If you care about all those things—as well as the nutritional quality of your beef—it's best to avoid the supermarket and buy grass-fed beef directly from a farmer, says Shannon Hayes, a partner at Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York and the founder of GrassFedCooking.com. "Either know a local natural-food store owner who knows how beef is produced, or know the farmer directly," she says. "Trust is the only thing that's going to assure your meat was produced ethically." Grass-fed beef has also been found to contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and is typically leaner than it's corn-fattened counterpart behind the market's deli counter (those are some nutrition facts that won't appear on the new labels, either).
However, savvy marketers have come up with some creative terminology to convince you that conventionally produced meat is as good as truly pasture-raised, grass-fed beef.
Following is a rundown of some common terms used on grass-fed beef packages and what they all mean.
"Grass-fed" versus "Pastured" versus "Free-Range"
Catering to the public's desire for more ecofriendly meat-production processes, companies have started stamping labels on food that don't always mean what you think they do.
"Grass-fed" is a term for which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) actually has a legal definition. Only meat from "ruminant" animals—animals that survive on grass, such as cattle and sheep—can be labeled grass-fed. (So if you ever see eggs or pork with "grass-fed" on the package, buy another brand.) The animals have to be fed a diet of grass, hay, and forage their entire lives, and be provided access to pasture. However, as with most government rules, there's a downside. Any farmer using that term before the new definition was established could be grandfathered in, regardless of whether he or she now complies with the new rule. "A lot of farmers refuse to participate in this program because we feel the standards aren't strict enough," says Hayes.
The USDA doesn't have any legal definition for "Pastured," but Hayes says it typically means that animals are outside eating grass but are also fed grain. "Usually, the label is applied to omnivorous animals that need something in addition to grass to survive," she adds, such as pigs, turkeys, and chickens.
"Free-range" is a term the USDA has defined vaguely for poultry but not at all for beef. "Grass-fed and pastured animals are by nature free-range," says Hayes. However, the reverse isn't true, so the term may not mean what you're picturing. "I've seen 1,000 chickens crammed onto a barn floor and they were considered 'free-range.' The barn door opened, and they had access to a feces-laden concrete pad," she adds.
As mentioned previously, "Grass-fed" doesn’t always mean the animals ate nothing but grass. "On small farms, animals are determined to be ready one animal at a time," says Hayes, and farmers pay close attention to each animal to see if it's fattened enough to slaughter. "That's how you get really top-quality meat, by knowing the individual characteristics of each animal." On larger-scale farms, however, even with organics, it's more efficient to ready an entire herd to be slaughtered all at once, she says. USDA organic-certification rules permit farmers to fatten a grass-fed herd up with corn, soy, or other grain-based feed, provided that it's organic, which isn't a practice some small farmers agree with.
"You've eliminated all the health benefits [of grass-fed beef] in three months when you finish them with grain," says Jo Robinson, founder of the online meat retailer EatWild.com. Feeding grain to cattle, she says, increases the acidity of an animal's stomach, increasing the levels of bacteria, including E. coli, in their guts. So it's best to look for "grass-finished" beef, but even that can be tricky, since it's not a common term and most farmers who grass-finish their beef don't usually advertise it, says Hayes. The best way to know is to simply ask.
If it's not always possible to know the farmer, or someone who knows the farmer, third-party certifications are a good way to ensure you're getting good beef. There's the USDA Organic certification, but as mentioned, it allows the use of some grain feed. Robinson recommends the new American Grassfed Association's certification, which is the only one out there that stipulates that animals can eat nothing but grass for their entire lives. The other common certifications, including "Animal Welfare Approved" and "Certified Humane Raised and Handled," allow the use of grain, in part because it can be difficult to feed an animal on grass its entire life.
But Robinson recommends sticking with your guns and going for 100-percent grass-fed beef, whether it's certified or not. "For a long time, it was hard to produce nice, tender grass-fed meat with enough fat so that it's pleasurable to eat, in a short amount of time," she says, so farmers stuck with grain. "But farmers have made incredible advancements in the way they manage their pastures. Now you've got cattle in these 'ice cream parlor' pastures where they get extremely good grass." The best way to find truly grass-fed beef, again, is to know the farmer growing your food. "These [certifying agencies] are doing important work, but they're also doing the job of replacing the relationship between consumer and farmer," says Hayes. "If you can't know your farmer, you should know the person who knows them. There should never be more than two degrees of separation between your grocer and your farmer."
Bottom line: Buying grass-fed beef from a farmer who can tell you how he treats his animals and how he finishes his animals is the gold standard. Failing that, your best bet is to look for a third-party certification such as the American Grassfed Association (which is considered the best of the available certifications), Certified Humane Raised and Handled, Animal Welfare Approved, or USDA Organic.