Grass-Fed: Something to Chew On

Conscientious omnivores of the Michael Pollan variety champion grass-fed beef. It is claimed to be better for the cattle themselves than grain-finishing, since they eat what their rumens are evolved to digest (grass and legumes) instead of what fattens them quickest. Plus, they get to graze open pasture instead of being confined to a feedlot for the final four to six months of their lives. Grass-fed enthusiasts also claim it’s better for people because grass-fed meat is leaner and has a higher proportion of omega-3 fats than grain-finished meat. Some even argue that it’s better for the environment, since you don’t have huge piles of feedlot manure to manage; the cattle deposit their manure on grass, as they naturally would, and it ultimately nourishes the soil.

But grass-fed beef may not live up to all the hype. Whether the consumer is getting everything she hoped for when she picks up a package of grass-fed tenderloin depends on whether the farmer who produced it shares her vision of what “grass-fed” means. For beef to qualify legally as grass-fed, the only standard it must meet is the USDA one established after years of wrangling with the beef industry in 2007. According to this rule, the cattle must be fed on grass or forage for their entire lives after weaning, and must also have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Does grass-fed meat that complies with this standard have all of the advantages claimed for it?

Well, let’s look at the cited benefits for the animals first. Grass-fed animals cannot legally be fed grain, so the animals should avoid the intestinal problems they suffer under grain-finishing. However, the notion that they are guaranteed a life frolicking on green pastures is misplaced. The USDA rule requires merely that they have “access” to pasture (not that they are actually “on” pasture) and that only during the growing season, which the USDA does not define. According to Jo Robinson, who runs the Eat Wild directory of pasture-raised meats, the ambiguity of the term “growing season” means that farmers can keep their cattle confined for the majority of the year, feeding them cut hay and forage to qualify for the “grass-fed” designation.

Photo Credit(s): Kate NG SommersPhoto Credit(s): Kate NG SommersBut would farmers actually do this? Doesn’t it seem like the economic incentives are on the side of just allowing the cattle to graze, rather than having to invest the labor and expense to harvest grass and feed it to cattle sitting three feet away in their pens? Apparently the case is not so straightforward. Patricia Whisnant, president of the American Grassfed Association, points out that “…the margin per head of cattle is small, so to make money you need high volume, which depends on how fast you can raise them. In a feedlot with no exercise … you can raise them quicker, even feeding grass.” Jo Robinson notes that whether it’s economically viable to graze your cattle also depends on the quality of your pasture: “If you have poor pastures, you could fatten an animal better on hay that is bought, and then call it grass-fed.” So, what makes financial sense for the farmer may not be the best option for the animal.

What about the purported health benefits for those who eat grass-fed beef? They depend on the meat’s being leaner than grain-finished meat, and having a chemical composition skewed toward omega-3 fats. But in the feedlot scenario, it’s not clear that these assumptions hold. Yes, the feed is still composed of grass, but the lack of exercise compared to cattle that are truly grazed negatively impacts the muscle-to-fat ratio. The omega-3 claim is up for debate. And if it’s also important to the grass-fed beef consumer that his beef be free of growth hormones or antibiotics, he’s out of luck. The USDA standard allows these.

Finally, the environmental benefits also disintegrate in the feedlot scenario. Just as in any conventional feedlot, the farmer is left with tons of manure that must be stored in lagoons or otherwise handled to avoid contaminating surrounding land and water.

So what is the consumer who refuses to sacrifice the benefits of grass-fed beef to do? As in so many cases, the best answer is the most demanding: know your farmer. Go to the farm in person, or at least look her in the eye at the farmers market and ask the tough questions. Barring that, seek out farms whose operations are independently certified by trusted third parties. The American Grassfed Association (AGA) maintains a certification program with audits conducted by Animal Welfare Approved which allows at most thirty days of confinement per year, to be reserved for true emergencies like blizzards. Eat Wild strives to include only those farmers who have a true commitment to raising animals on pasture, although it does not mandate the number of days per year cattle can be confined, and it does not have the infrastructure to run audits. Jo Robinson relies on good old-fashioned community policing; people have called to tell her when a neighbor is not as true to the intent of grass-feeding as Jo would like. But over the seven years and hundreds of producers she’s met since the founding of Eat Wild, Jo says, “Far more often than cheating, what I’ve found is people willing to go the extra mile, to do even more than what’s required.” She chuckles, a bit shyly: “It’s truly … well … heartwarming.” Finding that sort of integrity is worth a little legwork.

Angelique Chao is a freelance writer in Minneapolis who spends most of her time noodling about the ethical implications of what we choose to eat. She thought she’d left philosophizing behind for good when she finished her dissertation and joined the business world, but after several years of corporate life her natural disposition reasserted itself, and she’s now a full-time writer and researcher. When she’s not out touring farms and processing facilities, you’re likely to find her at one laptop-friendly spot or another - a library, a coffee shop, or home. She blogs at