Guide To Buying Grass-Fed Beef


When you buy beef from the grocery store, you can usually tell that there’s some kind of beef encased in all that plastic and styrofoam. You also know what cut of beef you’re getting. But as for details on what you’re actually eating, packages are not very informative.

What those labels won’t tell you is whether your meat contains residues of rBGH or rBST growth hormones or whether it contains trace amounts of the 30 million pounds of antibiotics used on livestock every year. They won’t give you a good idea of where your meat came from or how the animals were treated prior to slaughter, nor will they tell you about an animal’s diet, which can impact the health of the animal as well as whether it’s meat is contaminated with E. coli.

If you care about all those things—as well as the nutritional quality of your beef—it’s best to avoid the supermarket and buy grass-fed beef directly from a farmer. Either know a local natural-food store owner who knows how beef is produced, or know the farmer directly. Trust is the only thing that’s going to assure your meat was produced ethically.

Grass-fed beef has also been found to contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and is typically leaner than it’s corn-fattened counterpart behind the market’s deli counter (those are some nutrition facts that won’t appear on the new labels, either). However, savvy marketers have come up with some creative terminology to convince you that conventionally produced meat is as good as truly pasture-raised, grass-fed beef.

“Grass-fed” versus “Free-Range

Catering to the public’s desire for more ecofriendly meat-production processes, companies have started stamping labels on food that don’t always mean what you think they do.

“Grass-fed” is a term for which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) actually has a legal definition. Only meat from “ruminant” animals—animals that survive on grass, such as cattle and sheep—can be labeled grass-fed.  The animals have to be fed a diet of grass, hay, and forage their entire lives, and be provided access to pasture.

“Free-range” is a term the USDA has defined vaguely for poultry but not at all for beef. “Grass-fed and pastured animals are by nature free-range.”


If it’s not always possible to know the farmer, or someone who knows the farmer, third-party certifications are a good way to ensure you’re getting good beef. There’s the USDA Organic certification, but  it allows the use of some grain feed.

The is a new American Grassfed Association’s certification, which is the only one out there that stipulates that animals can eat nothing but grass for their entire lives. The other common certifications, including “Animal Welfare Approved” and “Certified Humane Raised and Handled,” allow the use of grain, in part because it can be difficult to feed an animal on grass its entire life.

Stick to your guns and go for 100-percent grass-fed beef, whether it’s certified or not. For a long time, it was hard to produce nice, tender grass-fed meat with enough fat so that it’s pleasurable to eat, in a short amount of time, so farmers stuck with grain. Farmers have made incredible advancements in the way they manage their pastures.

Now you’ve got cattle in these ‘ice cream parlor’ pastures where they get extremely good grass. The best way to find truly grass-fed beef, again, is to know the farmer growing your food. These [certifying agencies] are doing important work, but they’re also doing the job of replacing the relationship between consumer and farmer.

If you can’t know your farmer, you should know the person who knows them. There should never be more than two degrees of separation between your grocer and your farmer.

Bottom line: Buying grass-fed beef from a farmer who can tell you how he treats his animals and how he finishes his animals is the gold standard. Failing that, your best bet is to look for a third-party certification such as the American Grassfed Association (which is considered the best of the available certifications), Certified Humane Raised and Handled, Animal Welfare Approved, or USDA Organic.

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