The USDA Label Says Grass-fed, but is It?

What does the USDA grass-fed label really represent? Grass-fed beef expert Jo Robinson explains.
By Jo Robinson
April/May 2008
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The Process Verified Shield tells you that a grass-fed beef product meets the USDA’s standards, but does it meet yours?
Illustration courtesy USDA


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Labels that identify a package of beef as “grass-fed” don’t always tell the whole story. To ensure that the product is what it claims to be, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tells us to watch for their “process verified shield,” but what exactly does that guarantee? We asked grass-fed beef expert Jo Robinson to explain.

MOTHER: What’s the story behind the shield? 

Jo Robinson: The shield only verifies that the beef meets standards for a grass-fed label as set by the USDA in October 2007, which were meant to define the term “grass-fed.” A definition was needed because all cattle eat grass for the first 6 to 12 months, but then most are shipped to feedlots and fattened on grain for the rest of their lives. Some producers marketed this meat as grass-fed even though the animals were actually finished in a feedlot.

MOTHER: What standards must be met to qualify?

Robinson: To qualify for the USDA grass-fed label, cattle must be fed only mother’s milk and forage (grass and other greens) during their lifetime. The forage can be grazed or consumed as hay or other stored forage. Also, the cattle must have access to pasture “during the growing season.” 

MOTHER: Are there any objections to the standards?

Robinson: Many people think they don’t go far enough. For example, meat can qualify for the shield even if the animals are confined to a pen and fed hay for months out of the year. Also, they can be given hormones and a steady diet of antibiotics.

MOTHER: Is there a more comprehensive label?

Robinson: The American Grassfed Association (AGA), an organization of pasture-based ranchers, consumer groups and researchers, is creating an alternative label. To qualify for the stricter AGA label, cattle cannot be confined or treated with hormones or antibiotics. The American Grassfed Association maintains that this is closer to the public’s perception of “grass-fed.” (To read their full response, visit the AGA Web site.)

MOTHER: What are the benefits of grass-fed beef? 

Robinson: Compared with feedlot meat, grass-fed beef is higher in “good” fats, lower in “bad” fats, and higher in vitamins and antioxidants. Raising cattle on pasture benefits the farmers, the environment and the animals themselves. (Go to Eat Wild for more information. Also see What You Need to Know About the Beef Industry.)








Post a comment below.

 

Roberta Anderson
9/29/2010 4:59:37 PM
You can trust labels from independent, third-party certifiers with transparent, rigorous standards and verification methods! You can compare label "report cards" on the Consumer Reports site: www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels. One good example? Food Alliance Certified - Grassfed. In order to sell Food Alliance Certified Grassfed products, animals must be raised on pasture or range, where they can browse on an exclusive diet of grass and forage plants. Animals may not be fed grain or grain by-products, or receive hormone or antibiotic treatments of any kind. All Food Alliance Certified livestock producers must meet standards for safe and fair working conditions, soil and water conservation, and protection of wildlife habitat under the Whole Farm/Ranch Criteria, as well as healthy and humane animal treatment in compliance with relevant Livestock Criteria. Learn more at www.foodalliance.org/grassfed

David Andrews
7/21/2009 3:09:06 PM
Grass fed beef can have the same marbling and texture of "regular" beef. Range beef is tougher beef, and has a strong, almost gamy taste, so proper grass fed beef is grass fed and then grass finished. It is the finishing process that makes beef tender, not so much corn or soy or any other grain. Finishing is where the beef is put in holding pens and fed (usually grain). It was once thought that the grain made the beef tender, but now we know it was keeping them in pens so that they get no exercise that did that, much as a human "couch potato" gets fat (and tender) with no exercise. It is very difficult to see or taste any real difference between proper grass fed beef and grain fed beef. One test to make sure you have real grass fed beef is to check the fat left in the pan after cooking. True grass fed beef fat will still be liquid as it cools to room temperature; grain fed or finished beef will be white and almost solid (think lard).

David Andrews
7/21/2009 2:51:58 PM
Grass fed beef can have the same marbling and texture of "regular" beef. Range beef is tougher beef, and may have a strong, almost gamy taste, so proper grass fed beef is grass fed and then grass finished. It is the finishing process that makes beef tender, not so much corn or soy or any other grain. Finishing is where the beef is put in holding pens and fed (usually grain). It was once thought that the grain made the beef tender, but now we know it was keeping them in pens so that they get no exercise that did that, much as a human "couch potato" gets fat (and tender) with no exercise. It is very difficult to see or taste any real difference between proper grass fed beef and grain fed beef. One test to make sure you have real grass fed beef is to check the fat left in the pan after cooking. True grass fed beef fat will still be liquid as it cools to room temperature; grain fed or finished beef will be white and almost solid (think lard).

Olivia_1
9/4/2008 2:34:04 PM
Why is it so hard to buy good, healthy food? All these labels and shields are a good idea in theory, but if they don't go far enough and private entities start their own labels, who are we supposed to trust? I think in the end the labels, from "natural" and "organic, and now "grass-fed" end up being detrimental. You need to be very educated to understand the differences.








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