All Natural: This means meat that is minimally processed with no artificial or synthetic products. It is not regulated, however, so anyone can put it on their package. It is a claim with no clout.
Cool (Country of Origin Labeling): A USDA regulated label stating where meat was raised, slaughtered, and processed.
Grass Fed: A USDA regulated label meaning, very narrowly, that that animals ate grass. According to the USDA definition, “grass-fed” animals can also be fed grain, and can be raised on grass in confinement, as long as they have access to pasture -- although "access" can be, and often is, nothing more than a facility with a door to a small outdoor area.
Free Range: This means only that the animal has some access to the outdoors. There is no regulation for use of this term, except in the case of chickens raised for consumption. “Pasture-raised” is a more meaningful term.
Organic: This label is USDA and third-party certified. It means that livestock wasn’t treated with hormones or antibiotics and was fed a pesticide-free diet.
Vegetarian Fed: This refers only to an animal’s diet and does not guarantee the animal was pastured or raised humanely.
Air Chilled: This refers to the treatment of living animals. Producers and retailers may also make claims about how the animal is handled between slaughter and purchase. Meat may be wet or dry-aged, frozen, and packaged in various ways.
Humanely Raised/Certified Humane: Many ranches now choose to undergo an audit by third parties such as Animal Welfare Association and Humane Farmed to highlight their extra care. This type of label states that no practices such as overcrowding, castrating, early weaning, or denying animals access to pasture used.
Biodynamic: This pre-organic standard treats the whole ranching operation as an interrelated whole. While some meats are technically organic, a biodynamic farm assures the meat also came from a healthy, self-sustaining system.
Local: Producers who take part in this affidavit program state in writing that the animals were raised within 20 miles. This label is not certified or confirmed by a third party.
The numerous labels that do little but confuse consumers about the essentials of what they’re buying are aggravating to say the least.
Fortunately, it is possible to find what you’re looking for. I’d like to expand on the “grass-fed” label mentioned above, and point out your very best option when it comes to buying wholesome grass-fed beef and other meats.
The USDA Grass-Fed Label
As of November 15, 2007, the USDA enacted new standards for the grass-fed label. According to this new USDA marketing claim standard:
Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.
The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state.
Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.
Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources.
Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen. If incidental supplementation occurs due to inadvertent exposure to non-forage feedstuffs or to ensure the animal’s well being at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions, the producer must fully document (e.g., receipts, ingredients, and tear tags) the supplementation that occurs including the amount, the frequency, and the supplements provided.
Sounds good! In order to carry the “grass-fed” label, the animal must have foraged on nothing but grass for its entire lifetime.
But there’s a twist, and a few other issues you may not have thought of.
These standards are voluntary, so in order for you to determine whether or not this standard is actually being met, in addition to the “grass-fed” label, the meat you buy would also need to carry the “USDA Process Verified” label.
There’s another slight problem with this standard. As pointed out by the American Grassfed Association, the definition of "growing season" means that animals could be confined for long periods, and can be kept off of pasture even when there is grass growing.
The new rules also do not restrict the use of antibiotics and hormones in the animals.
So although it aimed higher than any standards we had before, even the USDA grass-fed labels won’t offer you all the assurances you’d expect from truly organic, grass-fed beef.
Another issue frequently overlooked is that of cost to the farmer.
The USDA regulatory system has a tendency to favor big business, which can easily afford the USDA’s costly certification fees. Small farmers, who are often raising food in traditional, healthy ways, then are not able to legally call their products “USDA grass-fed” because they haven’t paid the USDA for that privilege.
Why All the Fuss About Grass-Fed Meat?
Grass-fed beef is vastly superior to grain-fed beef, and in fact it’s the clear beef of choice you should be eating. It is far more important to choose grass-fed than to choose organic, as most grass-fed beef are also organic.
Not only is it raised in a more sustainable way for the environment, and a more humane way for the animal, but it’s the superior choice for your health.
Grass-fed beef, for instance, is lower in fat than regular beef and, more importantly, contains higher amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid. Grass-fed animals have from three to five times more CLA than grain-fed animals.
CLA has been making headlines for its extreme health benefits, which include:
- Fighting cancer and diabetes
- Helping you lose weight
- Increasing your metabolic rate, a positive benefit for promoting normal thyroid function
- Helping you maintain normal cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- Enhancing your immune system
The article “Better Beef,” written by California rancher Dave Evans, gives a great in-depth view of the many benefits of grass-fed beef, from environmental sustainability to the sheer difference in taste and nutrient content of the beef.
Keep in mind that grass-fed meat is almost always preferable to certified organic meat also because most organic beef is fed organic corn, which is what causes the myriad of health problems associated with eating beef. If you can find organic, grass-fed meat, that would be ideal.
Your Best Bet When Looking for True Grass-Fed Meats
Remember, grass-fed meat doesn’t have to be “certified” grass-fed for it to give you health benefits.
Your best bet, which circumvents the labeling confusion altogether, is to get in touch with a local farmer (try finding a farmer’s market or community-supported agriculture program in your area to do this) who can verify that the products are raised on pasture, without antibiotics and pesticides.
By going straight to the source, you’re likely getting the absolute best meat there is, USDA-certified or not.
If you don’t have access to a local farmer near you, here is a list of grass-fed beef ranchers in the United States that can ship good quality meats right to your door:
- U.S. Wellness Meats
- Panorama Meats – Black Angus and Red Angus
- Country Natural Beef – Hereford and Angus
- Tallgrass Beef
- Niman Ranch – A network of more than 600 independent farmers and ranchers, and probably the easiest to find locally
- Pacific Village – Entirely grass-fed cattle since 2002