If you’re trying to buy more grass-fed beef, you may be one of the smart shoppers who knows that meat from grass-fed cattle is higher in key nutrients, including crucial omega-3 fatty acids (learn more about these in Richard Manning’s article Omega-3s and More: The Importance of Fat in a Healthy Diet).
Raising cattle on carefully managed pasture will also lead to healthier animals, whose meat is less likely to carry foodborne pathogens. Grass-fed production offers major environmental benefits, too, such as carbon sequestration. (For more on these topics, see The Many Benefits of Grass-Fed Meat.)
But labels can be misleading. Here are the verified, meaningful labels to look for to ensure your beef is from cattle that were grass-fed from birth to slaughter:
• American Grassfed Association: Certifies producers using independent auditors.
• Food Alliance Certified Grassfed: Also uses third-party verification.
• U.S. Department of Agriculture Grassfed + USDA Process Verified: The USDA or a contracted independent auditor has verified compliance.
• Animal Welfare Approved Certified Grassfed: Also includes certification of a range of environmental and animal welfare standards.
Aside from those above, some product labels may not deliver what you think they’re promising. A Consumers Union Web-based initiative, available at Greener Choices, reports that the general term “grass-fed” can be (and is) used on products from animals even if they spent the last months of their lives eating grain in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Most beef calves are raised on pasture until they’re moved to feedlots when they’re about a year old, meaning they may have been “grass-fed” for a portion of their lives, but were not “grass-finished,” a term for cattle raised on pasture up until slaughter. The word “natural” offers even less information. According to the USDA, meat can display the “natural” label as long as it contains no artificial ingredients or added color; it doesn’t provide any assurances on how the animal was raised or what it was fed.
Furthermore, the USDA’s national organic standards allow a “Certified Organic” label on beef even if the cattle was finished on grain in a feedlot. “Certified Naturally Grown,” a label offered by an independent organization, only requires that animals graze on pasture for 120 days per year. The “Global Animal Partnership Step 4” label permits producers to remove cattle from pasture for up to a quarter of each animal’s life.
Your best bet: Get to know your local ranchers. You won’t need to worry about labels if you confirm firsthand the management practices of the people who raise your food.
Robin Mather is a senior associate editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS and the author of The Feast Nearby, a collection of essays and recipes from her year of eating locally on $40 a week. In her spare time, she is a hand-spinner, knitter, weaver, homebrewer, cheese maker and avid cook who cures her own bacon. Find her on Twitter or Facebook.