The all-natural and organic food sector is growing at an incredible pace. This trend has found its way into the meat protein sector as well. More consumers are demanding high quality clean and safe meat products. The growth of the ABF, Organic and Grass-Fed Beef industry has grown by double digits in the last two years. But how do you know whether or not you’re truly getting clean grass-fed or organic meat?
So many people think that just because you buy it from your local farmers market that its the best you can get. That may be the case but how do you know exactly what the animals were fed and how they were raised? At some point, all cattle have been fed grass. But what else has that animal eaten or been treated with?
Read this recent article by the Huffington Post.
What Grass-Fed Really Means And Why
Genuine, grass-fed beef comes from animals that lived on pasture, foraging on nothing but grasses, from birth to harvest. According to the strict standards of the American Grassfed Association, which offers a certification program for producers, that’s the main requirement.
Simple, right? But the beef supply system gets complicated. You see, almost every animal raised for beef is grass-fed for most of its life. But it’s the last few months, the phase called “finishing,” that makes a difference.
Nearly all beef cattle in the U.S. ― 95% ― are finished on rations that include food waste, silage, and grains in feedlots known as concentrated animal feeding operations. The remaining 5% of grass-fed cattle remain on pasture eating fresh or stored grasses. The American Grassfed Association discounts hard numbers about the size and value of the grass-fed market because no one tracks “authentic all-grass fed all the time” versus beef labeled “grass-fed,” according to executive director Carrie Balkcom.
Trouble is, there is no federal government standard or enforcement for any grass-fed label. On top of that, most of the grass-fed beef sold at Walmart and other major chains is imported from Australia, Uruguay or other countries, but may still be labeled product of the USA. It’s hard to know what you’re getting.
Instead of drilling into the meaning of every label, let’s focus on the big picture first. Grass-fed beef is all about the grass. When cattle eat only native forages, they upcycle the nutrients, including omega 3 essential fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid, and antioxidants like beta-carotene and vitamin E. Grain-fed cattle ― even certified Angus and wagyu ― don’t.
Another critical difference is that cattle raised for the grass-fed market graze. Since they’re not in feedlots, they get regular exercise that results in leaner, firmer beef. They also spend their lives living, well, like cattle, without contributing as much to the major health, land and water impacts of factory farming.
Finally, since it takes more land and more time, grass-fed beef costs more, which you see in-store prices that are about 70% higher than for regular beef. It is this combination of surging popularity and market opportunity that results in rampant sales of “fake” grass-fed beef.
Grass-Fed Isn’t Always 100% Grass-Fed
Portland, Oregon, butcher Camas Davis told HuffPost that she commonly sees beef advertised as grass-fed in the supermarket when she knows it’s grain-finished.
“I know because I always ask,” Davis said. She is the founder of The Good Meat Project, offering butcher and slaughter workshops to help people learn how meat gets to their tables. “If they’re not saying it’s 100% grass-fed, I almost always assume that it’s grain-finished,” she said.
Davis doesn’t think the labels are intentionally misleading, but rather that there’s a lot of misunderstanding. “I think a lot of times the grass-fed label is thought of by producers and consumers to mean animals just roaming around in grass,” she said.
How prevalent is beef mislabeling in the grass-fed world? It’s “hard to say for sure,” said Balkcom of the American Grassfed Association. The group has obtained reports of misleading labels from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Balkcom said it appears “a very large number” of grass-fed claims are deceptive.
The grass-fed label is “ill-defined and open to abuse,” says a 2017 report by Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable agriculture. The report points out that some cattle that spend only half their lives on pasture can qualify as grass-fed, as do cattle that live on pasture full time and are fed grains during finishing. It cites the egregious example of a grass-fed claim for feedlot cattle that were fed grass pellets.
How To Avoid Buying ‘Fake’ Grass-Fed Beef
Industry experts warn consumers against trusting any grass-fed label that is not backed by third-party certification. American Grassfed Association’s certification, for example, includes a stringent definition. Like other certification programs, however, it is voluntary for producers. The group A Greener World also has a Certified Grassfed standard that guarantees the animals are grass-fed and are raised with higher animal welfare standards.
For those who want to decode the bewildering array of labels, A Greener World’s app, Food Labels Exposed, guides you through 100 claims that might be made by beef in the store, including three common terms that should tip you off that it isn’t pure grass-fed: “natural,” “vegetarian-fed” and “pasture-raised.”
Another option is to become loyal to a brand you know is trustworthy. For example, RanchLand Foods sells organic-certified 100% grass-fed beef.
Surprisingly, organic certification alone does not guarantee pure grass-fed beef. The USDA organic seal only promises that the animals had seasonal access to pasture and that their feed was organic. Panorama is certified by the Global Animal Partnership, a program Whole Foods also uses that can steer you toward true grass-fed beef.
Other grocery stores vet brands that meet their standards for grass-fed beef, so ask if it’s not clear. But Balkcom cautioned that meat department managers aren’t always the best resources. “But you as the consumer can make them find out,” she said.
Finding out where the beef comes from is key, according to Davis. But the best way to become a more inquisitive and informed meat consumer, she said, is through hands-on experiences, like butchering workshops.
“Most people think that all meat is created equal,” Davis said. But after a workshop, people revalue meat. “They learn that there’s a different way of raising meat that could be good for our planet and better for the animals and better for our own bodies,” she said.