You may want to think twice before buying expensive grass-fed beef
Julia Calderone, March 25, 2016,
Stroll through the beef aisle at any grocery store and take a look at a package of beef.
If the label says "grass-fed," it's probably more expensive than your standard package of meat. But the designation may mean absolutely nothing.
All cows eat grass, after all. It's what they do, and what they have done for centuries.
For this reason, industry experts have said for years that the term is cryptic and possibly deceitful. As with other often ambiguous meat and dairy claims, such as "natural" and "free-range," the "grass-fed" claim isn't tightly regulated by the government.
But now the claim has just become even more contentious.
On January 12, 2016, the Agricultural Marketing Service, a branch of the US Department of Agriculture, announced that it was dropping its official definition of "grass-fed." In a statement, the AMS claimed that it doesn't have the authority to define and determine whether specific grass-fed claims that companies make on their packaging are "truthful and not misleading."
In short, while the USDA still evaluates and approves grass-fed claims, the government no longer has an official definition of the term "grass-fed," which means the phrase is now more open to interpretation.
While the AMS says the change will not negatively impact anyone, critics say that dropping the official definition is a bad move for both consumers and meat producers alike.
"Like other mostly meaningless label terms, [...] grass-fed will become just another feel-good marketing ploy used by the major meat-packers to dupe consumers into buying mass-produced, grain-fed, feedlot meat," the American Grassfed Association, an organization that helped the USDA develop its official definition back in 2006 and has since developed its own independent grass-fed certification program, wrote in a statement back in January.
So what does buying "grass-fed" even mean at this point? Well, it's complicated.
Mo' grass, mo' money
Grass-fed beef is expensive. It costs on average about $2.50 to $3 more a pound than conventional supermarket beef, according to Consumer Reports.
This is because farmers typically need a year longer to fatten grass-fed cows to slaughter weight than they'd need for a conventional grain-fed cow. This extra time commitment drives up feed and labor costs.
But Consumer Reports notes that even when grass-fed cows have reached slaughter weight, the cattle still tend to be smaller than their grain-fed relatives. Less meat means less money in the producer's pocket. To recuperate sunken costs, farmers may jack up their prices when selling to restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers markets. That price hike then gets passed on to you, the consumer.
Some evidence suggests that grass-fed beef is healthier, more nutritious, and less likely to carry harmful bacteria than grain-fed beef.
A 2010 paper that reviewed three decades of studies from around the world concluded that grass-fed beef is not only lower in total fat content than grain-fed beef, but the kinds of fats it does contain are healthier and less likely to raise cholesterol than grain-fed beef (though there is a debate over whether food can raise blood cholesterol levels at all). The review also found that grass-fed beef is higher in cancer-fighting antioxidants and essential vitamins, such as vitamin A, than conventionally raised beef.
There's also a 2015 report by Consumer Reports, which found that grass-fed-beef samples purchased in 2014 were three times less likely to harbor multidrug-resistant bacteria than conventionally raised beef.
Not all scientists are convinced of these extra benefits, though. A study from 2014 claims that because the 2010 review used data from around the world, it can't accurately reflect the state of grass-fed meat produced in the US.
We'll note, however, that both authors of this disapproving 2014 study have ties to the "big beef" industry. One author is an employee of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the other has been paid by the Beef Checkoff— a meat-producer-funded marketing program designed to increase domestic and international demand for beef — through the NCBA.
Scientists from Penn State Extension also argue that antioxidants, which are present in grass-fed beef, aren't proven to thwart cancer, and that the beef's beneficial fats drip off during cooking, anyway. They also claim that bacteria sneak into meat during the processing, grinding, and packaging process and has no bearing on the health of the original meat.
"Most of what you've heard about grass-fed beef is, forgive the pun, bulls---," Jason Morgan, a meat purveyor who helps run his family's Nebraska-based Morgan Ranch, wrote on his blog. "Every time I read another missive on how grass fed beef is so great it makes me want to rip out my eyeballs."
Wherever you land on the "grass-fed is healthier than grain-fed debate," the higher price of grass-fed beef, along with the evidence we do have that it's healthier, makes the meat a valuable commodity. It behooves meat producers, then, to label their products as such.
The problem is that some beef that isn't 100% grass-fed can pass through bureaucratic regulatory loopholes.
A rough start
All meat packages, grass-fed or not, must be approved by Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is the official regulatory arm of the USDA. The FSIS, however, isn't required to visit the farms where grass-fed cattle are raised and processed.
If meat companies want to take an extra step to assure their customers that they're getting high-quality meat, they can pay an independent third party to review and approve their product claims through on-site inspections and audits. AMS, though technically a government agency, is one of these third-party reviewers.
If AMS approves a company's application, the FSIS is more likely to approve a company's packaging claims and expedite the regulatory process.
If both AMS and FSIS approve the label, the meat producer can then sport an official "USDA Process Verified" logo on its packaging.
This logo was, and still is, meant to give consumers confidence that the meat they are buying is 100% grass-fed.
This verification process for grass-fed meat dates back to 2006, when AMS announced that it would, for the first time, create an official, government-backed definition of the term "grass-fed." The USDA, which refers to these kinds of definitions or rules as "standards," has similar designations for many different foods and products, like cotton, nuts, and tobacco. Grades of beef, like prime, choice, and select, are standards that the USDA has defined.
The standard for grass-fed beef— which is still on the AMS website, despite being officially dropped in January — states that the cow must have only eaten grass or grass-based feed for its entire life after it stopped drinking its mother's milk. The standard also states that the cow must have "continuous access to pasture during the growing season."
But there were a few problems with AMS's standard from the get-go, Matthew Buck, acting director of the Food Alliance, an independent, nonprofit third-party certifier, told Tech Insider via email.
For one, Buck said, it didn't take the overall health and living conditions of the animal into account, which many argue is integral to the grass-fed ethos and quality of the meat.
"The USDA grass-fed standard focused on what cattle ate, but left out restrictions on confinement of animals and use of hormones and antibiotics that industry pioneers thought were essential to a credible grass-fed product claim," Buck said.
A second reason the AMS standard was problematic, according to Buck, was that they "grandfathered in" beef brands that had "grass-fed" claims without checking whether they met the new definition. This meant that any meat producers who claimed to have 100% grass-fed beef before the official standard was put in place didn't have to prove themselves at all before brandishing the new USDA stamp of approval.
"[S]o the label from the start failed to address misleading claims and consumer confusion," Buck said.
In response, the Food Alliance and the American Grassfed Association joined forces to create a stricter grass-fed standard and separate, independent, third-party certification programs for grass-fed beef producers. (These two organizations currently run trusted third-party grass-fed verification programs outside of the USDA.)
'A slippery claim'
To make matters even more complicated, the AMS verification process in regards to grass-fed beef was, and still is, a completely voluntary service: Not all meat producers who make "grass-fed" claims on their packaging must go through this rigorous third-party verification process. If a "grass-fed" producer wants to bypass this independent verification system, they can take their claim straight to FSIS.
But one problem is that FSIS does not do on-site audits and inspections. They simply review a sample label and the related paperwork, and decide from those documents whether the claim is truthful and not misleading.
In short, it's a subjective process that's open to interpretation.
"'Grass-fed' is a slippery claim," Buck said, "because every cow eats grass for some portion of its life."
To make a higher profit off of "grass-fed" cattle, big feedlots will sometimes fatten up their grass-fed cows with grain for the last moments of their lives, Lou Braxton, a vendor for Roaming Acres farm in Sussex County, New Jersey, which sells grass-fed buffalo and ostrich meat and pork, told Tech Insider.
To make a higher profit off of "grass-fed" cattle, big feedlots will sometimes fatten up their grass-fed cows with grain for the last moments of their lives.
Feedlots can still market this meat as "grass-fed" or "grass-fed and grain finished." If you see that specific wording on a package, Buck said, you cannot be certain that the cow was truly 100% grass-fed.
"The trick really is to look for 'grass finished,'" Buck said. "People using that claim still do have to live up to truth in advertising regulations."
So why do meat producers pay the government or other third-party programs to verify their grass-fed claims if they don't have to in the first place? It's all to gain consumer confidence, Buck said.
Paying an unbiased third party — such as the AMS — to independently verify that their grass-fed practices align with federal standards gives the producer more street cred, and hence more money in the long run. It's a marketing thing.
But now that the USDA has dropped its implicit definition of what "grass-fed" means in January, things have just gotten even more confusing.
Before January 12, 2016, you could be almost 100% sure that any package of "grass-fed" meat sporting the "USDA Process Verified" logo was, in fact, truly grass-fed. (I say "almost" here because you wouldn't know if the company was "grandfathered" into the label in 2006. This is also assuming you don't care about how the animal was sheltered and raised.)
But now that AMS has officially dropped its "grass-fed" definition, the term is even more open to interpretation.
For Buck, this seems like a step backward.
"We are back to evaluating what a particular company says it means by grass-fed, which could vary from company to company," he said.
The AMS maintains that the change in January will not affect producers or consumers at all, and that consumers can be sure that all grass-fed claims are, in fact, 100% grass-fed, Sam Jones, a public-affairs spokesperson for AMS, told Tech Insider.
But not everyone in the industry agrees. Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), a collection of grassroots organizations that advocate for sustainable food and agriculture, argued in a statement that the new labeling system will just baffle consumers and hurt farmers even more than it already has.
"Actions such as this take us into a Wild West situation, where anything goes and both farmers and consumers lose," Hoefner said in the statement.
Marion Nestle, an esteemed professor, biologist, public-health expert, and author of several prize-winning books on food and nutrition politics, agrees, but thinks the bigger losers are consumers and small farmers.
"I think it's a good guess to assume that the USDA's withdrawal of the grass-fed marketing claims is a result of pressure from big cattle producers," Nestle told Tech Insider via email. "This means that claims about grass-fed are no longer backed by government. Consumers will have to rely on certification by independent groups or on what the producers say. Caveat emptor." In other words, the onus now lies on the buyer to ensure a meat product is what it says it is.
And Buck says that since consumers won't be able to tell if a label was approved before or after the definition was dropped in January 2016, they can't really trust it at all.
Jones, the press officer from AMS, says that the agency requires labels to include a website where consumers can go and see the exact standard they used to verify it.
I scoured three major grocery stores in New York City to check this myself, and I could not find one package of "grass-fed beef" brandishing the USDA process-verified label. To make matters worse, butchers at two of the three stores did not even know what "USDA process verified" meant, and when I asked if specific packages were USDA-verified grass-fed, they pointed to the "USDA Organic" label thinking it meant the same thing.
"By developing new, non-uniform standards," NSAC said in a blog post, "the term 'grass-fed' will begin to lose its meaning and eventually become useless to consumers."
That said, Buck continued, "there are some ranchers marketing grass-fed beef with integrity who do not hold a certification either because they are too small to manage the cost and administrative burden, because they have very close relationships with their buyers and don't think they need it, or because they just don't believe in it."
Let the buyer beware
Buck says that consumers should be wary of grass-fed marketing claims.
"There are still companies that market things like 'grass-fed and grain finished' as something special — when it is essentially the conventional commodity-beef model," he said.
So how can you ensure that meat that is marketed as grass-fed is actually grass-fed?
The USDA still stands by its verification process and claims that buyers can rest assured that all packages with "grass-fed" claims are 100% grass-fed. But since it dropped its definition, Buck, Nestle, Hoefner, and other industry members say, you can no longer assume that any package of grass-fed beef is truly grass-fed.
By far the best way to ensure your meat's quality is to buy from a local farm or a producer you trust. Ideally, you'd be able to vet their practices yourself.
But if that's not possible, you should look for a trusted third-party verification on the package — such as the American Grassfed Approved logo or the Food Alliance certification.
If it doesn't have this, check for the phrase "grass-finished."
If your meat is sporting the USDA shield, you might want to see if you can track down the standard the producer used to verify the claim and make sure it aligns with your own view of what "grass-fed" means.
And if all of these are absent, Buck says, then buyer beware.
"In short, you have to know what the label means," he said. "You have to know how decisions are made. And you have to trust the capacity and integrity of the auditor."