Many feel-good buzzwords have risen to prominence within the food industry over the past few years - “Free-Range”, “Non-GMO”, and “Plant-Based” are a few that come to mind. Perhaps the biggest of them all is the term “Grass-Fed”. The grass-fed label is used primarily on beef products as a way to designate certain products from the conventional grain-fed options. Due to the growing awareness of the factory farms that reside as the standard model of animal agriculture, folks have increasingly sought out products that confer greater benefits to both the animals and therefore their own health. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in previous examples, this claim is wholly underserved in terms of maintaining clear definitions and regulations. Yes, the world of food labeling is akin to the wild west with plenty of lawmakers and no discernible sheriff to say who’s in the right. As you’ll soon find out, “grass fed” is yet another way in which food companies can (and do) mislead customers into thinking their purchase is better than it really may be.
Let’s begin with the big picture of the grass fed concept. The gist of the idea is that when cattle are allowed to graze on open pasture throughout their lifetime they are afforded much healthier lives, which in turn produces healthier meat for the eventual consumers. When allowed to openly forage, pasture-raised cows attain a much more nutritious diet and it’s their act of grazing through pasture, triggering the growth of new grass and leaving their manure to fertilize the soil, that gives back to the land beneath them. Unlike conventional cattle raised on grain, soy, and sillage, grass-fed cows are left to their natural tendencies for feeding and therefore reap the benefits of a much more species-appropriate diet.
Another aspect in this concept is the movement and exposure that cows experience through continuous exposure to grasslands. A cow who is free, and therefore required, to roam in order to find sustenance will, in turn, be living a much more natural life and more fully “expressing its cowness”, as , much more so than a cow who is confined to a feedlot. This also has implications on the environmental aspects of cattle operations, as waste is spread out more evenly and aids in the distribution of water resources across the farmland. There may be a variety of reasons for choosing grass-fed meat over conventional alternatives, but suffice to say when people are looking for options that they feel come from more reliable sources, “grass-fed” is the label they look for.
Now here’s the tricky part: the term “grass-fed” has no federally regulated definition, nor is the usage of the label strictly overseen. Prior to 2016, the USDA had a working definition for the use of “grass-fed”, but this definition has since been dropped from their regulations. Even when they were regulated, USDA regulations - in the fine print - allowed for industrial operations to feed cattle soy and peanut hulls, soy pulp, and other grain by-products to cattle and still call them “grass-fed.” What’s more, ALL beef cows, even conventional grain-fed cows, are raised on grass for up to 85% of their lifetime. It’s within the last 90-120 days of their growing time that they are given a grain-heavy diet to fatten them up pre-slaughter. In this regard, every piece of beef you buy can technically be considered grass-fed, regardless of what it was fed in addition to grass. These last months, however, appear to be critical for the quality of the final product, and many claim that the diet of the animals is just as important in the last 90 days as it is every day leading up to them.
The fact is that 95% of beef sold in grocery stores comes from grain-fed cattle, yet take a glance at those very shelves and you’ll find that “grass-fed'' beef products make up more than a mere 5%. Due to the fact that there is no government regulation over the term, food companies are able to easily mislead us into thinking we’re buying something we’re not. We may believe that we’re buying meat from healthier cows living more fulfilled lives, when in reality we may just be getting the same product that’s sold for much cheaper and that may not be providing us the benefits we’re seeking. Until things change on the regulatory front, “grass-fed” can be filed under the category of “Feel-Good Facades'' of labels and packaging.
Although grass-fed is an unreliable term for distinguishing whether or not your beef is truly fed a more natural diet, there are ways to ensure what you’re getting is what you’re looking for. Rather than relying on “grass-fed” alone, one should look for packages that state “grass-finished” included in their statements - an indication that the cows were raised on grass for their entire lives. Currently, there are a few trustworthy third-party verification companies that have created stringent standards to receive their grass-fed seals - American Grassfed Association, A Greener World, Global Animal Partnership (level 4 and above), or The Food Alliance are several others. Outside of establishing a relationship with a local farmer, these verified stamps are as close as one can get to knowing their meat was actually 100% grass-fed.
We all deserve to know what goes into the foods we eat; transparency is a very important value for us at Fulcrum Farm. As a smaller entity in the farming industry, we aim to uphold the most ethical means of producing food while being as open as possible about our process. No matter where our food is being served, either directly to our local community or through the organizations that distribute our foods to veterans in need, we want whoever is benefitting from our efforts to be able to trust that what they’re getting is exactly what they deserve - high-quality, nutritious food raised right. While packages can lie, and labels may mislead, we will continue to strive to stand as a source you can trust and help bring clarity and understanding when it comes to your food purchasing power.
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