Organic meat vs. non-organic meat: What does paying more really buy you?

AP

Unless you're looking to spend more money on groceries, buying organic food can oftentimes feel useless: Is it really worth splurging on pesticide-free produce and meat from animals raised on better feed than you yourself eat on the regular? 

Studies have shown that buying organic fruits and vegetables to avoid ingesting dangerous chemicals and perhaps gaining more nutritional value from your produce is sometimes worthwhile, but when it comes to animal products, the science is still kind of murky. And who wants to throw out money on murkiness? 

Knowing what you're buying, and if organic meat is personally worth it to you, is a solid way to start deciding if you should budget accordingly for the expensive stuff. 

What is organic meat? 

The United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program defines organic food in the following way:  

Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

For an animal to be considered organic, the USDA regulates several standards. Beyond eating organic feed and being free of hormone injections, an organic animal must spend time outdoors and have enough space to live what the USDA defines as comfortably.

USDA's livestock and poultry practices for organic animals  USDA

How do you know your meat is organic? 

The USDA strictly specifies what products can be labeled organic or not. Not all organic meat, however, is labeled as such. Getting organic certification is expensive and for farmers operating small farms, the certification may not be worthwhile. Not using antibiotics can also be expensive for small farmers, who may rather help an animal recover from disease or sickness than let them die because they cannot use antibiotics to heal their livestock. 

Small farmers and conventional farmers who are not organic may also choose to abstain from using hormones and steroids which quicken the growth of livestock. Hormones given to poultry and livestock correlate to a higher rate of hormone-dependent cancers, which is why some prefer to eat hormone-free meats, though those are not necessarily organic.  

"The concern with conventional beef is the risk that cows may be given growth hormones (BGH, rBGH, rBST) to increase milk production in dairy cows or speed up and increase the size of cows that will go to slaughter for beef,"  Kelly Hogan, clinical nutrition coordinator at the Dubin Breast Center of the Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital, said via email. She noted that studies are inconclusive about how much humans can absorb the byproducts of these hormones, which have been linked to certain cancers, but a surefire way to avoid them is by eating organically raised cows, which are never given endogenous growth hormones. Hogan also mentioned that antibiotics are prevalent in conventional chickens and "can be preserved in the chicken we eat at the dinner table." Limiting sources of antibiotics is important because "antibiotic resistance is a real problem."

Whether or not an animal is organic, knowing if it's been treated with hormones or antibiotics could be a useful guiding factor in your meat-eating decisions. 

Is grass-fed beef organic?

The USDA's organic standards for livestock stipulate that cattle must be able to graze in an organic pasture for at least 120 days during grazing season. That four months of the year, however, is just a sliver of a cattle's lifespan: Most beef cattle are slaughtered at about 18-22 months of age, meaning that most of your grass-fed organic beef's life may have been spent eating organic feed (like hay and alfalfa pellets) rather than grass. So yes, your organic beef is technically grass-fed, just like you're salad-fed if you only eat salads in the summer and crap the rest of the year.

If you're committed to eating 100% grass-fed beef, either because you prefer the taste, are health conscious (cattle fed a mostly-grass diet have higher levels of omega-3s, more antioxidants, can have lower levels of fat and are considered more nutritious) or are just looking for a steak to comply with your paleo diet, you should look for a trusted third-party verification on the package, like the American Grassfed Approved logo. If that's a no-go, search for the phrase "grass-finished."

A grass-fed cow  MICHAEL A MARIANT/AP

Organic meat doesn't necessarily equate to a better life for the animals

While your carnivorous guilt may lead you toward purchasing meat from an animal that lived a happy and carefree life, an organic label doesn't necessarily mean the cow your beef came from was treated like the queen of the pasture.  

"I've visited organic farms where the animals were actually in far worse health condition than at factory farms, due to the exposure to the elements and lack of antibiotics," Jacy Reese, senior fellow at the think tank Sentience Politics, said via email. The researcher of meat, dairy and egg industries described seeing birds with Marek's disease suffering from missing eyes, swollen abdomens and fungal infections at an organic egg farm in Northern California. Reese also noted that the open pasture made the birds susceptible to predators. As a response, the farmer chained a dog to the chicken coop, which Reese described as whimpering with "matted fur" and no water nearby. The eggs at that particular farm retailed for over $6 per dozen. 

Cage-free chickens  Charlie Neibergall/AP

Organic, unfortunately, does not mean cruelty-free — reminder that eating meat still involves killing an animal — though improvements have been made to give animals a better life. 

"In my view, the bigger downside to organic meat is the harm it does to animals," Reese said. "Contrary to those expectations of higher prices meaning higher standards, organically raised animals in the U.S. still live miserable lives." 

With the recent change in administration, Reese is also concerned that standard for organically raised animals will not improve. "Right before Obama left office, there was some hope of improvement. New regulations were set to give organic livestock the most basic welfare standards — that they could lie down, turn around, and fully stretch their limbs," Reese explained. "Egg-laying hens would no longer have their beaks seared off to prevent them from injuring each other due to the intense confinement." 

Is organic meat worth the extra cost? 

It depends what your reasons are for buying organic. If you're concerned about animal welfare, you might consider visiting or contacting a local farm to learn more about their farming practices. You can also ask local chefs where they get humane meat and if they have any recommendations based on farms or ranches they've visited. In other words, you could choose to familiarize yourself with your steak's origins, rather than its packaging.

A supermarket meat case  Sean Gallup/Getty Images

"The most sure-fire way [to know your meat is humane] is to develop a relationship with a producer — be it for cattle, chickens, or hogs," Hannah Raudsepp, who grew up on her family's cattle ranch and started Honest Beef Company in 2016, said via email. 

If you can't make it out to a ranch or farm, the internet may be your next best bet. "In an age with exponential advancements in connectivity and logistics, more and more individual producers like ourselves are coming online to form a relationship with those whom we feed," Raudsepp said. "It's important to not assume that just because something is locally sourced that it is raised any more humanely or any better than something that travels a few more miles to get to you." 

If you're trying to eat organic meat because it's healthier, do keep in mind that meat of any kind is not necessarily a health food. As Joseph D. Rosen, emeritus professor of food toxicology at Rutgers concluded an April 2010 study: "Any consumers who buy organic food because they believe that it contains more healthful nutrients than conventional food are wasting their money."

And if the environment is leading you to splurge for the organic meat, know that an October 2016 study found that organic beef actually leaves more of a carbon footprint than conventional beef, though organic agriculture may be better for the soil and sustainability of a particular environment.

The most environmentally friendly way to eat meat? Eat less of it.