Label Myth Busting: Grass-fed

It’s very easy to fall into the marketing pitfalls of food, even with the best intentions. Let’s take grass-fed beef, for example. The idea of grass-fed beef for a lot of us gives us visions of wide open pastures, full of grass for many a happy cow to enjoy for the duration of their life. And while this is a reality at some farms, there is no standard label that reflects that kind of natural life of a grass-fed animal.
The term grass-fed itself is quite generalized. Was the animal always fed grass after weaned from its mother or just for part of its life? Did they feed the animal grain towards the end of their life to get the most product out of the animal? Where did they eat the grass? In a pasture? Given to them in a confined space? Did they get a variety of forage or just one type of grass? None of these questions can be answered by the simple label or term “grass-fed.”
Cows are ruminants meaning they naturally feed on a variety of grasses. In a natural setting, cows eat the type of grass they need when they need it and their multi-chambered stomachs allow them to digest such feed. However, most beef on the market today comes from large feedlots (also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, CAFOs for short), where cows are kept in unsanitary and tight confinement and left to feed on grain which can cause a myriad of problems which are normally “solved” by overloading the animals with antibiotics and hormones. There are many reasons to choose grass-fed over grain including nutritional, environmental, ethical, and economic – all reasons I can go into in another post.
In January of 2016, the USDA revoked their official definition, labelling standard and regulation of any grass-fed beef on the market which means there are NO national standards for labeling a product as “grass-fed.” There are independent organizations that do provide a certification for grass-fed animal products such as American Grassfed and Food Alliance, however each have different certification standards.
Now this isn’t to scare you away from grass-fed, not at all. This is to educate you about the gaps left by the generalized term or label of “grass-fed.” In order to fill those gaps, get to the farmers market and talk to the farmers about how they raise their animals. Locate a butcher that is transparent (and proud!) about where their local product comes from and how those farmers raise their animals. I cannot stress enough that the only way to really know your food is to stop relying on labels, get local, and start asking questions!