Is Organic Meat Better? | Chris Kresser

Is Organic Meat Better?

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Several recent scientific reviews have examined the nutritional differences between organic and conventional meat. Read on to learn what the researchers found, if organic meat is really better, and what other factors you should consider when buying your next steak dinner.

organic meat
Is organic meat better for you? iStock/emholk

U.S. organic food sales have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $31.5 billion in 2011 (1), and the demand for organic meat products has steadily increased over the last two decades. Most consumers cite an improved nutrient profile as their primary reason for buying organic (2). But is organic meat really better for us, nutritionally speaking? In this article, I’ll discuss the major differences between organic and conventional meat so that you can make an informed assessment of your meat purchases.

What Is Organic Meat?

Before we dive into the nutritional differences, it’s important that we define what organic meat actually is. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic livestock conditions require that animals must be given year-round access to the outdoors, except in inclement weather. They must be managed without antibiotics (except in cases of illness), added growth hormones, or prohibited feed ingredients like animal byproducts, urea, and arsenic compounds.

Organic livestock must be raised on certified organic land meeting organic crop production standards and any feed must be 100 percent certified organic. Organic ruminants—such as cattle, sheep, and goats—must have free access to organic pasture for the entire grazing season, and 30 percent of their diet must come from organic pasture. Organic practices help to support animal health and are also markedly better from an environmental perspective (3).

Now that we’ve got a basic understanding of what the “organic” label actually means, let’s dive into the nutrition research.

Organic vs. Conventional: Fatty Acid Profile

Fatty acids are essential to health and are one of the key areas where organic and conventional meats differ. Two recently published meta-analyses assessed the differences in fatty acid composition between organic and conventionally raised meat and dairy products. We’ll look at the findings of each in more detail.

Meat: The amount of saturated fat was similar in organic and conventional meat, while monounsaturated fats were slightly lower in organic meats. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids were 47 percent higher in organic meat (4). Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and have been shown to be protective against cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline (5).

Dairy: The amount of saturated, monounsaturated, and total polyunsaturated fatty acids was similar in organic and conventional milk. Organic milk had 69 percent higher alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) than conventional milk. ALA is known to reduce levels of LDL cholesterol and enhance its clearance from the bloodstream (6). Organic milk also had 41 percent higher conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and 57 percent higher omega-3 fatty acids.

So what about the organic method is driving this difference? The authors suggest that the pasture-based diets prescribed under organic farming standards are the primary reason for differences in fat deposition in the meat. This is consistent with differences seen between grain-fed and grass-fed animals, as we’ll come back to later on.

Five good reasons to choose organic meat.

Organic vs. Conventional: Other Nutrients

While most studies have seemed to focus on the fatty acid differences, a few studies have attempted to assess minerals, toxic metals, and other parameters of nutrition in organic versus conventional meat. Both organic and non-organic meats are rich in essential nutrients, including protein, zinc, iron, phosphorus, and B vitamins.  

In the same meta-analysis that looked at fatty acid composition, organic dairy was found to have slightly lower iodine and selenium levels, but higher iron and vitamin E levels (4). The authors of the study suggest that the iodine concentrations in conventional milk may be too high in animals receiving large amounts of fortified feed. On the other hand, organic dairy systems support a higher intake of natural alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) and carotenoids (precursors to vitamin E), which surpasses the amount of vitamin E that conventional dairy animals get from synthetic alpha-tocopherol (7).

A different meta-analysis conducted in 2012 found that organic dairy had significantly higher levels of protein than conventional dairy (8).

Would You like Some Antibiotics with Your Chicken?

Organic and conventional meats also differ regarding antibiotic use. Antibiotics are used in conventional meat production as a means to promote growth.

For many years, farmers did not know why antibiotics helped to make animals larger, only that they worked! We now know that it is their devastating effect on the gut microbiota, the microbes that inhabit the intestines, that produces this effect. By essentially inducing a state of chronic microbial dysbiosis, or an altered gut community, the antibiotics increase the amount of energy that the animals can harvest from the same quantity of food (9). Ironically, most people never think that the same agents that fatten up meat animals (antibiotics, grains) will likely also cause weight gain in humans.

Beyond changing the microbial composition of the gut, many antibiotics are absorbed systemically, meaning that they make their way into the bloodstream and can become “lodged” in various tissues. Antibiotic residues have been detected in meat and other animal products at low levels (10), despite the required USDA withdrawal period before slaughter to try to reduce the amount consumed by humans.

Organic products are also less likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These “superbugs” pose a real threat to human health, as research and development for new antibiotics no longer interests most pharmaceutical companies. Bacterial contamination of meat products occurs at about the same rate in organic and conventional meat, but the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics is 33 percent higher in conventional than in organic pork and chicken (11).

Hormones May Alter the Composition of Animal Products

Hormones are another factor to consider when weighing the merits of buying organic meat. Estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, zeranol, and trenbolone acetate are among the most commonly used hormones, typically implanted in the ear of the animal three months before slaughter to help promote growth (12). Most of these hormones have been banned in Europe since 1989.

Okay, but do we really ingest enough of these hormones to make a difference? Probably not, but studies have shown that hormones might alter the composition of the meat or dairy product in other ways. For example, while recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is not itself found to be present in dairy products (because the hormone denatures during pasteurization), it may increase the production of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) (which survives the high heat of pasteurization). Increased IGF-1 levels have been associated with both colon and breast cancer (13). Today, the European Union, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Canada all do not allow the use of rBGH due to both animal and human health concerns.

Pesticides from Animal Feed End up in Meat

Organic meat also has fewer synthetic pesticides involved in its production, which lends to improved animal health and less environmental impact.

Like antibiotics, fat-soluble pesticides used to produce chicken feed have been shown to transfer to chicken tissues (14) and eggs (15). We then consume these pesticide residues when we eat the animal product.

This is particularly true for fatty meats. Pesticides, hormones, and other toxins tend to concentrate in the adipose tissue. This means that choosing organic may be a particularly wise choice for fattier cuts of meat. It also means that when we ingest these toxins, we store many of them in our fat tissue. Repeated exposures can allow these substances to “bioaccumulate” over time, particularly if you don’t have a healthy detoxification system.

Putting It All Together

Taken as a whole, organic meat tends to have a more favorable fatty acid profile and reduces exposure to antibiotic, hormone, and pesticide residues. In reality, organic or non-organic is just one factor to consider when sourcing animal products for your next meal. Other important considerations include:

  • Grass-fed vs. grain-fed: If you remember from the beginning of this article, organic livestock are required to be get at least 30 percent of their nutrition from pasture. However, ruminant slaughter stock are exempt from this requirement for the last fifth of their lives (up to 120 days). The organic label therefore tells you nothing about the animal’s diet—in fact, most organic meat in the U.S. is fed at least some grain prior to slaughter. Check out my previous article on this topic for more about the nutritional difference between grass-fed and grain-fed animals.
  • Source: If you look closely next time you’re at the supermarket, you’ll likely see that some of the meat that has the USDA certified organic label was not even produced in the USA! In other cases, the animals were raised in the US, but the meat itself was shipped to another country for packaging. Unless immediately frozen and shipped, it’s likely that the meat has lost some of its nutrients. Look for locally produced meat when possible.
  • Cost: Cost is, of course, one of the biggest hurdles to many people choosing organic. Organic meat tends to be more expensive, not only because of the effort to use sustainable practices, but also because of the cost of organic certification for the farmer. In most cases, there is an application fee, annual renewal fee, assessment on annual sales or production, and inspection fees, in addition to the time required to complete extensive paperwork. Instead of charging conventional farmers for using synthetic chemicals, the burden is on organic farmers to prove the quality of their methods to the USDA. The best option? Get to know your local farmers, and ask about their growing practices! Many small farmers use organic and sustainable practices but do not find it cost effective to get the certified organic label. They are usually more than happy to discuss their methods or even let you visit the farm. Look for cheaper cuts of meat like organ meats, chuck roast, or round steak. Many of these cheaper cuts are just as, if not more, nutritious than their pricier counterparts.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you eat organic meat and other animal products? Have you found a good source at your local farmers market? Share your thoughts in the comments section!

178 Comments

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  1. Hey, whatever happened to the “weekly roundup”? Always thought it was great! Beef? Skip “organic” and buy pastured, grass-fed & finished. Chicken? Only buy “pastured”…..same with eggs. “Free-range” means squat.

  2. Organic is not necessarily grass, or forage finished which from personal experience is 3 to 5 times higher in Omega 3 and other believed anti cancer fatty acids. We know this since discovery with our own in 1996 and have confirmed by analysis several times. As for price most beef in the world is still grass finished and imported ground keeps the price of grain fed down. Further cool season grass pastures with medicinal ‘weeds’ are known to test up to ten times higher in beneficial nutrients, anti oxidants and carotenoids, than the best green domesticated leafy vegetables so highly recommended. These pasture greens are converted and further concentrated via the rumen and animals stomach into meat and milk fats, the very best of human food of our evolution. As for price our local National retail chain sells USDA certified Organic, (not grass finished) beef for roughly 30% (not 3 times) more than their best grain finished USDA Choice or Canada AA. As always it is buyer beware. Anecdotal I know but as a healthy, if overweight, 74 year old male, just last week, whilst retailing our beef, with my 15 year old granddaughter present, a male customer appeared with his wife. He was possibly in his sixties and wearing what he explained was a heart alert device and kept putting his finger into a digital monitor for his blood oxygen and pulse rate. He and his wife, who was in the home health care field, explained and allowed my granddaughter to test. His readings for Oxygen and pulse were in the low 90″s. Granddaughter registered 97% for oxygen and 71 pulse rate, which they explained was perfect for her age. They were absolutely shocked at mine of 97% with pulse of 65. I know from medical check-up a few years ago that I allegedly have the blood work of someone in their 30’s and I do not exercise but almost exclusively only eat our own beef ever since 1996. Cost of health through eating is a fraction of health care costs later. Average less than $300 for beef compared to $3,000 per capita, food intake/lifestyle related, health care costs. Of course if you are eating for optimum health you need to eat the bone broths, organ meats of such beef, plus double the average and very little grain fed chicken or pork and some cold water fish. Grass fattened beef/organs are so brain beneficial and anti immune diseases that the provide all essentials for life and you do not need supplements of Coq10, vitamins, Omega 3’s etc and these cost many times the natural in such beef. STILL TOTAL COSTS FOR ALL NUTRIENTS FROM SUCH BEEF IS LESS THAN $1,000 DOLLARS ANNUALLY, OR ABOUT A THIRD OF A BEEF CARCASS. THIS KIND OF BEEF TESTS HIGHER IN OMEGA 3’S THAN WILD COD FISH.

  3. If the package states organic in addition to 100% grass fed – does that really mean it was never finished on grain? Or even given grain? Wouldn’t meat labeled with both be better than just organic since it shouldn’t have been finished with even organic grain?

    • No, the USDA has repealed he 100% grassfed definition, so it only means what the seller wants it to mean.

  4. I live in New Zealand. I can only eat organic meat as I cannot eat fat. It has been many years since I ate conventional. It is also very tender. But would not eat anything else. Has more flavour and own Amway cookware so also makes it more tender.

    • In New Zealand our beef and lamb have always been grass-fed, and still are as far as I’m aware. Pork and chicken definitely need to be organic, or free-range at the very least.

    • What do you mean by not being able to eat fat? There is fat between the muscle fibres as well as the visible fat on meat. I think eating meat can only mean eating meat and fat. It’s impossible to avoid it.

  5. We buy organic pasture fed beef, chicken etc plus raw milk from a nearby certified farm run by friends. This area in lower NY state is blessed wide availability of this good food. I’m glad to read that research shows the true advantages of organic food.

  6. Thank you, this was informative. I make a point of choosing grass fed and pastured meat/pork/chicken. It is worth the extra expense.

    • Good point, Nicola. Think of it this way — aren’t you worth the extra expense? And you’ll save on other expenses if you eat good, clean food. While the stats say the average American of 65 takes an average of 5 prescription meds, at 70, I take none. No over-the-counter stuff, either. I am just an experiment of one, but thousands of others have found the same thing.

      • Hi Annie,

        How often do you eat beef, goat meat? And how often do you eat fish, checken and other meat?

        Just wanted to know since there has been recently lot of bad publicity for red meat – beef, goat meet etc.,

        Thanks
        Suresh

        • I eat “red meat” (grass-fed beef or lamb) on average once a week. I wish I could find goat, but it’s not so readily available. Being on the US Pacific NW Coast, I probably eat fish/seafood more often than most folks, and a lot more than I eat mammal meat and poultry. d I eat good-quality cheeses several times a week, and have goat’s milk (whole) in my coffee every day. I seldom eat pork because it’s hard to find organic/pastured pork. I use chicken perhaps once/twice per week, but am cutting back due to the issues with “modern” chickens. And I eat cage-free eggs several times per week. I used to have a flock of ducks so my eggs were amazing, but a domestic predator (idiot neighbor’s free-ranging dog) put an end to that. I am not sure what you mean by “bad publicity”, but all foods need to be part of a balanced diet. There are many plant foods that have “toxic” components, but those are not an issue if consumed as part of a balanced diet. I use no ground or tenderized (bladed) meat. I eat “red meat” and some fish raw because I am confident in the sources I use. The few times I’ve gotten food poisoning, it’s been cooked foods. My “meat”/fish portions are typically 4-5 ounces, and eggs one at a time. Like most health-conscious omnivores, the bulk of my diet (no pun intended) is veggies/fruits, mostly fresh and raw, but some lightly cooked. And I typically eat 7-14 different veggies/fruits every day. I use grains and pseudo-grains in limited amounts (organic only), and beans/pulses perhaps once a week. That’s probably more than you wanted to know, LOL! One caveat to these comments/discussions is that we all define “meat” differently. A strict vegan calls any animal tissue “meat”; as “meat” is typically used in the US, it generally means mammal meat and poultry. Some use meat to refer only to mammal tissue. Another caveat: please don’t use the articles in the popular press as nutrition advice! Go back and read the original source. There is a huge difference between the “pop” version and the “tech” version 99+% of the time.

          • Great diet. You obviously live in a place that gives you many good choices. I love the Pacific Northwest. Great produce for sure.

            • Hi, Linda. Thank you. It works for me, but I would not dare suggest it is for everyone. Yes, we are fortunate here in the greater Seattle area for food resources. When I spent several years in the Midwest, it was a different story. Good luck in finding the diet that works best for you. We are all an experiment of one, and I admire the courage and perseverance of folks that are dealing with a systemic condition while trying to come up with the ideal diet. It is hard enough for those that do not have a challenge of that magnitude. I am sure you will succeed. You seem to have the determination and the scientific curiosity to reach your goal.

              • In Oregon, Helios Farms raises pastured, soy-free, gmo-free Pork,chicken, and beef. We also produce grass fed lab-tested raw jersey milk. Stop by the farm sometime. heliosfarms.com

  7. A great, comprehensive read. Thanks. I have to wonder about conventional butter though. Is it at all safe to eat (considering toxins and hormones get stored in fat as mentioned in the article)? I’ve been eating regular, non-organic butter for a while now as grass fed is expensive and saved for the rare time.

    There’s a grass fed/finished beef farmer about an hour drive from where I am. He seems honest about his operation. After switching from conventional to grass fed though, it tastes chewier and it’s hard to adjust the temperature right for cooking. Then again, the ground beef might be part of that.

  8. I assume that organic grass-fed and grass-finished is the best choice, but is advertising misleading to those who buy simply organic grass-fed? How common is it to find grass-finished?

    • I believe it is very hard to find truly grass finished. We used to raise beef that way, but it is very labor intensive, as well as costly. To get a good “finish “, meaning marbling of the meat to produce tenderness and moisture, you have to have small paddocks, and move the cattle every few days to fresh, candy-like grass. That keeps them growing quickly, and produces marbled meat.

      But there are many farmers out there that will label their meat as “grass fed”, even though they feed grain the last few months to provide the “finishing “. It is only the truly grass finished animal that provides the benefits listed in this study. Buyer beware! As the producer how they finish the animals, and if they EVER get any grain. Any grain at all negates all the benefits.

  9. I have never been sure that meat was ever good for me personally. it always made me feel ill and I never liked eating dead animals as a child. I tried organic meat, it made no difference. I can eat organic eggs and a little organic milk. I felt much lighter not eating meat and have not eaten it for years now. I consider I have a great healthy diet and believe we don’t need to eat meat to be healthy. I am not over weight and I felt good. Some people just can’t stomach meat and I am one of them.

    • You might consider trying Betaine HCL supplements with your meals, and see if that makes a difference in your ability to digest meat. Many people who feel that meat doesn’t agree with them have low stomach acid levels, which can lead to a “heavy” feeling in the stomach when foods high in protein like meat are eaten. This supplement should only be taken with food, never on an empty stomach.

    • It is ok for you to be vegan but those of us who need meat are considered bad for eating it??

        • Saying it doesn’t make it so. Make the case for your personal opinion.

          But first answer, why does every culture include meat as a staple, and when it’s limited in more closer to the ground cultures its still seen as needed and is coveted as a crucial food?

        • Really? Your scientific basis for this statement? Citations? Evidence? Rationale for denying the course of human evolution? Saying something, particularly when you have no knowledge of every individual’s physiology and metabolism, does not make it so.

  10. Chris…concerning the hormones (and any other large molecules) in meat or eggs, is it known or somehow presumed that they survive the digestive process to have any hormonal activity in the human body?

  11. I use local farmers if I can, followed by grass fed, then organic. The cost between grass fed and organic isn’t much; at some point, we have to start being sensitive to those whose incomes may not allow them to purchase organic or those who don’t live near farmers or have time to look for them.

    Every year, it is more and more difficult for me to eat well and I have poor outcomes with vegetarian diets. Lately, I have been concentrating on finding things that can counteract some of the stuff put into our food chain; meat is high enough on the food chain that the only less expensive options available are organically raised poultry with beef or lamb a few times a monrh.

  12. The meat industry in this country is disgusting and cruel…there are other ways to get the nutrients we need. MANY other ways

  13. I’m from Canada. Your bias toward anything not produced in USA is unfounded. You first of all imply that if meat comes from another country, it may not berocessed quickly or frozen properly. You also mention that it has likely lost nutrients. Hmm…. So has all aged beef lost it’s nutrients?
    I had a conversation recently with a biochemist turned chicken farmer. He emphasized that none of Their chickens were fed antibiotics – that it is against the law in Canada.

    • Actually, antibiotics are not allowed in chicken in the US, either. I was surprised that this article implies that it is. I know this because we produced pastured poultry for many years. While we got too old to do that several years ago, I still meet people who tell me they miss it, even for the taste.

      On the other hand, large chicken factories do usually add a small amount of arsenic to their feed to increase weight production! Plus the processing plants are so disgusting. They mechanally cut up the meat, resulting in several inches of fecal matter in the bottom of the meat holding tank. Then the meat goes through several chlorine baths to disinfect it. We love chicken, and preferred to eat it several times a week, but only that from a farmer friend who raises them on pasture and feeds them only non-GMO grains. By the way, even pastured poultry need to have grain as two thirds of their diet. But grains are not necessary, for cattle and goats. It actually makes them ill, which is one of the reasons for routine antibiotics.

  14. Great information Dr. Kresser. I have personally lost weight changing my diet to organic raised meats.

    My morning breakfast starts with organic Apple Bourbon or Chipotle Cherry smoked pork bacon – chopped and cooked with either shredded golden beets, kale or spinach from my garden, asparagus, or rainbow carrots.
    I get my protein and fiber right at the start of my day!!!

    Organic raised pork or any meat for that matter, is so much flavorful than conventional raised. Even the color of the fat in the pan after cooking the meat is different.

  15. My only problem with this and every other eat organic article – the advice to make friends with your farmers. ???

    I barely have time to make,and foster friends with people I know and need in my life, but farmers too! Where are all these farmers?

    • @boregard
      I know, right? There’s also: get to know your butcher/ask your butcher to…
      Most of us shop in grocery stores where there is no butcher in sight. Personally, I’m fine with not being personal friends with all the food producers in my life (or the electronics producers or any number of contributors to the economy I’m part of). The underlying assumption of the know-your-farmer thing is actually problematic — it’s the implication that all this cosy-farmer-bonding means you know about your food safety, and by extension, puts the responsibility for food safety with individual consumers. On the contrary, the food system is a big system and it has to be and we need regulation that we can count on.

      • Well, good luck with that! In the US, to begin with, the USDA has a two-pronged mission statement, the parts of which are in conflict, i. e., to look out for the consumer and to promote the US food production industry. The US food industry is well-financed and, over the last 30 years, has successfully spent to get the regulations weakened. Then, you have the pharmaceutical industry bolstering the spending to keep any limitations on antibiotic use at a minimum. As for the ridiculous, non-science-based “food pyramids”, “My-Plates”, etc. — well, I won’t even go there. And who is looking out for the consumer and supporting stricter laws? A few nonprofits out there begging for an ever-shrinking pot of donation money. I don’t depend on doctors to keep myself healthy, and I don’t depend on regulatory agencies to keep my food safe. I wish I could, and in an ideal world, we all could. But, since Mammon rules, the consumer must be proactive. And skeptical.

    • Ha! I understand! But it’s not as hard to find farmers as you might think.

      I change countries very often – as in, I move my entire life to a new city or country as often as 4 times a year (though normally more like twice per year).

      One of the first things I do is start searching online for farmers that sell direct to the public which is an increasing number of them as it cuts out the middle man and greedy hungry supermarkets. There are also increasing number of websites that act as intermediaries to lots of different farmers. There is usually plenty of info about their farm practices and you can always call them directly to find out more.

      As an example of one of my experiences, one organic lamb farmer would send out an email notifying us of an upcoming slaughter and those on the list would email back the cuts they want. The slaughter happened a few weeks later around 4pm one day and at 6am the next day I had a box of fresh lamb on my doorstep.

      When I opened that box of fresh lamb I couldn’t believe it – the smell was delicious! I NEVER thought I’d say that about raw meat. It smelt nothing like the meat you buy in a supermarket even if it is organic prepackaged meat. It completely changed my concept of what meat tastes like.

      In the last 18 months I managed to order meat (and other organic produce) this way in Vancouver & Montreal in Canada, Adelaide & Sydney in Australia and Wellington in New Zealand. And the best thing is I don’t have to waste my precious weekends going to the grocery store.

      • @reata I was just reading though the comments and yours stood out as I too will be moving around about 4x per year. I haven’t started yet, but will begin in early August. The first thing I started to do was research similar things! I first looked for health food stores in the area, then farmer’s markets, then farmers. I would appreciate any tips you have in locating local farmers in the US. Are you a med traveller?

  16. Thanks for this information……………..sounds like the way to go is buy direct from the farmer. Otherwise we are just fooling ourselves into thinking spending more money is in our best interest.

  17. Very informative! As a Nutrition Coach I advise my clients to go for organic at least but to strive for local and grass fed whenever possible.
    However, I also think that we should strive for reducing the total amount if meat products we consume because of the environmental impact. A practice I recommend is to start with ine meatless day per week.

    • Sorry, Jimena, but, as a retired environmental scientist with 45+ years experience, and a mindset as somewhat of a “sustainability nut”, I could not let another comment of the “environmental impact” variety go unanswered. Have you honestly, objectively and analytically looked at the environmental impact of conventional factory farming of vegetable crops? The impact of palm oil production on habitats and endangered species? The misallocation of water in drought-ravaged areas to produce popular plant foods? The impact of pesticides used to produce plant crops for human consumption? The effect of monocropping on soil health and stability? The impact on bee colonies of intensive pollination practices? The indirect impact on wildlife of our plant crop production methods? There are a lot of myths associated with some vegan claims. The myths of “no animal cruelty” and “minimal environmental impact” are just two of those. And, the assertion that all the bad effects of plant crop production come from crops raised for animal feed is a whopper for which “myth” is too mild a term.

  18. Thank-you Chris – this is great. I am going to copy this off and put it in our waiting room for our patients to read and give it to people in the exam room when they come for nutritional counseling. I am always shocked at how many people – in San Francisco still eat conventional meats and vegetables. Important info on grass fed and grass finished for people who eat beef.

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