The health benefits of eating grass-fed beef versus corn- or grain-fed are pretty clear. In addition to being lower in total overall fat, when compared to feed-lot beef, grass-fed is lower in "bad" fat (including saturated fat) and delivers two to six times more omega-3 fatty acids, according to the American Grassfed Beef Association. For these reasons consumers are increasingly opting for beef labeled "grass-fed" from retailers' meat cases, but does the label tell the whole story?
"All cattle are grass fed at some point in their life," Rancher Tai Jacober of Crystal River Meats told me when I met with him earlier this week. "What's important is if they're also finished on grass."
Since 1999, Jacober and his family have been raising 100 percent grass-fed cattle in Carbondale, Colo., and supply local markets and now Colorado’s RE-1 school district with their meat.
The term finishing is used to describe the time that cattle are fattened before processing. Typically, feed lots finish cattle for 90 to 160 days on corn. It's cheap and adds fat to the animal quickly. Grass-finished cattle should only be finished on grass, but when the USDA unveiled its voluntary grass-fed label, this wasn't always the case. Producers could feed a cow grass, finish on corn and still use a grass-fed label.
What corn finishing does to beef
What are a few days of corn if the animal is primarily raised on grass? Actually, it's a pretty big deal. According to the AGB, an animal's nutrient profile can significantly change in that time. "During those months of grain finishing, levels of important nutrients like CLA and Omega-3 fatty acids decrease dramatically in the animal’s tissues."
Luckily, in 2007 the USDA amended their label to require that producers feed grass-fed cattle only forage and greens during their lifetime. The organization also requires that cattle have access to pasture "during the growing season." But the AGA doesn't think that label goes far enough. Its label also requires that cattle are not confined or treated with hormones or antibiotics, standards they believe the public expects when they buy a grass-fed product.
Still, the term "grass-fed" is largely unregulated, which can lead to consumer confusion at the shelf. I certainly didn't know to look for USDA or AGA certifications when buying my sirloin. "Grass-fed" or "Pasture Raised" seemed clear enough.
That's why it's so imporant that retailers know the differences in what they're buying and communicate anything that may not be easily understood at the shelf.