Jane Says: Know Your Grass-Fed Beef

When it comes to buying sustainably raised meat, it pays to ask questions.
Take it from this guy: It's worth your time to talk to a butcher before buying meat. (Photo: Flickr Open/Getty Images)
May 15, 2012· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

Maggi Bain is in a quandary. “I used to purchase grass-fed/finished beef at the local farmers market,” she writes. “However, the vendor no longer comes to the market and there are no other local sources of grass-fed beef that I’ve been able to locate. My local supermarket sells beef that is labeled hormone and antibiotic free, but does not state that it’s grass fed. Would that beef be an acceptable alternative to grass-fed/finished beef?”

Drat! All of a sudden, your life got more complicated. Local beef from steers that eat nothing but grass and hay for their entire lives is a great sustainable choice, and it’s healthier, too. Not only is the USDA label of “certified grass-fed” confusing (all cattle are raised on pasture to varying degrees), it may lead also lead you to presume that the meat is free of the antibiotics and growth hormones routinely fed to conventional steers that have been “finished” not on grass (which is what their ruminant stomachs are made for), but on a grain-rich diet at a feedlot before slaughter. But no.

The USDA definition of "grassfed" doesn't address antibiotics, hormones, or confinement. According to Marilyn Noble, communications director at the American Grassfed Association, "If consumers want to be sure the meat they're buying is antibiotic-free, hormone-free, raised without confinement, and 100% grassfed, they should look for certification from the American Grassfed Association. AGA-certified producers undergo a third-party audit annually and must meet stringent production standards." Another leading "grass-fed" label you may see is certified by the Food Alliance.

Grass-fed beef may or may not be USDA-certified organic as well, but in either case, the meat is lower in saturated fats and higher in omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have also found that there is a much lower incidence of E. coli 0157:H7, the virulent strain common to cattle kept—guess where?—in overcrowded feedlots.

If your supermarket is selling beef labeled hormone- and antibiotic-free, know the USDA hasn’t yet developed standards for that claim. In no way does that label signify what the cattle were fed or how they were raised, so I’d take the time to have a chat with your supermarket manager and/or the producer, so you have a better idea of what you’re buying. The website Sustainable Table has great go-to lists of questions to ask a store manager and questions to ask a beef farmer.

In my experience, store managers, butchers, and producers welcome the dialogue. They genuinely want to give customers what they ask for, and every time you request USDA-certified grass-fed beef, for instance, you help create demand in a market that is growing and improving but is still a very small fraction of the meat biz.

And this time of year is the perfect time to get the conversation rolling. The seasonality of peak pasture determines when the best finishing time is in various regions of the country (which is why 100 percent grass-fed beef can be hard to find year-round). But starting in late spring and early summer, availability is as good as it gets. If you don’t live in cow country, or if your due diligence leaves you unsatisfied yet still craving the clean, beefy flavor of a grass-fed steak, check out the American Grassfed Association or Eatwild to find a producer nearest you.

Perhaps the two websites will be helpful to reader Cheri Parker Baille as well. She wonders which is the smarter choice, organic meat shipped thousands of miles or meat that’s “local, nonorganic, but free-range.” Here’s hoping she can find an organic producer who is relatively close.

And if there isn’t? Well, I would certainly take a close look at the local, nonorganic, but free-range option. Here, too, it pays to ask questions. Of course, we all want to support our local producers as a way to help conserve energy resources, preserve our farmland, and boost the overall economic health of our communities.

But does the beef really sport a label that says “Free Range”? Hmm. That term is USDA-regulated only for poultry produced for meat, not for beef, so I would definitely want to know why the producer makes that claim. As far as a particular cut of beef is concerned, “free-range” is no more meaningful than the term “natural,” which means that the meat is minimally processed and contains no artificial flavors, added colors, or preservatives. All fresh beef is “natural,” whether it’s labeled that way or not.

One last quick note, on cooking: If you’re fortunate enough to snag some certified grass-fed beef, keep in mind that it’s leaner than conventional beef, so it’s important not to overcook it. It’s at its best when served rare or medium-rare. And even though you will pay a premium for grass-fed beef, especially if it’s organic as well, there are still bargains to be had. I personally always keep an eye out for top blade steaks—they’re a great favorite at our house; in fact, that’s what we’re having for dinner.