Ethically sourced beef: sustainable farming

Ethical beef | BICBIM’s guide

Whether you’re after a juicy hunk of steak, all chargrilled on the outside and perfectly pink on the inside, or a have a hankering for a slow-cooked stew, ethical beef can be a minefield to navigate.

Of course, we can all agree that eating less meat overall is good for the planet. But choose your beef wisely and you’ll end up with a better-tasting meal that does its bit for the Earth, too.

But how exactly do you know what you’re eating? There’s a plethora of labels and terms out there that’ll have you confused faster than you can say “I’ll take mine medium-rare”.

That’s why we’ve done the hard work for you and put together a guide on the different ethical beef certifications – so you really can have your steak and eat it.

Ethical beef certifications: what you need to know

Pasture for Life logo

Ethical beef certifications: Pasture for Life

What Pasture for Life means for the cow:

Pasture For Life means a grass-fed cow gets to live its life as nature intended. It mainly lives outside and grazes on grass, herbs, flowers and clover at pasture.

Grass and pasture is actually a cheaper and more stable feed for the animals, and research suggests the cows end up needing less veterinary attention.

Be warned, Some suppliers say “grass-fed” when they actually mean partially grass-fed/partially fattened up on grains. Often, cows are fed on pasture for the first part of their lives. Then they are fed grain in the run up to slaughter in order to fatten them up more quickly. Clever, huh?

This is why what you really want to look for is ‘100% grass fed’ or the ‘Pasture For Life’ certification.

What Pasture for Life means for you:

Beef from a Pasture for Life cow contains more A and E vitamins, is higher in omega 3, has less saturated fat and contains about a third fewer calories than commercial grain-fed meat.

Ready for the nerdy bit? Plants naturally produce their own antioxidants to protect themselves against disease, UV rays and premature aging. These nutrients are then ingested by the cows, and get transferred to us when we eat their meat. The meat will also have a slightly sweeter, richer and more intense flavour thanks to the varied diet.

What Pasture for Life means for the environment:

Clover-rich pastures rarely need to be maintained with fertilisers or pesticides. Encouraging cattle to graze on pasture also increases the fertility of the soil, thereby lowering carbon emissions.

Bear in mind that a large proportion of grass-fed producers are not organic because they might still use some chemicals for fertiliser, weed and insect control and for health management. You can ask the farm/Pasture for Life body directly if you have any questions about specific stores.

Soil association organic logo

Ethical beef certifications: Organic

There are a few organic certifying bodies in Europe. We’re going by the Soil Association standards here, which are the highest organic standards in the UK and the one we recommend looking out for.

What organic means for the cow:

Organic farmers tend to rear their beef cattle as suckler herds. This is where a cow suckles its calf until it is weaned at around nine months of age, then fattened.

It means the cows have to spend at least 200 days of the year at pasture, rather than in sheds or US-style feed-lots. When they are brought in over winter, they have to be housed in spacious, well-bedded barns.

Organic means the cow isn’t fed with food enriched with hormones or man-made pesticides. Routine antibiotics are banned.

Be aware, unless the label also states ‘100% grass-fed’ or ‘Pasture for Life’, it’s likely the animal was fed with corn and soy. Soil Association standards only demand 60% grass-feeding. High levels of corn is less healthy for the cow and can cause acidosis.

What organic means for you:

Organic meat and milk provide us with 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than equivalent conventionally produced products.

However, feeding a cow high amounts of corn can cause the cow to develop an unhealthy ratio of omega 6 to omega 4 fats, which is less healthy. So, ask your butcher for more information on the cow’s diet.

What organic means for the environment:

Similarly to 100% grass-fed cattle, Clover-rich pastures don’t need to be maintained with any fertilisers or pesticides, and encouraging cattle to graze on pasture also increases the fertility of the soil, thereby lowering carbon emissions.

Plus, no chemicals are used for fertiliser, weed and insect control and for health management.

Also, there are many upland areas in Britain unsuitable for growing crops. But under organic and pasture for life systems, cattle convert grass to food and grasslands will thrive. The soil will be able to hold huge amounts of water and provide flood protection for lower lying areas.

Ethical beef certifications: USDA Prime

What USDA Prime means for the cow:

The certification is more about the resulting product than the welfare of the animal or environmental credentials. So, be wary with this one!

What USDA Prime means for you:

USDA stands for US Department of Agriculture, and food with this label has met the government’s criteria for that particular certification. A government that allows their chickens to be chlorinated. #JustSaying

What USDA Prime beef means for the environment:

It means it has to be shipped all the way from the USA to the UK. When we produce some of the world’s finest beef reared right here in our fields.

The truth behind the labelling: What labels tell you about animal welfare (if anything)

Dry aged: this doesn’t tell you much about welfare, but is an encouraging sign as the producer was willing to lose weight (and therefore money) to intensify flavour. Beware of ‘aged’ meat labels – which can just mean it’s been sitting in its vacuum-packed bag since slaughter

British / Irish / West Country etc: again this doesn’t tell you much, but British beef cattle husbandry generally better than abroad

Hereford / Aberdeen Angus/ Wagyu etc: well-known breeds, but that doesn’t guarantee quality. Animal husbandry is the most important thing to find out about.

Name of farm on packaging: again, an encouraging sign but not a guarantee. It provides the information you need to find out more.

Ethical beef certifications: the conclusion

For the best beef certifications, opt for Pasture for Life and Soil Association organic beef.

But certification can be expensive. And some farmers offer this level of quality, but choose not to be certified. So if you’re buying from a local butcher, these are the questions to ask for quality assurance:

  • What farm is the meat from and have they personally visited?
  • Can they tell you the story of the animal, where it was born, how it was reared and how it was slaughtered?
  • What certification / assurances does it come with?
  • Do they ever buy a whole carcass and butcher it themselves? (A good sign of knowledge and quality)
  • Can they recommend a different cut, and how best to cook to it? (Indicates they care about the end product)

Be aware:

Non-British beef
QMS
Red Tractor
Non-labelled beef

Why? 

Beef cows in the UK tend to get more access to grass – at least until they are herded indoors or crowded into feedlots for fattening before slaughter.

In indoor systems, beef cattle are commonly housed on slatted floors, which creates injuries and leads to lameness, and in crowded conditions which increases aggression.

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