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You Ask, I Answer: “Grass-Fed” Labeling

naturalorganicmeatsDo the words “grass fed” on a package of beef mean anything, truly?

Are there strict guidelines, or is it a very loose term?

– Annie Balzer
Sacramento, CA
(Via Twitter, @anniebalzer)

Twitter’s 140-character limit was definitely not enough space to cover this topic, so I told Annie I would have to answer her question on the blog.  Not surprisingly, this is not as cut-and-dry (does that classify as a bad grass-related pun?) as you may think.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) legally defined the term “grass-fed” in October of 2007, as follows.  I have bolded certain parts for further discussion:

“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 diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen. If incidental supplementation occurs due to inadvertent exposure to non-forage feedstuffs or to ensure the animal’s well being at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions, the producer must fully document (e.g., receipts, ingredients, and tear tags) the supplementation that occurs including the amount, the frequency, and the supplements provided.

Whew.  Let’s break this down.

“Grass and forage… consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal.  The diet shall be derived solely from forage.”

This definition means that beef labeled “grass-fed” must be from cows that consume grass throughout their entire life.  This is to prevent grass-finished or grain-finished beef from being labeled “grass-fed”.  “Grass-finished” means that a cow eats grain for most of its life, but is then fed grass the last few months.  Prior to this 2007 ruling, some unscrupulous individuals would do this and label their products “grass-fed”.

“Grain-finished” is a more common practice, in which cows consume grass until the last few months of life, during which time they are fed grain.  The grain diet bulks up cows (which means more weight, and therefore, more money when sold), but ultimately negates the health-effects of a grass-exclusive diet (mainly lower levels of saturated fat and higher levels of heart-healthy conjugated linoleic acid).

“Animals must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season…”

This is one of the more vague and controversial parts of the definition.

“Access to pasture” is not the same as “pasture-raised”.  Per USDA laws, “access to pasture” can mean that cows are confined indoors, but a gate that leads to pasture is open.  Sure, the confined cows are eating grass or hay — as opposed to grains — from a trough, but their mobility is severely restricted.  This usually comes as a surprise to people who equate “grass-fed” with “pasture-raised”.

If incidental supplementation occurs due to inadvertent exposure to non-forage feedstuffs or to ensure the animal’s well being at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions, the producer must fully document (e.g., receipts, ingredients, and tear tags) the supplementation that occurs including the amount, the frequency, and the supplements provided.

This is also rather unsettling, for it appears to indicate that all the farmer has to do is document instances where cows may have eaten grains.  There is no mention of a farmer being forbidden from selling that meat as “grass-fed”.

Then, of course, there is the issue of what is not said in the definition.  “Grass-fed” does not indicate an absence of antibiotics or growth hormones.  That falls under the definition of “organic”.  So, organic grass-fed beef is certainly different from grass-fed beef.

The American Grassfed Association is very unhappy about that tidbit, and has therefore implemented its own third-party verification system.  You can read their standards here (specifically, read pages 3 to 9 to become familiar with their criteria). You can view a rather lengthy list of producers who meet their criteria here.

In essence, the American Grassfed Association label means that beef is from cows that:

  • Solely subsist on grass their entire lives
  • Do not consume antibiotics
  • Are not injected with hormones
  • Are pasture-raised

FYI 1: Let me once again remind you that “vegetarian-fed” is not the same as “grass-fed”!

FYI 2: Keep in mind, too, that this is all about certification.  It is very plausible that a local farm which labels its beef as “grass-fed” and does not carry an AGA label still meets all of their requirements.  If they don’t take the initiative to apply for certification, they won’t display the AGA seal of approval.

The problem isn’t that all beef labeled “grass-fed” is subjected to hormones and antibiotics, but rather that, due to loose standards, beef labeled in such a manner doesn’t necessarily have to abide by standards that some people erroneously assume come with that term.

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One Comment

  1. Patty said on August 25th, 2010

    So much of the confusion comes from the fact the the USDA controls only the label – they don’t control the signage and advertising (particularly web-based), and they certainly don’t control conversations. In reality many producers find it convenient to NOT know the USDA grassfed standard – and proudly proclaim their animals grassfed. They like the term “Grassfed – Grain Finished” They blatantly tout their “Grassfed Beef”, when in fact it doesn’t adhere to the USDA standard (“They eat grass, so they’re grassfed. Corn’s a grass.”)
    Beef production varies greatly region by region, and so does the language. Here in central Virginia the term “Grass-finished” is used to differentiate 100% grassfed beef from “Grassfed – Grain finished”. The practice as you define it, grain feeding then grass-finishing doesn’t make economic sense around here, but I’m sure there are plenty of places in the country where it does.
    Obtaining third party verification, offered by the AGA (American Grassfed Association) and AWA (Animal Welfare Approved), is less a function of initiative, and more a function of economics. Like the USDA Organic certification, the AGA label adds value to a products, but it also adds a cost. Ultimately, it’s the consumer who determines whether the certification is worth the cost.
    Thanks for introducing me to your wonderful page!

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