What is American Grass Fed Beef?
Given that 80% of grass fed beef in America is imported (the top 5 countries are Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Mexico, and Brazil), there are a lot of Americans buying grass fed beef from large suppliers who may not be getting the beef they thought they were getting based on the pictures on the label. They have no way of knowing what the country of origin is or if the beef is actually grass finished because certification standards vary (pasture-raised or natural may mean the animal was grain-finished).
Pasture-Raised Versus Grass Fed
It’s not easy being a consumer in today’s food landscape. Labels that seem self-explanatory enough sometimes mean something else entirely, or nothing at all, as in the case of the “all-natural” label, which is basically meaningless and used as a marketing ploy more than anything else. When it comes to grass fed beef labels, there’s plenty of confusion to go around, as well. As explained in the “Back to Grass” report:
“The clearest distinction between grass fed and conventional beef occurs at the finishing stage. Grass fed cattle remain on pastures and are finished on a diet of predominantly grass or other forages. They grow more slowly and are typically slaughtered at 20 [to] 28 months of age. Meat from these animals is usually sold with a grass fed label approved by the [USDA] and sold into niche grass fed beef markets for a premium.
However, the USDA’s allowance of partial grass fed claims (e.g., ’50 [percent] grass fed’) and the absence of a requirement for on-farm inspection for grass fed claims mean that not all beef sold with a grass fed label necessarily follows these production standards.
Some cattle are kept on pasture through the finishing phase, but their diet is supplemented with grains; these animals are ‘pasture-raised’ but not 100 [percent] grass fed. A striking development in recent years has been the emergence of ‘grass feedlots,’ where cattle are fed grass (often in the form of grass pellets) in confinement.”
Ideally, the best way to ensure you’re getting exactly what you pay for is to buy directly from a trusted farmer. Many are more than happy to give you a tour and explain the details of their operation. Your next best option is to know your labels. The American Grassfed Association (AGA) recently introduced much-needed grass fed standards and certification for American-grown grass fed beef and dairy, which will allow for greater transparency and conformity.
Prior to this certification, dairy and beef could be sold as “grass fed” whether the cows ate solely grass, or received silage, hay or even grains during certain times.