Label lowdown: “Grass-fed Beef”

This article was originally published in July 2020

Q: How do I know if I am really buying grass-fed beef?

A: The claim of “grass-fed” beef is generally “ill-defined and open to abuse,” according to a 2017 report from the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Most consumers assume “grass-fed” animals have continuous access to pasture and eat only grass and other forage throughout their lives, which is not always the case. “A striking development in recent years has been the emergence of “grass feedlots,” where animals are kept in confinement and fed grass pellets,” the report said. Additionally, some labels advertise a “grass-fed, grain-finished” claim that is virtually meaningless.

“This could apply to almost all beef that passes through the conventional system, as all cattle are fed grass until a certain point. It says nothing about whether animals are confined or allowed access to pasture during the finishing phase, and confirms that their diet is mostly grain,” the report said.

The experts at Consumer Reports specify that “If you want grass-fed beef, look for a specific 100% grass-fed claim.” For strong standards that avoid misleading claims, Consumer Reports recommends the labels “American Grassfed,” “NOFA-NY Certified 100% Grass Fed,” and “PCO Certified 100% Grass Fed.”

The organization generally supports pursuing grass-fed products: “When possible, grass-fed beef and dairy products are a wise buy because their total fat content is lower than such products from grain-fed cattle. In addition, the mix of fats they contain may be heart healthier. Specifically, grass-fed meat and dairy has a more healthful ratio of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids to omega-3s. Too much omega-6 fat in your diet can cause inflammation, which may be a factor in heart disease, cancer and other illnesses. But omega-3 is anti-inflammatory. And more of the saturated fat in grass-fed is stearic acid, a type of fatty acid that doesn’t raise blood cholesterol.”

Here is the Consumer Reports review of the American Grassfed seal, which earned an “excellent” rating from the organization:

Main benefits: Cattle graze on pasture, eating only grass their entire life.

  • Animals are not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones.
  • Farms are inspected every 15 months to ensure compliance with standards.

Limitations: None

Overview: The American Grassfed seal is overseen by the nonprofit American Grassfed Association. Cattle are fed only grass (no grain), and are raised on pastures that are managed to ensure that they can obtain optimal nutrition from grass only. Farms are inspected every 15 months, which means visits take place in different seasons. In addition, the animals aren’t given antibiotics or growth-promoting drugs, such as hormones. Farmers can only use synthetic pesticides on the pasture as a last resort and can’t feed the animals crops with genetically modified (or engineered) organisms or grow GMO crops on their farms. The standards also include some protections for animal welfare, such as providing the animals with shade and shelter.


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