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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Secret Shopper: What does ‘grass fed’ mean on a label?

Getty Images cattle cow calf pasture grass fed
Can a consumer trust every “grass-fed” claim? Our secret shopper asked a natural products retailer in the southeast. Find out how well they answered.

Natural Foods Merchandiser secret shopper: What does “grass fed” mean? I know “grass fed” doesn’t always mean a cow ate only grass. What should I look for on labels to know it is truly grass-fed beef?

Retailer: A lot of the beef in our butcher shop is grass-fed, which we know because we know the farmer.    

NFM: OK, but what about prepackaged cuts? Or frozen beef patties?

Retailer: Well, these patties are labeled 100% grass fed, so that tells us the cows didn’t eat any grain.

NFM: That’s all I need to be certain? No certification seal to prove it?

Retailer: I don’t see one on this package, so I guess I’m not sure. I can try to find out.

How did this retailer do?

Carrie Balkcom, executive director of the American Grassfed Association Our expert educator: Carrie Balkcom, executive director of the American Grassfed Association

Overall, this retailer did a poor job. Knowing a farmer doesn’t mean you know their production practices. That’s a feel-good answer meant to “assure” consumers. And who is the “we” in “we know the farmers”? If it’s a buyer, did they just talk with a broker over the phone?

Even if the buyer visited the farm, it may have looked lovely and the farmer may have said the cows are grass fed, but unless that person really knew what to look for, they wouldn’t know for sure. Also, the “100% grass fed” claim is meaningless. I could say I’m a 5-foot-10 blonde, but in reality, I’m a 5-foot-5 brunette who’s gone gray.

This is why on-farm, third-party certifiers such as the American Grassfed Association are so important. Getting certified shows that farmers are willing to adhere to a checklist and have an outside organization confirm that they are following the practices they claim to be. When a grass-fed beef, bison, lamb, goat or dairy product has the AGA seal, it means we inspect that farm at least once every 15 months. We don’t allow use of antibiotics or added hormones at any time, and all animals are raised in the United States. About 40 retail labels carry our seal.

There are other third-party grass-fed seals, such as Certified Grassfed by AGW [A Greener World], but the AGA seal was the first. Farmers and brands with certification are putting their money where mouths are, and they should get credit for that.

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