You’ve likely seen or heard beef described with terms like “grass fed”, “grass finished”, “grain finished”, “organic” and “natural”.
But what do these terms and labels actually mean?
In this post, we’re going to try and explain these terms. We’ll look at the USDA’s definition (if applicable), what these terms mean on our farm and for a typical farmer, and what these labels mean for a consumer – you!
Before we begin, please know that there is lots of confusion with these terms for various reasons, such as,
- Terms have changed over the years.
- The USDA’s definition of the terms and what consumers think the terms mean sometimes differs (more on that later).
- The terms can be vague and have multiple meanings. Since farming is made up of small, family-farms throughout the U.S., we all do things slightly differently. That doesn’t mean someone is doing it right and someone else is wrong, it’s just different. So, if a term is vague, different farms could interpret and apply it differently.
Grass Fed Beef:
This may surprise you, but the USDA doesn’t have an official definition for grass fed. In 2016, the Agricultural Marketing Service, a branch of the USDA, announced in a statement that it was dropping its official definition of “grass fed” because it doesn’t have the authority to define and determine whether grass fed claims are truthful and misleading.
Grass Fed Beef through the eyes of a Farmer:
All cattle (and we really mean all) spend the majority of their lives eating grass in the pasture. The biggest difference between cattle is what they eat at the end of their lives. This is also known as how they’re “finished” (more on that later).
At Clover Meadows Beef, all of our cattle are grass fed. They spend 100% of their lives in open pasture.
Grass Fed Beef through the eyes of a Consumer:
When you stroll through the aisle of your grocery store and see “grass fed”, it will probably be more expensive than a package of beef without that label. Unfortunately, this marketing term doesn’t mean much.
From a health perspective, let’s look at a study done by researchers in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University. According to them, “At this point, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that ground beef from grass fed cattle is a healthier alternative to ground beef from conventionally raised, grain fed cattle.” Read the full study here.
Most consumers we talk to think grass fed means the cattle are raised in green pastures. However, grass fed does not mean raised in open pasture (“pasture raised” is a term we cover later). Some farmers have cattle in barns or on large dirt lots, and they feed them grass that they’ve harvested somewhere else and brought to the cattle. These cattle are labeled as “grass fed.” Technically, it’s true, they are grass fed. However, this is an example of where the consumer’s expectation of the term and the reality differ.
Grass Finished Beef:
As mentioned above, all cattle spend the majority of their lives eating grass in the pasture. What sets cattle apart is how they’re “finished”, or what they eat at the end of their lives.
Grass Finished Beef through the eyes of a Farmer:
Grass-finished cattle spend their entire lives grazing and eating from pastures. Per USDA guidelines, grass-finished cattle may also eat forage, hay or silage. Grass finished cattle may or may not be given FDA-approved antibiotics to treat, prevent or control disease and/or growth-promoting hormones.
From a Consumer’s perspective, what are the health benefits and/or other notable differences of grass finished beef?
When you simply look at a grass fed steak, you may notice some differences visually. If you compare a grass-finished ribeye steak to a grain-finished ribeye steak, the grass finished steak will usually be a little smaller in size and have less beef marbling.
Nutritionally, grass finished beef has some great health attributes like more vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids compared to grain fed beef.
However, according to some experts like Michael Joseph at Nutrition Advance,
“Overall, both grass-fed and grain-fed beef have benefits and drawbacks. Based solely on the nutrition profile, grass-fed beef is slightly superior due to its higher vitamin and CLA content. It is also more protein-dense. However, the differences are only small, and all types of beef offer good nutritional value.”
The American Meat Science Association says it’s up to each individual consumer on if they want grass or grain finished.
“Many people think that grass fed beef is healthier for you since if contains a different type of fat when compared to conventional grain fed beef. Grass fed beef contains lower levels of saturated fat and slightly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. While this is true neither source of beef has a sufficient number of omega-3s when compared to something such as salmon, which contains 35 times more omega-3 than beef.
While grass fed, beef does have lower levels of saturated fat, the difference isn’t significant. Texas A&M recently did a study of men to see if grass fed beef would lower cholesterol levels. Their results actually show that men who consume conventional corn-fed beef improved cholesterol levels while the men that consume grass fed beef saw little to no change in their cholesterol levels.”
The majority of cattle in America are grain finished. If you don’t see any other terms on the label, it’s likely grain finished.
Grain Finished Beef through the eyes of a Farmer:
Like grass fed beef, grain finished beef spends the majority of its life grazing and eating from pastures. During the last 4-6 months of their lives, they have access to grain. How farmers give the cattle grain varies by farm.
At Clover Meadows Beef, all of our our grain-finished beef are raised in a 100% pasture environment. Once a day, we take a bag of grain supplement to them and place it in a trough where they have the option of eating grass or the grain supplement. The grain supplement we choose is based up on cattle’s nutritional needs and the recommendation of our veterinarian and nutritionist.
On some other farms, grain-finished cattle are sent to feedlots for the last 4-6 months of their lives. In the feedlot, they’re given a balanced diet of grains, and local feed ingredients like potato hulls and sugar beets.
From a Consumer’s perspective, what are the nutritional benefits and/or other notable differences of grain finished beef?
According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Studies show that eating lean beef, as part of a balanced diet, supports healthy blood pressure and blood lipids. You may be surprised to hear that a 3-oz. serving of lean beef (about the size of a deck of cards), has about 150 calories on average and is a good or excellent source of 10 essential nutrients like zinc, iron and B vitamins.
Most people think of “natural” as how the animal was raised. For example, they wawnt to know if it was given antibiotics or hormones. However, if you look at how the USDA defines the term, you’ll see it has nothing to do with how the animal was raised.
According to the USDA’s website, natural is defined as “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).” If you dig deeper, minimal processing includes smoking, roasting, freezing, drying, and fermenting.
Natural through the eyes of a Farmer:
At Clover Meadows Beef, we define natural meat as:
- Free from antibiotics or added hormones (cattle naturally have hormones, what makes a boy a boy and a girl a girl)
- Fed a balanced diet, without the addition of animal fat or animal by-products
- Raised in a pasture environment that’s comfortable and stress-free
- Handled humanely at all times
- Grown using environmentally sound, sustainable farming methods based on science and generations of experience.
Natural through the eyes of a Consumer:
The next time you’re at the grocery store, see how many products you can find labeled “natural”. It will probably surprise you. Unfortunately, this marketing term causes a lot of confusion since the USDA’s definition and consumer’s expectations of the term are very different.
Certified organic beef, designated by the official label, comes from cattle that have never received any antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones. These cattle may spend time at the feedyard and can be either grass-finished or grain-finished as long as the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service certifies the feed as 100% organically grown.
According to the USDA’s Organic Livestock Requirement Fact Sheet, livestock must be…
- Allowed year-round access to the outdoors except under specific conditions (e.g., inclement weather). This period is specific to the farm’s geographic climate, but must be at least 120 days.
- Raised on certified organic land meeting all organic crop production standards.
- Raised per animal health and welfare standards.
- Fed 100 percent certified organic feed, except for trace minerals and vitamins used to meet the animal’s nutritional requirements.
- Managed without antibiotics, added growth hormones, mammalian or avian byproducts, or other prohibited feed ingredients (e.g., urea, manure, or arsenic compounds).
Organic through the eyes of a cattle farmer:
Sometimes we’re asked if our beef is certified organic. The answer is no, but our cattle are raised to many of the organic standards.
Here are a few examples of how we meet the organic standards:
- Our cattle have access to pasture 365 days a year. We may put them in our barns on days with extremely frigid, icey-rain, but that’s it. The pasture is their home and that’s where they live when it’s sunny, snowing, raining, or any other time.
- We don’t feed our cattle antibiotics or add administer growth hormones
- We’re blessed to have large pastures that grow extremely healthy and nutritious grass. We utilize rotational grazing and move our cattle from field to field so they’re always eating healthy grass. Every spring and summer, we cut the grass and make hay. Our cattle eat this hay (i.e. dried grass from our fields) during the winter.
Here are a few examples of how we don’t meet the organic standards:
- As you’d probably expect, our pastures are surrounded by fence so that our cattle don’t wander away. Many of the fence posts are wood. Prior to putting the fence post in the ground, a local company treats the post with the same treatment that you’d use on your deck so that the wood doesn’t rot. The wood treatment isn’t organic. Because there’s a chance that a cow may rub against or lick the treated fence post, we don’t meet organic standards.
- We feed our grain-finished cattle grain that has been approved by our veterinarian and animal nutritionist. It’s all-natural, high quality grain usually from corn or soybeans. However, the grain isn’t certified as organic, therefore we don’t meet organic standards.
- We work closely with an agronomist on the health of our soil. We regular take soil samples and replace soil nutrients as recommended by a state certified laboratory. Cattle grazing naturally remove phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium from the soil as they consume grass. These basic buildings blocks of all plant life must be replaced as prescribed by an agronomist. Failure to do so leads to soil infertility and poor quality grass. Adding these nutrients in their purest form is a violation of the term “organic” however based off generations of raising grass and cattle in Southern Mo, replacing nutrient loss is vital to the sustainability of the soil and farm.
From a Consumer’s perspective, what are the nutritional benefits and/or other notable differences of organic beef?
Whether or not organic food is more nutritious is a hotly debated topic. We’re not scientists or nutritionists, so we won’t enter the debate. The most authoritative study we’re aware of on the topic is from The Annals of Internal Medicine. It found that organic foods have no substantial vitamin or mineral over foods that are conventionally grown.
Another important thing to point out is that organic doesn’t mean “pesticide free”. Rather, it means their use is restricted or limited to an allowed list.
We’re sure this topic will continue to be debated and researched, and we will continue to read and learn like everyone else.
Are you still reading? If so, kudos to you! We’ve just covered the five big terms that are used in the beef industry.
Here are a few others that you may hear along the way.
Cattle spend their lives in the pasture, and not in confined areas are considered pasture raised.
A hormone is a natural or synthetic product that affects cell activity. You’ll often see products in the grocery store labeled “no added growth hormones.” We do not use any added hormones at Clover Meadows Beef.
Farmers that practice sustainable farming are using farming techniques that are good for the environment and good for the community. This type of farming looks long term and uses practices that won’t compromise the future of the land or animals, uses natural resources responsibly, and monitors and evaluates every activity so that farming practices are constantly improving.
All meat for public consumption in the U.S. must be inspected by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Meat inspection can be done by State inspectors or Federal inspectors (USDA). If it’s done by state inspectors, it can only be sold in the state it’s produced in. Meat inspected by Federal inspectors can be sold across State lines. The inspection occurs at the processing facility. All Clover Meadows Beef is inspected by the USDA.
In addition to inspecting meat, the USDA can also grade meat. The grade is determined by the degree of marbling (internal fat) in the meat. Prime is the best and only about 2 percent of American beef is graded prime. Prime beef has the most marbling, and the USDA defines it as being “abundant marbling.” Most meat that is in grocery stores in the butcher case is graded as choice, and the prepackaged meat is often times graded as select. No matter what its quality grade, all meat sold in the United States has to meet strict sanitary requirements all the way from the processor to the butcher’s case.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve likely learned a few new things about how beef is labeled. If you want to learn more terms, you can check out the USDA’s dictionary of terms here.
When we boil it all down, we have two main conclusions: 1) Be healthy and eat whatever type of beef you prefer. Grass finished, grain finished, organic…it’s up to you. Pick which one you like, and go with it. 2) Be a smart, educated consumer. Be mindful and do your own research so that you know exactly what you’re buying.
Hopefully we’ve answered all of your questions about grass fed beef, grass finished bef, grain finished beef, organic, pasture raised, etc. If you have other questions, let us know. We love to talk about beef.
One more thing!
Do you want to learn more about beef? Here are a few other beef posts and recipes you may like. Plus, we have an entire ebook about beef that goes through purchasing and preparing beef from a farmers perspective.
- What Everybody Ought to Know About Beef Cuts
- Raising Grass Fed Cattle
- Is It Done Yet? Why Every Kitchen Needs a Digital Meat Thermometer and the Best One
- Ebook – An Essential Guide to Beef: A Cattle Farm Shares How to Purchase & Prepare Beef