95 percent or more organic content. For multi-ingredient products such as bread or soup, if the label claims that it is made with specified organic ingredients, you can be confident that those specific ingredients have been certified organic.
The organic standards describe the specific requirements that must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled USDA organic. Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances. A brief summary of requirements is provided here:
For for organic crops, the USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used. For organic livestock, producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors. For organic multi-ingredient foods, the product has 95% or more certified organic content. If the label claims that it was made with specified organic ingredients, you can be sure that those specific ingredients are certified organic.
It depends on who you ask, but reputable watchdog groups monitoring the integrity of the National Organics Program have raised some legitimate concerns. Most of the concerns center around large corporations that make or market organic foods. For example, dairy giant Horizon Organic came under boycott by the Organic Consumers Association which alleged that the company was not following organic standards. In 2014, the Cornucopia Institute filed a complaint with the USDA alleging that Horizon Organic violated National Organic Program standards in reference to the amount of time their dairy cows spent outdoors on pasture. There are also legitimate concerns over the increasing number of appointees to the National Organic Standards Board who are corporate agribusinesses executives, rather than organic family farmers, as Congress had originally intended. As one watchdog group writes “as powerful food processing interests have increasingly sought to add synthetic and non-organic materials to foods, the NOSB has become a focal point of controversy over what some deem a watering down of organic integrity”.
Still, given the size and rapid growth of organic agriculture and food processing, there is no evidence of widespread corruption of the organic standards or their enforcement, at least at the small farm level. Local inspectors are often small family farmers themselves, and are deeply vested in maintaining the integrity of the organic label. If customers want extra peace of mind, it makes sense to buy organic food that has not passed through far-flung corporate supply chains. Buying directly from small family farmers and food hubs such as ours provides that option.
The debate over whether to buy local or organic is becoming somewhat moot. Consumers are increasingly able to access food that is both local and organic. The benefits of each are countless. Food that is purchased near where it was grown keeps small family farmers in business and money in the local economy. Money that is re-spent locally supports other businesses, creates jobs, and stabilizes communities and regions. Organic agriculture keeps toxic pesticides, modified genes and synthetic fertilizers out of our shared environment. It builds healthy soils that grow more vigorous crops and conserve water. It considers the health of ecosystems. It provides for the raising of animals that have access to the outdoors and are free from added hormones, misused antibiotics, and genetically-modified feed. The benefits of organic agriculture for human health and nutrition are well reported in both the scientific and popular media, and are too numerous to outline here.
Every conversation about food should consider sustainability— of local land and water, local communities, and the family farm. But we also understand that not everyone is able or willing to pay the higher price that is currently attached to organic food. We therefore offer 100% grassfed, non-GMO, and pastured meats at various price points. We’re happy to answer your questions about our products, and educate you about the benefits of different meats. But the choice of what to buy should still be yours.
When we say “pasture-raised” we are talking about access to the outdoors and access to grass and other plants that grow in pastures. Pasture-raised hogs and chickens tend to be healthier than those raised in confined operations, because they are not crowded together in ways that allow disease to spread quickly. Their manure drops onto the pasture, creating natural fertilizer that encourages new plant growth. However, note that pasture-raised is not the same as organic, and it does not mean that the animal’s food comes totally from pasture. Hogs and chickens need a complex diet, and generally do not grow fast enough on pasture alone, so they are given supplemental feed. On organic farms, this feed must be 100% organic. On conventional farms, this feed may contain GMO grains, or may be non-GMO, but still grown with pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. At This Old Farm, we feel that getting animals out of confined operations and back on pasture is a necessary first step toward turning around our national agricultural system. We encourage our farmers to use non-GMO feed if at all possible, and we are grateful to those who go the extra mile to become certified organic.
Free-range refers to poultry that are not confined to cages and are free to roam. Free-range does not mean pasture-raised. A chicken may be free to range in a concrete floor building with access to the outdoors but without access to pasture. Free-range also does not address the type of feed given to the poultry.
Cage-free refers to poultry that is not confined to a cage. This does not mean that it is free-range or pasture-raised, nor does cage-free say anything about the type of feed given to the birds. Cage-free birds may be raised completely indoors in extremely crowded and unhealthy conditions.
Non-GMO means free of genetically modified organisms. A genetically modified organism is the result of a laboratory process where genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially inserted into the genome of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans. In the crop world, non-GMO means that the plant was grown from seed whose genetics were not artificially modified. In the meat world, this means that the animal was not fed with grain or other feed that was grown from genetically-modified seed. Note that non-GMO feed is not the same as organic feed.
Grain-finishing has been the common way to raise beef over the last 70 years. The cattle spend most of their life on pasture, and are usually given supplemental feed as well. To bring them to final market weight faster, they are then fed mostly grain during the last months of life before slaughter. Grain finished meat has more fat, which many consumer find to be desirable in terms of flavor and ease of cooking. Unlike 100% grass-fed beef, however, grain-finished beef does not have as many of the “good” fatty acids that promote human health, and instead has more of the “bad” fats implicated in health problems. It also packs more calories per ounce, which contributes to weight gain in consumers who make red meat a large part of their diet.
After slaughter, carcasses are split down the spinal column, washed down, tagged with all necessary information needed for 100% traceability, and then put into the cooler to dry-age. Beef is typically dry-aged for 6 to 14 days after slaughter (4 to 7 days for pork, lamb, and goat). Dry-aging is an important factor in getting the best quality of meat. During this process, enzymes in the meat change the muscle fibers, which makes the meat more tender, increases quality of taste and adds to the meat’s juiciness. Most beat bought in the U.S is not aged at all, or sometimes wet-aged for a short time. Wet-aging means that the primal cuts (chuck, rib, loin, or round) are wrapped in plastic and stored at cold, above-freezing temperatures. Here at This Old Farm, all of our beef, pork and lamb are hung in our coolers at 34 to 40 degrees for optimal results. After dry-aging, meat is cut and packaged to order.