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The Benefits of the New Organic Definition

Good for consumers—and cows

The changes the U.S. Department of Agriculture made to the rules dictating what can be declared “organic” ensure that cows graze, a stipulation that affects the cows’ quality of life—and the quality of their milk and meat.

When cows eat grass, instead of the grain on most conventional feedlots, their beef and milk contain fatty acids called omega-3s. Omega-3s, in turn, have famously been shown to benefit heart health in humans by lowering cholesterol, and even to promote infant brain development when consumed via breast milk. They have been associated with reduced risk of heart attack in both postmenopausal women and men who have previously suffered a heart attack.

Another fatty acid, called conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, is also found in much higher levels in grass-fed beef. CLA has been associated with suppression of cancerous tumors and weight loss, and even with preventing age-related muscle loss. But even with these higher levels of fatty acids, grass-fed beef has less total fat and, more specifically, less saturated fat than its corn-fed kin.

Many believe cows that eat grass also produce tastier milk and beef. “It just has more flavor,” says Anne Dietz, 66, who shopped at the farmers’ market in downtown Austin, Texas, for ground beef to grill with her husband, Henry. She also appreciates having to remove less fat when she cooks it.

Milk, too, is more flavorful when the cows that produce it have eaten grass. And butter from grass-fed cows tastes more “floral,” according to Amy Shipshock, the department chair for patisserie and baking at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

“It just has a better mouth-feel, a better flavor to it altogether,” she says. So many people agree with her that Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative, now markets a seasonal product called “pasture butter.” Available only May through September, this product contains CLA and omega-3s. Its quality has earned awards from industry groups.

A boost for the bovines

The new rules make organic a more humane choice, too. “There’s just nothing more satisfying than to think about an animal out on pasture for humane considerations,” says George Siemon, Organic Valley’s CEO (or, according to his online bio, the “C-E-I-E-I-O”). “It’s so healthy for the animals.” Like “yoga for cows,” he says, the walking and bending associated with grazing make for healthier animals. It’s preventive care for livestock.

Moreover, the multi-chambered stomachs of cows and other ruminant animals, like sheep and bison, are specialized for digesting grass. When fed corn and other grains instead of grass, cows’ stomachs, or rumens, suffer. In fact, the antibiotics that organic-minded consumers avoid are used to counteract the illness brought on in cows by eating grain instead of grass. Organic producers are required to treat their animals with antibiotics, too, if the need arises. But any animal treated with antibiotics loses its “organic” status.

To many, pasture just seems the natural choice for cows. “I think that’s the way cows were supposed to be,” says Anne Dietz. Buying directly from producers at the farmers’ market means that the Dietzes don’t need an “organic” label—they can ask ranchers, like Chuck and Teppi Schmidt, of Fredericksburg Grass-Fed Beef, how their animals were raised. And they expect the answer to involve pasture.

“I grew up in a small town, and we did have both beef cattle and dairy cattle, and they were always pastured and grazed. I just grew up thinking that’s the way you’re supposed to do it,” Dietz says.

What does the new definition of “organic” mean?

Beth Goulart lives in Austin, Texas.

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