I was having a conversation with a friend the other night, debating the merits of grassfed beef. We talked over the specifics of feeding and finishing (whether the animal eats grain or grass for the last few months of its life), and the superior quality and flavor of meat produced from a grassfed a diet. But this wasn’t the first time I had discussed this information.
Grassfed beef is a “new” product in the marketplace and as with any new product, there is a great degree of variability. While the notion of bovines eating grass is as old as, well, bovines themselves, grassfed and grass-finished meat products are signposts of an emerging sustainable market.
Fifty years ago, most of the beef at the butcher counter was grassfed and maybe grain-finished for a very short period of time. Since then, we have moved to a feedlot-based system for preparing beef cattle for market, which means large-scale producers and processors have had fifty years to perfect their product, and consumers expect consistent results.
As anyone who has ever purchased organic produce or a CSA box knows, more natural production systems tend to mean a greater degree of variability in the final product. As grassfed producers improve upon their production systems, their beef will eventually become more consistent. Consumers will count on enjoying rich flavor without worrying about their meat being tough or dry.
Conventional Cattle Feeding
As we seek to be more informed consumers, how do these feeding and finishing techniques affect us? How are grassfed cattle different from conventional cattle? What do labels like “organic,” “natural,” and “free-range” mean?
To begin with, almost all beef cattle in the U.S. start their lives on grass. At about 7-9 months old, the almost 10.9 million cattle in the conventional production system move to a feedlot where they are “grain-finished” for about 6-8 months before slaughter. Most of these feedlots are in the central part of the country, with 71 percent of feedlot cattle residing in Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. At the feedlot, cattle diet consists of grains (like corn) and some roughage (either corn silage or hay). Feed by-products, from the production of food or industrial products, are also part of the diet at many of these feedlots. The by-products category includes things like leftover distiller’s grains from an ethanol plant or brewery, soybean meal from soybean oil production, and even defective cookies and chips from food production.
Grass-fed and Grass-finished Cattle
Grassfed and grass-finished cattle, on the other hand, spend their entire life consuming grass. Their diets and rotational grazing patterns contribute to low caloric intake and high activity, which means that grassfed cattle take a longer time to reach their slaughter weight. They are typically about 18-24 months when slaughtered.
Age is an important criteria in the taste and texture of beef. If the cow is too young, its meat will lack flavor. If the cow is too old, its meat can be tough. Certain breeds of cattle are more suited to grassfed production systems. Forgotten breeds, like Shorthorns and American Devon, fell out of favor during the rise of the feedlot but are now making a comeback.
Beef producers who feed their cattle only grass or hay are approved by the USDA to label their meat “grassfed.” This certification is limited in scope: it does not stipulate where hay is fed (it could be in a feedlot) or whether antibiotic or hormone restrictions apply. The Cornucopia Institute has proposed a three-tier label system that would tell consumers how and where the animal was fed and finished. You can view their position paper here. In addition to the USDA, the American Grassfed Association (AGA) allows AGA members to place the “AGA Grassfed” seal of approval on packages containing beef raised in an unconfined environment on 100 percent grass or hay, without the use of growth hormones.
“Organic” beef shares elements of both the grassfed and the grain-finished model. In order to bear the “USDA Organic” seal, organic cattle must be raised on organic certified pasture and fed organic certified hay or organic certified feed. No antibiotics or growth hormones can be administered to the animal.
Just as the picture of a happy cow in a red barn on your milk carton doesn’t mean that your 2 percent came from such a setting, “natural” and “free-range” labels are purely marketing terms and have no standards or certification requirements. Per the USDA, all fresh meat must be “natural” (free of artificial flavorings, colors or preservatives) regardless of how it was raised or what it was fed. As far as “free range” is concerned, per USDA standards, this term only applies to poultry (whether the animal had access to the outdoors or not) and is meaningless on a package of beef.
With so many labels, what’s a consumer to do? Ask questions. Ask LOTS of questions. Talk to your rancher, butcher or waiter, and find out what the animal was fed, where it lived, and how old it was when it was slaughtered. If you are interested in how the animal was treated, find out if the product is American Humane Certified, Certified Humane Raised and Handled or Animal Welfare Approved.
Lastly, pay attention to taste. Be mindful of the quality of food you are putting into your body.
Photo: Mark Baldwin