Grass-fed Beef: Unveiling the Secret Behind the Label

grass-fed beef

When you swipe your card to pay for “grass-fed” beef, you need to distinguish between a marketing ploy and authentic grass-fed beef.

Labels that identify a package of beef as “grass-fed don’t always tell the whole story,” asserts grass-fed beef expert Jo Robinson.

Articles and notes litter my desk about the controversial and complex grass-fed certification and label.

I have a personal investment in this information because of my son, who is a young entrepreneur, that established a beef cattle business on our farm.

To market our meat with integrity, how should we define our herd?

My interest in this issue is also fiscal. I am a consumer who, on occasion, needs to buy beef from the supermarket.

I am confident that in one of your recent strolls through the beef section of your supermarket, you’ve noticed the labels adhered to the packages of this niche market meat, distinguishing it from its conventional beef meat case neighbors.

Grass-fed beef enthusiasts snag packages of grass-fed meat, assuming that the animal grazed on lush green rolling pastures. I often sit on my porch and listen to the muffled crunches of our cattle grazing the field.  Even the most staunch city-dweller would find this sound quite soothing.

Without realizing it, consumers who dig deep into their pockets to pay for their alleged pasture-fed burger might be getting buffaloed by mere labeling. 

An article in the Gannet Company’s (think USA Today) Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointedly states that “Labels simply stating grass-fed do not necessarily indicate the animals exclusively ate grass and frolicked in verdant farm fields. It does not necessarily mean the food is organic.”

You Might Have a Beef with the USDA (and I don’t mean sharing a Rib-eye)

In January 2016, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), a branch of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), withdrew its official definition of “grass-fed.” In a conference call discussing this withdrawal, Dr. Craig Morris, Deputy Administrator, confirmed that “there is NO federal standard defining “grass-fed.”

Over the past several days, I combed the published notes from the conference call, trying to piece together the future of “grass-fed” labeling.

As you know, whenever an issue involves a governmental agency, acronyms abound.  I will do my best to dissect the information and translate it into a more palatable form.

USDA sister agency, the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), handles the labeling approval.  FSIS is the official regulatory arm of the USDA body.  This agency:

  • Allows companies/farmers to “make marketing claims, like grass-fed, based on the producer’s definition of grass-fed.”
  • Does not “require companies/farmers to gain approval from the AMS Process Verified Program or an independent third party
  • Does not restrict companies/farmers to only 100% grass-fed. Farmers may feed cows 50% grass-fed and finished on grain or other grass-fed percentage claims.
  • Does not require on-site audits or inspections

A farmer supplies the FSIS with the necessary paperwork and documents to receive an approved label.

For this information, you’ll love me until the cows come home.

Rather than remain bamboozled and befuddled by bureaucratic labeling, I am going to help you push your grocery cart to the meat case as a well-informed “steak”-holder regarding the product and the convoluted policies associated with what you pay to slap on your grill.

What Exactly Does Grass-fed Beef Mean?”

Cows are herbivore ruminants, right? Therefore, all cows eat grass?  Right again.  If cows consume naturally, then why is it necessary for the government to verify and label beef as “grass-fed”?

Here’s the meat of the grass-fed story.

Every cow consumes grass the first 6-12 months of its life.  After that, the term becomes hazy.  A glossary of grass-fed terms helps to clarify what your beef ate.

American Grass-fed Association (AGA) Grass-Fed Standard

grass-fed beef


Producers/farmers feed cows forage (grass and hay) from weaning to harvest.  Cattle receive no antibiotics or growth hormones, and they graze in the open pasture, not in confined, over-crowded feedlots or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

Hay serves as a winter diet when lush, green grass is unavailable.  On occasion, torrential rainfall, flooding, or drought prohibits the growth of grass.  Farmers, then supplement the herbivore’s diet with hay/forage.

To ensure a strict grass-fed standard, the AGA and the Food Alliance maintain a rigorous grass-fed verification program separate from the USDA.

The AGA is the only third-party program that inspects and audits producers on an annual basis. The package of grass-fed meat in your cart bearing the AGA label is genuinely what the name claims.

Grass-fed does NOT mean organic.

grass-fed beef

From a farming standpoint, organic certification is both expensive and labor-intensive, so organic farmers deserve every extra penny. For the sake of your wallet, don’t mistakenly assume that your grass-fed shish kabob meat is organic as well.  The organic certification requires additional farming practices like serving cows certified organic feed as a winter diet if the pesticide-free, fertilizer-free pasture is unavailable.  Additionally, the organic label forbids the use of growth hormones or antibiotics. “Certified Organic” is a trusted label.

USDA 100% Grass-fed

grass-fed beef

The cow receives no grains at any time. USDA ignores the living conditions or use of hormones/antibiotics in the standards.  In other words, it all about what the cows eat.

Here is a hypothetical: Farmer Brown submits documentation to the FSIS to receive grass-fed labeling (the sticker that consumers will see on the package of meat in the supermarket).  In Farmer Brown’s application, he details the specifics of his cattle feeding practices from birth to slaughter, which includes winter/drought/flood diet plans.  He explains his product control (cows in this case) and how he segregates his herd. That is it.

Accountability comes into play if the USDA has reason to suspect that Farmer Brown is submitting a load of “bull.” USDA/FSIS will follow up with an investigation.  Otherwise, Farmer Brown receives his “grass-fed” label, and the rest is a bovine mystery for the consumer.


This term, according to AGA Communications Director Maria Rodale, “is considered to be an audacious claim. It has no legal definition, so if you see this on a label, you have to ask the producer exactly what it means in terms of that particular producer’s practices.”

Farmers feed cattle on pasture then could ship the livestock to a concentrated animal feeding operation/feedlot (CAFOs) for hasty fattening up with grain. Another “grass-finished” scenario exists when cows are grain-fed until the last few months of their lives. Then they ship them to farms to feed on grass.  Then the producer can market the meat as “grass-fed.”

Pasture-fed, pasture-grazed, forage-based, regeneratively-grazed, or rotationally-grazed (what the brisket does this mean?)

Most likely, you will not see a label with these terms “regeneratively-grazed” or “rotationally-grazed” on your package of grass-fed meat.  Even to the most ardent grass-fed advocate, these terms may be unfamiliar. They describe and refer to sustainable farming practices that enhance the soil and biodiversity.

Specific companies like Organic Valley label their products USDA-certified organic cows as “pasture-raised or “pasture-fed.” The labels require that Organic Valley cows graze on pasture for a minimum of 120 days per year with at least 30% of the feed derived from grasses and forageThis large, trustworthy organic company supplements its grass-fed cows with compliant forms of forage, not grain.

However, when you see the claim “pasture-raised: without the organic label approach with caution and ask questions. The phrase may be “another self-made claim with no legal definition or independent verification of production standards.”

No More Wading Through the Muck to Get to Your Beef

Here is the solution:

1.  Whenever possible, establish a relationship with a local beef producer/farmer.  You will get to know his feeding practices and see his operation.  Farmers like Joel Salatin maintain an open-door policy at his farm.  Other farmers like Salatin are in the agriculture community, trust me.

2.  If direct access to a local farmer is not practical, look for a trusted third party verification (via the label) on the package such as American Grassfed Approved or the Food Alliance.  The American Grass-fed Association provides a list of producers/farmers by-state.

3.  Find supermarket chains like Wegmans and Whole Foods Market that sells “organic grass-fed” beef (resource list here).

4.  Look for On-line services that sell beef from small ranchers, divided into manageable orders, and delivered to your home in vacuum-sealed cuts, like Crowd Cow. 

5.  Frequent your local farmer’s market.  If local farmer/producer is not at the market, peruse the market stalls and ask other vendors about local meat producers.  You may have to hoof it to a market in a neighboring town or city with a meat vendor.  See the resource list for a farmer’s market in your area.

Let’s Talk About Tipping the Cow ($$$)

Consumers are too dependent on supermarkets.   Revolutionize your eating by tracing the road trip your food makes to get to your kitchen. Click To Tweet Listen to the echoes of your parents from your middle school days, “do your homework.” You will conclude that “there is no escaping the fact that better food—measured by taste and nutritional quality (which often correspond)—costs

Food journalist, Michael Pollan sums up what you too will conclude:

“There is no escaping the fact that better food—measured by taste and nutritional quality (which often correspond)—costs more because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care.

Focus on the quality of your food rather than the quantity. Click To Tweet Perhaps you could give up Netflix so that you can squeeze out more dollars to spend on better food.  Better to pay for safe, high-quality food than risk health issues due to years of consuming foods like mystery meat.  In terms of your beef, the grass is greener on the other side.

Graze on These Resources to Add to Your Library (click on image)

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  1. Melissa @ Think About Such Things on July 19, 2017 at 6:09 pm
    This is so insightful!! Thank you for sharing it...I hate how labels these days can be so deceiving. Every time I see them at the market I always question if it's true. If I could I would just raise my own cow for my family.
    • Denise Sultenfuss on July 20, 2017 at 3:50 pm
      Every time I approach the meat case, I ask myself what am I really looking for in terms of quality meat and trustworthy labels. Thanks for stopping by Melissa.
  2. Julie | Unmasking the Mess on July 23, 2017 at 3:35 pm
    Thank you for this informative post! All the labels and meanings certainly make it difficult for the consumer. Thankfully, we get our grass-fed meat from our neighbor. Out of my windows, I can see them frolicking in the green meadows. Visiting from #FreshMarketFriday
    • Denise Sultenfuss on July 23, 2017 at 4:04 pm
      Lucky to have the beef, well, right in your neighborhood. Glad the article informed you. That is my goal at holy and healthy living. My hope is to equip, encourage, and inspire people to live a holy and healthy life so that they can acccomplish what God has commissioned them to do.
  3. Ruth on July 23, 2017 at 4:30 pm
    Thanks for the great tips! I'm bookmarking so I can have them at my finger"tips"! :) I appreciate all the solutions you've offered. Good to know!
    • Denise Sultenfuss on July 23, 2017 at 4:44 pm
      Thanks for stopping by the blog today, feel free to pass this resource on to others. I am thrilled that you can find a use for the information.
  4. Sveinn Storm on August 26, 2017 at 6:59 am
    This is absolutely the best article I have ever read on this topic and I have read many. We used to sell lamb, beef and chicken raised on our farm at various farmers markets, Sadly, most of the products sold at those markets were sold fraudulently. This was a real shame as it reflected poorly on the hard working, honest farm vendors. Every one of the market managers either knew full well about the deceit or chose not to use due diligence to determine the fraud. Your advice to "know your farmer" is paramount. This blog is terrific and certainly worth one's time!
    • Denise Sultenfuss on August 26, 2017 at 12:46 pm
      Hey, thanks for stopping by the blog. As a fellow farmer, you would know a counterfeit when you see one. Let's work together to campaign for eat and buy locally.
  5. Derek McDoogle on September 24, 2017 at 11:17 am
    I agree, building a relationship with a local beef producer would be a great idea. I think my friend knows someone here where I live. I'll make sure to send him a text about it. I would love to learn more about grass fed beef farming practices. It's a hot issue, and I want to make sure I make the right decision when it comes to purchasing and quality.
    • Denise Sultenfuss on September 25, 2017 at 12:20 pm
      Derek, as a beef grower, my best advice is to stay in touch with the American grass-Fed Association (AGFA) which compiles a national list of grass-fed meat producers. Just ask a beef farmer the questions, "How long have your cows been on grass."

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