Grass-Fed Beef: What’s in a label?
What is really behind the USDA grass-fed beef label? Many consumers assume that that a USDA grass-fed certification means that ruminants are raised on pasture for the duration of their lives, without confinement to a feedlot. For this reason, grass-fed beef is often touted as the very best choice if you want to know that you’re eating a happy animal. Not so fast…
- Think a USDA label of Grass-fed is truly grass-fed? Think again…
- Assume that grass-fed cows are happy healthy cows? Hold on…
- Grass-fed cows graze year-round on a pasture and not a feedlot? Not true!
- Grass-fed means no commercial forage such as processed pellets fed out of a trough? Not true!
- Organic Beef is better and more regulated? Not so!
(This article outlines some of the deceptions and ambiguities in the meat industry. USDA labeling and terminology could be described as a language that helps translate what happens on the farm into tangible information at the retail level. But it’s not exactly the be-all and end-all.)
Know Your Rancher!
We believe that the only way to know what you are eating is to know and talk to your rancher.
We believe the only way to realistically buy real food is to find the person who raises it, look him in the eye, and ask him how he does it. If he meets your standards, buy it!
The standards for grass-fed beef were set by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2007.
The American Marketing Service (AMS), an agency within the USDA, has a say in how meat is labeled and marketed for sale. Despite the fact that AMS programs are entirely voluntary, their pricey certificates are paid for by the producer or processor, not the government. So with AMS programs entirely voluntary by the producer, why do they choose to participate? Simply put, this marketing tool or label ultimately helps producers, distributors, and vendors make more money.
All cattle are grass fed for the first 6 to 12 months of their lives. To qualify for the USDA claim of grass-fed, it is stipulated that “grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.” The forage can be grazed on pastures, hay or other stored forage. What qualifies as forage can include unhealthy high-calorie, high-sugar produce when cattle only naturally tolerate a 15% sugar diet. This unnatural feed qualifies as grass-fed forage but is unhealthy for the cow.
Cattle must also have continuous access to pasture during the “growing season.” In the event of “adverse weather conditions,” farmers are allowed to bend the rules further, so there is room for a fair amount of ambiguity here. ‘Access’ doesn’t mean exclusive diet, and doesn’t mandate how much actual time the herd spends outdoors. So theoretically, it’s entirely possible to raise beef mostly indoors on hay and still have it qualify as USDA grass-fed beef.
What about Organic Beef?
The regulation of organic beef states that an organically raised animal must be fed 100% organic and vegetarian feed, have year-round access to the outdoors, space to move, and not be treated with antibiotics or hormones. In many ways, the organic label is pretty comprehensive, covering aspects of the animal’s living conditions, as well as its general diet and wellness.
That said, there’s still some wiggle room within these regulations. During the grazing season, for instance, it’s mandatory that at least 30% of a steer or heifer’s diet is pasture (fresh grass). But beyond that, there are no requirements for the amount of time it spends outside on grass. Organically raised cattle also may receive grain as part of their diet, and they’re exempt from the grass-feeding minimum during the finishing period (the last fifth or so of their life, when they are fattened up prior to slaughter).
The Couch Potato Cow:
USDA Grass-fed meat can qualify for the grass-fed label even if they are confined to a pen and fed hay, forage, and pellets for 6 months out of the year. Further motivation to put cattle in pens is so that they get no exercise. This is much like the human “Couch Potato” that gets fat and tender with no exercise. In a feedlot, grain causes cattle to gain one pound for every six pounds of feed they eat.
In contrast, grass fed cows gain weight much more slowly and therefore need to be slaughtered at 2-3 years old, rather than 12-14 months. Truly grass-fed, pasture-raised cattle, kept on grass their entire life, grow at a naturally slower pace. This natural way of caring for animals is, not surprisingly, more expensive for ranchers and consumers. The result, though, is a healthy, tasty and nutritious meat produced the way nature intended!
Worth The Wait
We feel that this slower process results in a signature flavor with distinct leanness that sets us apart from our counterparts. Our closed herd of Barzona cattle are naturally selected to eat grass, just as the Angus in feedlots have been genetically selected to eat grain. Our cows eat what they were evolved to eat and live the way they have evolved to. The nutrition is there for the animal’s survival and we get that nutrition when we eat our delicious meat.