The outbreak of mad cow disease in the 1990s gave organic beef a big boost, but standards are the same for all animals raised to be sold as organic. Ranchers and farm owners cannot give their animals antibiotics to make them resistant to disease, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations. Some people feel overuse of antibiotics can lead to the development of drug-resistant strains of bacteria in animals and people. Growth hormone to speed the development of the animals is also banned in livestock raised for certified organic meat.
Organic meat and poultry must be fed grain that was grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. No feed that includes meat by-products -- the means of spreading mad cow disease -- is allowed. Organic beef must come from a mother that was given organic feed during the last third of her gestation.
The organic label also means the animal had access to the outdoors for some period each day. However, these requirements are not clearly defined. You shouldn't imagine a barnyard full of frolicking animals, critics warn. Outdoors may mean that a chicken was kept in a cage with a screened wall open to the outside.