Farmers make more money from hormone-free meat.

By Gillie Houston
Updated May 24, 2017
© Istvan Kadar Photography / Getty Images

Despite the fact the FDA has still yet to define or regulate the term "natural," 73 percent of American shoppers actively seek out the label—and food producers are paying attention.

For farmers like Wallace Greenwalt, owner of Cream Hill, one of the largest beef cattle feedlots in the north-east, going antibiotic and hormone-free is a matter of boosting business. Though the farm's previous owner, Paul Saenger, raised 1,000 head of cattle using artificial growth hormones, Greenwalt has embraced farming methods that justify the "natural" label to consumers. "The local buyers, they hear from their customers that they want antibiotic and hormone-free 'natural' cattle. And so that's what I'm happy to sell them," Greenwalt tells the BBC.

Though the FDA has yet to assign stricter federal standards for the use of the label—though a petition demanding those standards has been signed over 250,000 times—typically, "natural" meat means that which is made without antibiotics or hormones. And, according to the BBC, market research has shown that the demand for natural and organic meat has risen steadily in recent years.

Farmers like Greenwalt consider "natural" farming to be a practical business move. "If you leave a cow and her calf alone, as long as they have enough grass and water, they'll do pretty well," Greenwalt says, "so you don't need to jab 'em with extra boosters." According to the farmer, switching to the hormone-free method costs him an estimated 5 percent more, due to the longer fattening period—but, he can charge around 20 percent more for the cleaner meat, allowing him to slim down the herd and maintain profits.

However, according to Joe Emenheiser, a livestock expert for the University of Vermont Co-operative Extension service, this business model, which has become dominant at smaller eastern farms, isn't popular everywhere. When it comes to large-scale farms—like those in the Midwest, which can raise tens of thousands of cattle on one lot—the business revolves around "pretty fixed, pretty low sales prices" dependent on "production efficiency," making the longer low-hormone fattening period less desirable to these massive operations.

The University of Iowa's Iowa Beef Center director Dan Loy says that growth hormones can "improve growth rate from 10 percent to 20 percent and decrease the cost of beef production by 5 percent to 10 percent." So, farms operating on a much larger scale than Cream Hill would find those margins less appealing.

But, like Greenwalt, more and more northeastern meat producers are paying attention to the major consumer trend, which shows that 40 percent of shoppers have sought out natural and organic meat products to avoid hormones and antibiotics in the last three months. And, as the demand for "natural" meat grows, more beef producers might follow a similar path—despite a lack of FDA regulations to guide them.