The Pros and Cons of the Grass-Fed Beef Boom

Americans are eating more meat from cattle raised on pasture, but it isn’t necessarily a local, sustainable product.
Grass-fed beef burger. (Photo: Garrett Ziegler/Flickr)
Sep 25, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Americans eat less beef today than they did when Richard Nixon was president. But despite the decline in consumption that began in the mid-’70s, a particular type of beef is rapidly rising in popularity. According to Nielsen, sales of grass-fed beef rose by 40 percent in 2015 over 2014 numbers, compared with a 6.5 percent increase for conventional beef. Today, you can get grass-fed beef franks at Major League Baseball parks, grass-fed beef burgers at the drive-through, and packets of grass-fed ground beef at mega-grocers such as Walmart.

For an alternative meat product to achieve such mainstream status in a relatively short period of time is, on some level, a success story. After all, grass-fed production systems are celebrated for raising animals outside of confinement and can have a reduced environmental footprint compared with grain-fed beef. Defining what grass-fed beef is can be a challenge, and what lies behind the rising sales is equally murky. Despite sales being up significantly in the past year, grass-fed beef accounted for less than 2 percent of the overall beef market, according to the Department of Agriculture. Furthermore, the acceptance of grass-fed beef by American diners doesn’t mean that more American ranchers are moving away from conventional beef production.

Overall beef imports to the U.S. have been trending downward for about a decade, but two of the largest foreign suppliers of U.S. beef are New Zealand and Australia—and meat cattle operations in both countries are based in large part on pasture, not feedlots. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, “Most imported beef is lower-valued, grass-fed beef destined for processing, primarily as ground beef.” That’s been the case for a while, but as the market changes, all it takes is some new branding, and the same ground beef that was sold as “ground beef” a few years ago can suddenly become a hip new product with a not-insignificant green halo. The hormone- and antibiotic-free grass-fed burger that Carl’s Jr. debuted in 2014—to much fanfare—is made with 100 percent Australian beef.

“When consumers see grass-fed on a label, they have this vision in mind that the meat came from not-too-far away, from animals out on a pasture and not given antibiotics and hormones, and in many cases, that’s not the truth,” Marilyn Noble, a spokesperson for the American Grassfed Association, told The Wall Street Journal.

Domestic producers have seen their sales rise too, according to research from the Wallace Center, a nonprofit working to reform the food system, which found that U.S. grass-fed beef sales hit $400 million in 2013, compared with just $5 million in 1998. If you’re buying beef raised on pasture because you want to take part in the local ag economy, then shopping will require a bit more work than grabbing the first thing you see at the store with “grass-fed” printed on the label.

There was a USDA process-verified label for grass-fed beef, which required that animals be raised only on grass or forage, but it was rescinded this year (much to the chagrin of organizations that support small farms). The American Grassfed Association has established its own standards, which also require a diet consisting solely of grass and forage in addition to restricting the use of antibiotics, hormones, and confinement. All AMA-labeled beef comes from animals that were born and raised in the United States.