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.)

Pasture-raised vs. grass-fed: What’s the difference?

September 28, 2013

Pasture-raised… Grass-fed.

The two most delightful phrases in animal agriculture. They conjur images of cows cavorting through fields, pigs let loose in the woods, lambs bouncing across hillsides… bliss.

But when you’re in the supermarket on a busy Tuesday evening — not so blissful. You see both pasture-raised and grass-fed steak for sale, and you know these two options are a huge improvement over factory farmed steak. But which one should you buy?

Or you’re at the local farmers’ market and you ask one of the farmers if they sell grass-fed pork. The farmer chuckles and kindly corrects you — “You mean pasture-raised pork, right?” — and you’re even more confused.

Here’s a simple way to grasp the difference between the two terms: “grass-fed” refers to what an animal eats (grass); “pasture-raised” refers to where it eats (on a pasture). So if it’s important to you that a cow ate the food it evolved to eat, which is grass — and ate little or no grain — then grass-fed steak is for you. If it’s important to you that the cow cavorted outside in its natural environment, then pasture-raised steak is for you.

Ok, but if pasture has grass on it, why isn’t a pasture-raised cow automatically a grass-fed cow?  Because a pasture-raised cow might be fed grain by a farmer, especially in the winter if the farm is in a cold climate where snow covers the pasture. That said, a pasture-raised cow can certainly be grass-fed, but only if its diet for most of its life was grass.

And why isn’t a grass-fed cow automatically a pasture-raised cow?  Because a cow can be housed indoors all its life and be fed grass (in the form of hay). This is pretty rare, though — most cows that are marketed as grass-fed spent a significant time outside on pasture.

(What about the farmer who corrects you when you ask for “grass-fed pork”?  Well, pigs can’t survive only on grass — they need some grain in their diet, as do chickens — which is why you never see “grass-fed pork” or “grass-fed chicken” on any packaging. You only see grass-fed beef, lamb, and goat, because these animals eat only grass. You do see “pasture-raised chicken” and “pasture-raised pork,” because animals on pasture can have their diet supplemented with grain.)

What else do you need to know about grass-fed vs. pasture-raised?  Ask the 100% question. Do you want 100% grass-fed beef?  A product may say “grass-fed” on the packaging, but the cow might have been “finished” on grain, meaning it ate grain during the last 2 or 3 months of its life. Select products labeled “100% grass-fed beef” if that’s what you want.

And do you want 100% pasture-raised pork?  It’s hard to find this, especially in northern climates. Ask a farmer how long their pastured animals are outside during the year, and what their indoor conditions are like.

Yes, this is all immensely confusing. I believe it’s the outgrowth of good intentions, though — the people who got these two labels into circulation wanted to highlight the special way these animals are raised. (Go here to learn how these labels are enforced.)

With this information, though, you’ll hopefully know what you’re buying next time you’re in a store or at a market. You can also impress your friends when ordering at a restaurant — or just get them so confused that they order the tortellini.

What else is there to know about meat labels?  Here’s a helpful page.