by guest blogger Marilyn Noble, Communications Director, American Grassfed Association
Grass-fed meats are showing up everywhere--in grocery stores, at farmer's markets, and on the menus of burger joints and fine dining restaurants. Why? Because, compared to grain-fed, the meat is healthier for people (it has a more nutritious fat profile and more vitamins and minerals), is healthier for the environment, and has a more delicious flavor profile. There's also the issue of humane treatment: Grass-fed animals living on open pasture almost always enjoy a better life than their grain-fed counterparts who spend the last months of their lives confined to feedlots.
In the old days, you could pay a visit to the meat counter in your locally owned grocery store or butcher shop and ask the butcher anything you wanted to know about the meat you were considering for dinner that night--how to cook it, where the cut originated on the animal, and which of your neighboring farms raised the meat. Those days came to an end with the advent of chain grocery stores, commodity farming, and Styrofoam packaging. But that's changing, especially in large urban centers.
The rise of farmer's markets and small butcher shops is bringing meat consumption back to a personal level. Now it's possible, even in big cities, to learn where meat you're buying comes from and how it's produced. And knowing what the different labels mean will help you get the meat you want. Here's a breakdown:
Grass-fed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Marketing Service has developed standards for use of the term grass-fed on meat labels. They state that animals must be 100 percent fed on grass, but can be confined and fed supplements that may contain antibiotics or hormones. The meat can also be imported from Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, or other countries, so there's no guarantee that it came from a local or regional family farm.
The American Grassfed Association (AGA) has developed more comprehensive standards and is the only third-party program that inspects and audits producers on an annual basis. The AGA logo means the meat is from ruminant animals (cattle, bison, sheep, or goats) who were raised entirely on grass and forage, without confinement in a feedlot, and who were never given antibiotics or hormones. (Poultry and swine are omnivorous animals and as such, are not grass fed.) Transparency is also a big part of the AGA standards. Each animal is tracked from birth to harvest. There are several hundred AGA-certified farms and ranches in the U.S., and they're all proud of the work they've done to be able to use the logo.
Organic. The organic label is administered by the National Organic Program and means that the livestock was raised without antibiotics or synthetic hormones on feed that was vegetarian, was pesticide- and herbicide-free, and contained no GMOs. Organic does not equal grass fed. A ranch with organic certification may feed its herd entirely on grass, but many also feed organic grains and grain by-products during periods of confinement. Conversely, many grass-fed producers choose not to pursue organic certification, even though they may follow organic standards in the production of their meats. With this label, the best thing to do is ask the farmer or research more about the brand.
Naturally Raised. The term "naturally raised" is another USDA term that says the animals were not fed any animal by-products, growth hormones or antibiotics. But they could be fed grain or grass and confined to a feedlot.
Grass-finished. Finishing refers to the way animals are fed during the last few months of their lives, but this term is considered to be a self-made 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.
Pasture Raised. You may encounter this term in articles that use it as a general term for any animal that never sees confinement; however, when you see it on a label, it's another self-made claim with no legal definition or independent verification of production standards. This is another case in which you should ask plenty of questions.
As with most food, the best way to know what kind of meat you're getting is to talk to the farmer--and most small farmers are happy to talk about what they do. If you can't meet the farmer, ask questions of the butcher or the purveyor at the farmer's market. Buying directly from the producer helps eliminate any guesswork, and many grass-fed ranchers sell their products directly to consumers online. To find producers, visit the American Grassfed producer listings or Eatwild.
Animal Welfare Approved is another organization that certifies farms and ranches, and they've published The Grassfed Primer, a resource for learning more about what grass-fed meat is and the benefits to consumers, animals, and the environment.
Being an educated consumer isn't easy, but the more you learn about where and how your food is produced, the better your eating experience and health will be. And by buying from farmers, or as close to the farm as you can get, you'll be contributing to a stronger, more sustainable food system.
Marilyn Noble is the communications director for the American Grassfed Association and serves on the board of Slow Food Denver. She is also a cookbook author and has recently released her third book, Southwest Comfort Food: Slow and Savory.
For more from Maria Rodale, go to www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com