The Eat with Care blog
Writing about humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian. Your comments and feedback welcome. (All replies are screened and posted, if thoughtful and respectful.)
Grazing for answers about “grass-fed”
We’re all familiar with the phrase “greenwashing” — when companies make their products sound more ecologically friendly than they actually are.
Now there’s “grasswashing” — when food companies or farmers give the impression that their beef is 100% grass fed when it may not be.
Grass-fed beef is becoming popular. Which is why we have to know exactly what we’re buying, not only for our health but for animal welfare concerns, too. We need to know if a “grass-fed” animal was ever fed any grain — and if so, how much? We need to know where the animal ate the grass — on pasture or in a feedlot?
Here are 6 common questions about the grass-fed label — and some answers:
- How do I know it’s 100% grass-fed meat?
If you simply see “grass-fed” on a package (as in the photo above) it means the farm or food company submitted paperwork to the USDA stating that a 100% grass diet was fed to the animals. If some grain was allowed, producers must state that in their paperwork and their label must say the meat was 50%, 75%, 90% grass-fed — whatever the case may be.
Note that the USDA does not visit farms to check up on them — producers can apply for a special “USDA Grass-Fed” label and be audited, but very few farms have requested this so far. Also note that the USDA definition of “100% grass fed” requires animals to be on pasture during the grazing season, but not in colder months; animals might be continuously confined during that time.
For the strongest guarantee of 100% grass-fed meat, look for the American Grassfed label or the Animal Welfare Approved/Certified Grass-Fed label (more on them below). These labels indicate that a third-party, independent farm audit was performed.
Of course, many small-scale local farmers raise 100% grass-fed meat, but most of them don’t get certified. Find farmers you can trust.
- Is a “grass-fed” animal also a “pasture-raised” animal?
Most of the time, yes — farmers tend to keep their grass-fed animals on open pasture during the grazing season because it’s easier and cheaper than bringing them bales of hay (dried grass). In winter, if there’s no grass on the ground, an animal might be housed indoors for a period of time and fed hay. See this post for more.
- Isn’t all American beef “grass-fed” at some point?
Yes – all beef cattle in America are grazed on open land until the age of about 6 months. But then the calves are sent to industrial feedlots to fatten up on grain until they’re slaughtered about a year later. So if a farmer or food company says, “We grass-feed our cattle up to 6 months of age,” they’re really grain-feeding their animals — and you’re being grasswashed!
- What’s the difference between the AGA and AWA grass-fed certifications?
The American Grassfed Association (AGA) has been certifying farms & ranches since 2009. Today, its label can be found on the products of more than 200 farms & ranches. Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) — better known for certifying farms for humane treatment — launched its spinoff label for grass-fed products in America in January. It has already 10 certified grass-fed producers in Canada.
Both the AGA and AWA certifications ban feedlot confinement, ban antibiotics and hormones to promote growth, and have a full-time pasture requirement. (In winter, producers can confine animals when the health or life of the animal is at risk; otherwise animals must be kept outside, with hay brought to them, or allowed in-and-out access to barns.)
I feel that both programs have tremendous integrity, but here’s where they differ:
- AGA requires animals to be born and raised in America; AWA doesn’t.
- AGA allows animals to receive nutritional supplements under emergency circumstances, but they’re not grain-based (think beet pulp, almond hulls, flax seed). AWA does not allow supplements.
- If an animal needs antibiotics for illness, AWA allows those animals to be certified and sold, as long as a “withdrawl period” takes place between treatment and slaughter; AGA does not allow antibiotic-treated animals to be sold at all.
- AWA’s grass-fed certified farms must also comply with AWA’s humane protocols; AGA certification focuses on the health and nutrition of the animal and does not include humane standards.
- Is all grass-fed meat sold in America raised in America?
No! The American market is currently being flooded with grass-fed beef from Australia and South America. International producers must follow the same USDA paperwork requirements as American producers, as outlined in the first question above.
- Can pork and chicken be called “grass-fed”?
No. Pigs and chickens don’t thrive if they eat only grass. You’ll never hear a farmer talk about “grass-fed pork” or “grass-fed chicken.” But cattle, goats, sheep, and bison (ruminant animals, with four stomachs) evolved to eat only grass — which is why grain-fed beef is truly a modern invention.
Bottom line: If you see “grass-fed” on a package, you’re getting 100% grass-fed, as long as the producer was honest in their USDA paperwork. Buy AGA or
AWA certified meat for a stronger guarantee. Ask questions of your local farmer, such as “Where do you house your animals in winter?” and “Do you feed your animals any grain?”
A key point: Perhaps you don’t want 100% grass-fed meat. The taste and texture of meat is influenced by the amount of fat in it, and grass-fed beef tends to have less fat (though not always). To appeal to Americans’ love of fat, some farmers “grain-finish” their grass-fed animals by feeding a few weeks’ worth of corn or soy toward the end of an animal’s life, which creates marbling. From a humane standpoint, I consider this acceptable if the grain is given over a brief amount of time and the animal is not severely confined.