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Is Grass-Fed Beef Bullsh!t?

By Melissa McEwen in Food on May 30, 2014 3:35PM

Food writer Josh Ozersky ruffled locavore feathers by declaring grass-fed beef a “scam.” Ozersky thinks its a scam because he says it doesn't taste good, but the real scam is that it’s now a meaningless platitude used to market sub-standard products to gullible consumers.

Grass-fed beef entered the consumer consciousness with the locavore movement, promising beef far removed from the anonymous industrial farms you typically find everywhere. But something went very wrong when this translated to the restaurant industry, where you’ll typically find it in a burger described on the menu as simply “grass-fed.”

Locavore writings often mention how industrial beef comes from an untold number of cows all mixed together, making it next to impossible to trace foodborne illnesses such as the dreaded E. coli. Grass-fed was touted as a transparent farm-to-table alternative, better for humans and animals.

But what if I told you that grass-fed, while it does technically have a legal USDA definition, has almost no oversight? That there has never been a prosecution of someone selling non-grass-fed beef as grass-fed beef? That some slaughterhouses that process it do not do a very good job at making sure farmers who process there understand what grass-fed really means? They just stamp the grass-fed label on the meat and call it a day. There are a few organizations that independently audit in order to certify the meat is actually grass-fed, such as The American Grassfed Association, but only a few hundred farms in the US are certified.

I’ve worked with farmers for almost a decade now and encountered more than my fair share of farmers who didn’t really know what grass-fed meant, but knew their beef would get a slightly higher price at the slaughterhouse with the term. I’ve seen cows go into the slaughterhouse who definitely weren’t grass-fed but were labeled as such. “Oh, we fed them corn, but only for a few weeks during the hay shortage.” “Well, I’m not sure what Bessie ate before we bought her from Farmer John next door, but she’s eaten mostly grass.”

Yet the standards for grass-fed are so strict that if Farmer John had been a stickler for grass and Bessie escaped one day and ate the neighbor’s single bucket of corn, Bessie couldn’t be sold as grass-fed. Does that really matter? Sure, corn-fed cows can be sickly, but not if they are fed responsibly. It’s like humans would be pretty sickly if we ate just corn tortillas for every meal, but we’re probably OK having some tacos as part of a balanced diet. As for the argument about the cow’s natural diet – cows are a domesticated species that doesn’t exist in nature; “natural” is already pretty much out the window.

Some feeds that are technically legal for grass-fed cows really aren’t very high quality, making for some mediocre meat from unhappy cows. I don’t know, I’d rather my beef eat some hay with some occasional high-quality corn than a diet of chopped rotting GMO corn stalks that technically count as “grass.”

Besides being better for the cow, that beef tastes a whole lot better. It’s no coincidence that so many restaurants that serve grass-fed burgers drown them in mayonnaise and bacon. And when you do that, you essentially cancel out many of the supposed health benefits of grass-fed – like the vaunted ratio of omega-3 fats to omega-6 fats – because mayonnaise almost always contains a hell of a lot of vegetable oil (omega-6), and bacon is often very high in omega-6 fats as well.

That’s not to say all grass-fed beef is mediocre. A good farmer that knows what they are doing and has cattle bred to fatten well on pasture means some tasty steak, but not all farmers know how to do it well. Full disclosure: I’ve sold 100 percent grass-fed and quality grain-fed beef from my family’s farm and other farms for the past five years. Both can be truly delicious in different ways, though grass-fed is going to require more skill in pasture and cattle management to produce a consistently high-quality product. And if you do it wrong, you’ll pay in off-flavors that give grass-fed beef a bad name.

Most animal welfare issues have little to do with feed. A cow who is raised in a miserable feedlot and fed mountains of antibiotics can technically be USDA grass-fed if the are fed 100% hay. Consumers who care about animal welfare should look for independently audited products such as Animal Welfare Approved, The American Grassfed Association (which prohibits antibiotics and hormones and requires cattle to actually be pastured) or transparently sourced products. That means you can ask a restaurant what farm your beef comes from, and they will know.

The fact that grass-fed is bullshit is underscored by asking some restaurants that tout grass-fed products where they actually get their beef. “Oh, that’s proprietary information.” Hmm, sounds exactly like what most large food corporations say, I thought grass-fed was supposed to be an alternative to that? Some of them parrot the corporate party line that they are worried their sources will get poached, but every single farmer I have talked to is more than willing to expand production to accommodate more restaurants. The reality is they probably don't know what farm it came from - it was mixed from several different farms at the slaughterhouse, just like the beef locavores have such a beef with.

Sustainability is also not synonymous with grass-fed. If the grass-fed beef comes from out West where there are water shortages and water is wasted by irrigating pastures, that is hardly sustainable. And I’ve seen my share of cow pastures that were a great example of soil erosion, as well as well-managed amber fields of organic heritage grains. It depends on the farm. And you won’t know the farm if it’s just labeled “grass-fed.”

America would be a better place if the most miserable feedlots were regulated out of existence and consumers didn’t have to scrutinize menus to avoid junk. In the meantime, don’t expect grass-fed to be the solution to the beef industry’s issues. Look for restaurants, butchers and grocery stores that care about sourcing beyond just marketing buzzspeak. Despite what many consumers think, grass-fed has nothing to do with pasturing, antibiotics, GMOs and hormones, and has only a tenuous relationship with sustainability and animal welfare.

If I’m going for special beef, I’m looking for pasture-fed, pasture-raised beef – raised by farmers anyone would be proud to list on their menu.