Is Your Grass-Fed Beef for Real? Here’s How to Tell and Why it Matters

As demand for grass-fed beef explodes, a range of practices and labels (and a lack of regulation) persists.


When you buy a pound of hamburger in the grocery store, you’re likely to be bombarded by an incredible assortment of labels. With all-natural, grass-fed, free-range, pastured, sustainably sourced, and certified organic options to choose from, it’s not easy to parse which beef is actually the best.

In recent years, demand for grass-fed beef has grown rapidly, thanks to the popularity of high-protein diets and growing consumer awareness about the overuse of antibiotics on farms and other related concerns. Grass-fed beef is also seen as nutritionally superior to its corn-fed counterparts, thanks to the omega-3 fatty acids that cows ingest when they graze on clover and other grasses. Grass-fed burger chains are popping up all over the country, and even Carl’s Jr. began offering a grass-fed burger earlier this year.

But what exactly do we mean when we say “grass-fed”? And is all grass-fed beef the same?

It’s All in the Finishing

“All cattle are grass-fed at one time in their life, until most end up in a feedlot where they’re finished on grain,” says Texas rancher Gerry Shudde. Indeed, most cows spend at least six months eating grass, before they are “finished,” or fattened up, with grain. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association puts that number at 12 months, but most grain-finished beef cows don’t live beyond 18 months.

According to rancher and the author of Defending Beef Nicolette Hahn Niman, the real number likely falls somewhere in the middle. “On average, the cattle in the U.S. that is going through feedlots is slaughtered at 14-16 months,” she says. “They do grow fatter and faster if they’re being fed grain, so they’re going into feedlots at younger ages to shorten that time as much as possible.” In a feedlot environment, grain causes cows to put on about one pound for every six pounds of feed they eat. In contrast, grass-fed cows are slaughtered anywhere between 18-36 months.

“When you keep cattle on grass their whole lives, and truly have them forage for a diet that their bodies have evolved to eat, you allow them to grow at a slower pace,” says Niman. Not surprisingly, caring for the animal for so long can be expensive for ranchers and consumers.

Many informed eaters will tell you that this slower process results in a signature flavor and distinct leanness that sets it apart from its corn-fed counterpart, but the fact is that beef producers can label their product “grass-fed,” even if the animal is fed grain over the course of its lifetime. Unlike the lengthy auditing process involved in U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic certification, the use of “grass-fed” is only regulated under the agency’s “marketing claim standards.

According to these standards, grass-fed cows are supposed to be given continuous access to rangeland, and they cannot be fed grains or grain by-products. In the event of drought or other “adverse weather conditions,” farmers are allowed to bend these rules if the animal’s wellness is in jeopardy, but they must maintain meticulous records. Unfortunately, these regulations are, for the most part, a paper tiger.

Missing Oversight

Marilyn Noble of the American Grassfed Association argues that beef producers have little incentive to stick with those rules. “It’s a big issue, and there is a lot of misunderstanding. The Agricultural Marketing Service developed the grass-fed standard, but the Food Safety and Inspection Service actually enforces it,” says Noble. “The two organizations, even though they’re both part of the USDA, don’t communicate especially well. You see a lot of beef labeled as ‘grass-fed,’ but whether or not it actually meets that standard is questionable.”

Noble’s skepticism is rooted in the fact that, for the most part, the USDA allows producers to determine whether or not their beef meets the grass-fed beef marketing claim standard. Noble says farms “self-certify” their own beef, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service generally goes along with their claim. The ubiquitous “naturally raised” label on meat has no enforceable meaning either, and further muddles a consumer’s ability to find beef that has been exclusively raised on pasture.

The American Grassfed Association, established in 2003, has far more stringent standards for its own label than the USDA, and hires third-party auditors to inspect the farms of its 100-plus certified producers across the country each year.

Farmers’ markets are also often full of vendors offering grass-fed beef from their own pastures. And the rising popularity of meat CSAs and whole animal buying clubs is an indication of how dramatically this trend has grown in recent years. With these options, consumers can talk directly to farmers to find out how their beef was raised. Many of these producers have begun using the term “pasture raised,” another unregulated labeling term that is popular among ranchers.

Even Whole Foods has adopted some of this farm-to-market language in its meat sourcing standards. For example, “pasture-centered” farms score a 4 out of 5 on the grocer’s Animal Welfare Rating scale (owned by Global Animal Partnership). In reality, Niman says, these animals may not be doing much of the foraging that gives grass-fed beef its nutritional benefits.

“[Whole Foods] has been encouraging this segment of beef in the marketplace where animals are roaming on a small area with vegetative cover,” says  Niman. “But they’re being provided feed, and not actually getting most of their nutrition from foraging. It’s almost like a feedlot.”

At BN Ranch, which Nicolette operates with her husband, Bill Niman, “the godfather of sustainable meat” and founder of Niman Ranch, cattle is given more time to slowly develop fat over a period of more than two years. For the Nimans, good “eating quality” in the beef is paramount. But, Nicolette says, that’s not always the case on farms where people are “doing it for philosophical reasons. They believe that grazing is ecologically superior, and that it is the right way to raise cattle. The things that are motivating them are not eating quality.”

As a result, grass-fed beef’s lean flavor is often seen as inferior. Some chefs, particularly in fine-dining steakhouses, still resist serving grass-fed beef in favor of corn-fed, USDA prime beef, because of its fat content.

Worth the Wait

Michael Sohocki, chef of Restaurant Gwendolyn in San Antonio, Texas, chooses grass-fed beef over the cheaper, richer, corn-fed cuts because he firmly believes that the process is worth the extra time and money. And his discerning diners come to his restaurant because they know the meat has been properly sourced. “When you eat stockyard beef, all of that beef is the same,” says Sohocki. “It’s done that way to guarantee its consistency. That’s what McDonald’s specializes in.”

Sohocki calls grass-fed beef “the only trustworthy product left in this world.” He sources it from nearby Shudde Ranch, where Jeanne and Gerry Shudde make a point of raising a specialized cross-breed of species suited to naturally develop fat on pasture.

“Our [cows] are on grass when they’re with their mother. And when separated, they stay on the grass,” says Gerry Shudde.

The Shuddes decided to go grass-fed by chance after acquiring a herd of Longhorn cattle that they planned to cross-breed with their own. The offspring did not fare well, but the Shuddes ultimately decided to keep the longhorn cows. When they butchered a six-year-old cow, which had been raised on grass for much longer than usual, Jeanne says, “It was really tender. We thought ‘gosh, this tastes better than what we get in the grocery store.’”

From there, the Shuddes developed their own, new breed of grass-fed cattle. They were already raising cows without antibiotics or hormones, and their farm eventually evolved into a completely grass-fed operation by 2002. Still, they had to find the right cow to produce the quality of beef that they desired. “Most of the animals that you find today have been genetically selected to do well in a feedlot environment,” says Jeanne. “If you take them and put them on grass and think they will [taste good], I’d say maybe, maybe not. But if you take an animal that is genetically survival-oriented, it will become well-marbled on grass.”

Their own cows are now a cross between that original herd of Longhorn cattle and a heritage Devon bull. “Our belief is that if they eat what they evolved to eat, and live in the way that they have evolved to, the nutrition for the animal’s survival will be there,” says Jeanne. “If the nutrition is there, humans will get that nutrition when we eat the meat.”

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  1. Thursday, July 2nd, 2015
    How the animal lives is more important to me than what it is fed. I want beef from a cow that has wandered around a pasture freely like the ones my grandfather raised. No beating them. No traumatic loud environments. No crowded living spaces. No forced pregnancies then stealing the babies.
    Where can I get beef like this?
  2. NativeAtlantaGirl
    Saturday, July 4th, 2015
    Trey,
    I found a farmer who has been raising grass-fed cattle for several generations. They are her "babies" (which is kind of odd since they are slaughtered every 2yrs). She has invited me to the farm - was really neat to see how everything operates. She tells me the cows love the Allman Brothers and Fleetwod Mac. They come up to her and nuzzle, "trot" along the pasture when she drives up in the truck...

    I would suggest checking for local farmer's markets - most welcome you wanting to know more.
  3. cookster
    Sunday, July 5th, 2015
    I only want to eat meat that was raised by a farmer living above the poverty line (by any definition) able to enjoy their work. Secondly, the animal must be free of avoidable stress and able to live in a fashion suited to its nature. I also require the butcher to be paid a living wage and respected as an artist of sorts. I want to eat from a community of well treated people and animals. I live this value by paying more for my food and learning as much as possible about it.
  4. Mashariki
    Sunday, July 5th, 2015
    The last paragraph says it all! All animals have a diet that they have evolved with to sustain the species. When an animal eats what it is supposed to eat it is healthy and strong, and lives a good life. This includes humans. We have a diet we have evolved with which includes meat from animals that ate what they were supposed to eat. It is clear we humans have strayed from our ancestral diet in many ways, and the health repercussions we suffer from are the evidence of that departure..
  5. Lorraine Lewandrowski
    Monday, July 6th, 2015
    NY winters are long ands hard. Is there anything wrong with giving a cow a scoop of grain to supplement forage? Hay will be short supply this year unless the rains let up.
  6. josh salans
    Thursday, July 9th, 2015
    If its grain fed the beef, lamb, chicken is poisonous as it is ingesting BT Corn with its Pesticide at the cellular level. This is my dilemma as when I eat anything that has the ubiquitous BT Corn residue in it my body reacts with inflamed hemorrhoids that are not a problem otherwise. I am the canary in the cave as this Monsanto poison makes its way into every food group in America, poisoning us with BT Pesticide and its inflammatory effects. Grass fed animal that is "finished" on grain makes all of it's byproducts tainted by the BT Pesticide gene and thus, milk, cheese, eggs, and t he meat from these animals is actually poison to the human consumer. How do we stop the terrorism that is Monsanto?
  7. Lee Marlatt
    Thursday, July 9th, 2015
    Here in Prescott Arizona, we got stuck with Whole Foods. New Frontiers was the previous company. They handled far better quality foods. For instance Niman farms. WF handles Applegate products. In the summer I tend to buy lunch meat for a quick sandwich. I have to go to another store to find Niman, and sometimes the dates on the package is hours from being up. It is so disgusting to have such a quality store where you had CHOICE. Having no choice seems to be the trend. That and all the dishonesty about food. Ugh. I am looking for some local farms that raise beef and pork , and will more than likely go that route. As you say, you can at least get to see the operation, and ask questions. Thanks for the article.
  8. Keith Johnson
    Friday, July 10th, 2015
    First, cattle evolved to live exclusively on grass. Life expectancy on grass is 20 years, on grain it's 5 years. Hence both meat and milk from grass-only feeding can be expected to be more healthy for the consumer.

    Second, producers are discovering that intensive rotational grazing dramatically improves the health of soil and grass, preventing it from turning into desert. Supporting grass-fed can help heal the earth.

    Third, such grazing effectively sequesters CO2 from the atmosphere, storing it as humus in the soil. So grass-fed can help clear the air.

    Read the book entitled "the soil will save us" by Kristin Ohlson, Rodale Press. (check Amazon) This is the best single overview of this complex topic that I have found.
  9. Friday, July 10th, 2015
    It may be noteworthy that WWF recently came out publicly against grass-fed beef and in favor of the feedlot industry, claiming it was more efficient (the claim was quoted in a National Geographic piece on beef that I found extremely one-sided). I thought WWF would get some pushback from environmentalists for this industry white-wash but haven't heard anything.
  10. Friday, July 10th, 2015
    Thank you for this enlightening information. I buy buffalo and grass fed beef from Whole Foods so this allows me to understand the process and ask about certifications that matter to me.
  11. Sunday, July 12th, 2015
    I feel that the FDA and USDA are only looking out for their pockets and this is why the standards are not always met. Is it really that hard to make sure our food is fit for consumption? Isn't it worth the work to see that we all have good quality beef and poultry to put into our bodies? Why are they questioning the motives of the consumer? This is what it is all about! For the consumer, and meanwhile you still make money! Too many antibiotics and altering the beef and poultry is not a way to treat the consumer who have no other alternative other than becoming vegans. Is that what you want?
  12. clyde
    Sunday, July 12th, 2015
    Your story is interesting and informative, but it seems that without either knowing the rancher or raising the cattle yourself, a customer JUST DOESN'T KNOW HOW THE ANIMAL WAS RAISED.

    What we have is nice-looking, deceptive labels.
  13. Monday, July 13th, 2015
    Thanks so much...your beef sounds like what I'm looking for!

    Where can I buy it? I'm referencing Shudde.
  14. Darla Eaves
    Monday, July 13th, 2015
    So which label should I look for if I want truly grass feed beef?
    • Twilight Greenaway
      Monday, July 13th, 2015
      As the article explains, the American Grassfed Association label is one approach, but labels are not all there is to it. It also helps to learn abut the farm itself. Good luck!
  15. Charlene
    Monday, July 13th, 2015
    kinda informative but article : alluded to "how to tell if your grass fed beef is for real..", but did not really get any tangible useable info. Guess I'll have to stick w/ organic everything . Thanks ?
  16. Kathy
    Monday, July 13th, 2015
    So....... How can WE tell what's what..... When we're trying to decide which one to buy.... if we have to buy from a store....what should we look for on a label..... or which questions should we ask the butcher?
    Thank you.
  17. Denise Dunsing
    Monday, July 13th, 2015
    You are exactly right about the labels, and I'm not sure your article helped at all. I want grass fed but what you're saying is that I have really no way of knowing what I'm getting unless I buy straight from the farmer. I live in the country so I can actually do that but what about my family that lives in the city?
    • Twilight Greenaway
      Monday, July 13th, 2015
      The article does point to the American Grassfed Association as a reliable group.
  18. Monday, July 13th, 2015
    Need to know more about this topic......all animal feed, otherwise many I know are going to become vegetarians
  19. Kirk Cunningham
    Monday, July 13th, 2015
    My family purchases grassfed beef exclusively and we are willing to pay the considerable premium for that product, but it is critical that the label mean something. I purchase beef only from suppliers who I have checked out and who feed their livestock grass (or at least plant leaf material in pasture exclusively. My major supplier used to raise mostly potatoes and fed ttheir cows on potato leaves, but water shortages have cut back their irrigation, so now they have concerted their center pivot sprinkler system into one servicing grass and livestock - takes much less water than crops! I wish that there was some relatively cheap test for the chemical nature of the product's fat content.
  20. Janna Acquafresca
    Monday, July 13th, 2015
    I have always thought that nice marbling and a little fat and cuts with bone in were more flavorful. Am I wrong?
  21. Aggie L
    Tuesday, July 14th, 2015
    Thank you Jeanne and Gerry Shudde for making the beef industry a good one!
  22. Della Ware
    Tuesday, February 14th, 2017
    So, what do I need to look for on the label to find true grass fed and grass finished meat? The only thing I learned by reading the article is that most farmers lie.
  23. Dave
    Thursday, April 13th, 2017
    Here's a site to easily find local grass fed farms in your: https://grassfedguide.com/
  24. Randy KIlbride
    Tuesday, April 25th, 2017
    Please send me pictures of the Shuddes' beef uncooked so I can see the marbling
  25. Dovetta
    Friday, May 5th, 2017
    I don't have a website yet. However, I will be a Health Coach very soon, and I would love to be able to direct my clients to your website for healthy eating.
    I look forward to ordering and tasting you meats.