Cooked cut of beef on a wooden cutting board

What’s Your Beef?

Know what’s behind the label claims you put on your menu.

When it comes to beef, superior marbling, robust flavor and a tender, juicy bite are keys to a good eating experience, but some of today’s consumers want to know more of the story. Increasingly, attributes such as farming practices are of interest.

Beef’s sustainability story covers everything from environmental factors and ethical treatment of animals to social and economic considerations. With so many variables and generations of dining consumers, anticipating every need is difficult. Much of what people want to know involves label claims and certifications. 

Many beef products are marketed with claims and certifications related to cattle care—humane treatment, raised without antibiotics, raised without added hormones—to name just a few. Not all attributes apply to all cattle, so it’s important to separate the facts from the misunderstandings. 

The facts about antibiotics

“No Antibiotics” is a label claim some consumers look for. It’s valuable for foodservice operators to understand antibiotic use in beef to make informed purchasing decisions and to answer consumers’ questions. Antibiotics are sometimes used to keep cattle healthy, and they can be administered to treat sickness and prevent disease as cattle are raised. To protect people from ingesting antibiotics when consuming meat, a withdrawal period of up to 60 days (depending on the antibiotic used) is federally required between the time antibiotics are administered and when it’s legal to process the cattle for meat. 

In the feedlots where many cattle are brought up to weight before harvest, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the use of some antibiotics to help cattle grow faster. Among the exceptions is a drug that prevents liver abscesses during fast-growth finishing, but the withdrawal period still applies.

On the contrary, a “No Antibiotics Ever” or “Raised Without Antibiotics” claim means the cattle used for beef have never received antibiotics at any time. Sick animals given antibiotics cannot be sold under this label. 

Some people choose antibiotic-free meat because of concerns that it leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Others believe that animals treated with antibiotics can be housed in closer proximity—an issue for those concerned about humane farming practices.

Sales of antibiotic-free meat jumped almost 29% annually between 2011-2015, according to Neilson. From 2016-2017 the sales of no-antibiotics meat grew 45%. According to fooddive.com, the retail price for meat without antibiotics is often higher because of greater overhead, more paperwork and expensive audits to prove the label claim.

The truth about hormones

All beef contains hormones—they are naturally produced in all plants and animals. Although “hormone-free” doesn’t exist, beef can be labeled “Raised Without Added Hormones.” Meat from these animals means the cattle were raised without growth-promoting hormones. They are not given protein or steroid hormones in their feed, water, by injection or implant.

Animals that carry this label tend to be more expensive because it can take a month or longer (in some cases up to a year) for the cattle to reach an acceptable weight for harvest. This means more feeding, care and farm labor. These cattle are still likely to be smaller when brought to market, meaning less beef from each animal and more expensive meat.

By boosting the growth-regulating hormones naturally produced by cattle, it increases feed efficiency, improves protein marbling and speeds up the animal’s growth rate. Because less feed is required and the cattle grow faster, production costs can be lower.

Consumers cite fears that humans and the environment absorb added hormones from food consumption and production. Although studies have not shown any conclusive evidence about hormone transference from food, some people choose to be cautious. The FDA has said the use of natural hormones in beef production does not harm the environment in the amounts administered. The risk to humans is being studied, and the USDA monitors hormone residue at packing plants to make sure beef remains below specified limits. 

Cows grazing in a green pasture

Beef certifications: What do they really mean?

To help operators and consumers mindful of sustainable lifestyles and “clean” product offerings, third-party organizations offer certifications that address topics such as growing practices and animal welfare. Here are three definitions to know.

  • American Humane Association. This organization is famous for its “No Animals Were Harmed” program used by movie producers, but it’s also involved in farm animal welfare. Beef with this certification has been raised on farms that use humane practices and supervision to avoid unnecessary stress or suffering. These cattle are fed a nutritious diet without antibiotics or hormones. They have shelter, resting areas or space available to engage in normal behaviors.
  • Animal Welfare Approved. This certification comes from the A Greener World organization and guarantees cattle were raised outdoors on a pasture or range for their entire lives on an independent farm using sustainable, high-welfare farming practices. The organization’s standards were developed in collaboration with scientists, veterinarians, researchers and farmers to address the realities of everyday farm and ranch life.
  • Certified Humane. This certification from the Humane Farm Animal Care organization means beef products come from facilities that meet precise, objective standards for farm animal treatment, including a nutritious diet without antibiotics or hormones, as well as shelter, resting areas or space in which to engage in normal animal behavior. Standards for beef production are outlined in a 54-page document that details such things as access to wholesome and nutritious feed; appropriate environmental design; caring and responsible planning and management; skilled, knowledgeable and conscientious animal care; and considerate handling, transport, and slaughter.

Weigh the impact before jumping in

While sustainability and transparency remain hot topics, consumers don’t always modify their foodservice purchasing decisions based upon label claims or certifications. When deciding if you should incorporate a sustainability or transparency message into your brand consider the following:

  • Is sustainability or transparency important to your consumers? How will your initiatives meet their needs?
  • Will a sustainability or transparency initiative help drive sales with your target consumers?
  • What are the operational costs and impacts to areas like food costs, staff training and marketing?
  • How will you develop a plan to market your sustainability or transparency initiatives as part of your overall brand messaging?