When I see grass-fed beef in local markets, I imagine cattle grazing in a pasture. Those animals were living the good life, I figure, so I feel better about eating them.
As with many things, I discovered, the reality often is very different.
All cattle graze at some point. “Even in conventional feedlots, the diet is usually 15% roughage of some sort (ground hay, silage, straw, etc.),” says Jim Gerrish. As owner of American GrazingLands Services in May, Idaho, he advises producers on environmentally sustainable grazing operations.
Obviously, buying beef isn’t as simple as I thought. These are some questions to ask yourself.
Is it grain fed?
Conventionally produced meat is fed grain, often in overcrowded feedlots, because it’s a cost-effective way to produce beef. Grain-fed cattle require less land than grass-fed animals, and they mature more quickly. The meat is well marbled with fat, which makes it tender, and many consumers like inexpensive, juicy meat.
I enjoy inexpensive, tender meat, too. But there are downsides to consider. The fatter animals become on grain, the more calories and saturated fat there are in the meat. Cattle also often get sick on a grain diet and must be treated with antibiotics. Widespread use of preventative antibiotics in livestock has contributed to antibiotic resistance in humans, and earlier this week the FDA called for limiting agricultural antibiotics to therapeutic use.
Is it grass fed?
Grass-fed beef is popular among conscientious omnivores since it’s the animals’ natural diet. It’s healthier for humans too. Grass fed beef is lower in calories and saturated fat than grain-fed meat yet higher in healthy fats like conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega-3 fatty acids (same goes for dairy products made with milk from grass-fed cows). Since grass-fed beef is leaner, you’ll want to avoid overcooking it; rare to medium-rare is the way to go. Marinating helps tenderize it, too, as I did with this Grass-Fed Beef Bulgogi.
The USDA’s voluntary Grass Fed Marketing Claim Standards specify that animals have a diet of forage, but that doesn’t guarantee they graze in a pasture. “It opens the door to animals raised in a feedlot, fed harvested forage, given antibiotics and growth hormones, and labeled ‘grass fed,’” says Patricia Whisnant, DVM, owner of Rain Crow Ranch in Doniphan, Missouri, and president of the American Grassfed Association (AGA).
In 2009, the AGA debuted the American Grassfed certification to guarantee animals are raised on forage, in pastures, with no antibiotics and under humane conditions. The program includes third-party audits by Animal Welfare Approved.
But grass-fed, pasture-raised beef is expensive to produce. It requires plenty of land to accommodate cattle’s grazing needs, and animals take longer to mature. That means it costs more on the plate. Beef tenderloin is about $14 per pound for the conventional, grain-fed stuff while grass-fed, pastured beef is at least twice that.
What role does organic play?
The USDA National Organic Program’s new Access-to-Pasture Rule sounds great because it specifies that all organic ruminant livestock must actively graze in a pasture during the grazing season in their location.
Does that mean organic beef is grass-fed, I wondered? Sort of. Turns out, the new rule is open to liberal interpretations. “Grain can equal up to 70% of the diet,” Whisnant notes.
“A farmer could keep the stock in the feedlot for two days and then turn them out [to pasture] for one day, and continue that sequence year-round,” Gerrish explains. “The product of this would have essentially the same body composition profile of an animal continuously [fed grain] in the feedlot.”
How is it finished?
This is a livestock term that refers to how animals are fattened 90 to 160 days before slaughter, whether on grass or grain.
Grass finishing was standard until the 1950s, when grain finishing became the cost-effective norm. However, calories and overall fat in the animals’ tissues rise during grain finishing whereas grass-finished beef is lean.
When it comes to buying beef, you have to decide which factors are most important to you, and what you’re willing to pay. If you want beef from cattle that has never nibbled grain, look for meat with the American Grassfed seal. If the health advantages of grass-fed are your main concern, a grass-finished product may satisfy.
My choice: Buy the pricier grass-fed beef but enjoy it in smaller portions and cook it with finesse.