Sunday, June 28, 2015

Making Distinctions: Grass-fed, Pasture-raised, Grain-fed and Beyond

[Lifestyle and Dietary]

There are a lot of terms bandied about regarding the manner in which livestock is raised, what it is fed, and the implications to the quality and healthful attributes of the protein that ultimately enters our diet.  Such terms as ‘free range’, ‘organic’, ‘natural’ or ‘naturally-raised’, ‘corn-fed’, ‘pasture-raised’, ‘grass-fed’ and ‘100% grass-fed’ can be confusing to say the least.

How are we to sift our way through this morass that is riddled with ambiguities resulting from regulatory inefficacies and business/political conflict of interests.  Furthermore, some of these terms are better defined and regulated than others which may even result in misleading the consumer.

For the sake of simplicity, clarity and brevity, let’s explore these terms by narrowing their application to just beef.

Natural Beef and Naturally Raised

By government definition, most beef is natural. According to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), ‘natural’ may be used on a label for meat if it does not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient (like what you see in farmed salmon), chemical preservative or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient, and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed (whatever that means). This definition only applies to how the meat was processed after the cattle were harvested and does not apply to how the animals were raised.

Marketers also have been applying the term ‘natural’ to beef labels based on how the animals were raised. In January 2009, USDA published a voluntary standard for ‘naturally raised’ livestock that allows for third-party verification of these claims (Federal Register: Vol. 74, Num. 12).

Beef with a USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)-certified ‘naturally raised’ claim comes from cattle that have never received growth promoters or supplemental hormones, have never been administered antibiotics and were not fed animal by-products.


Cattle called ‘corn-fed’, ‘grain-fed’, or ‘corn-finished’ are typically fattened on corn, soy, and other types of feed for several months before slaughter. As a high-starch, high-energy food, corn decreases the time to fatten cattle and increases carcass yield. Some corn-fed cattle are fattened in feedlots (see more on feedlots a little later in the article).

In the United States, most grass-fed cattle are raised for beef production. Dairy cattle may be supplemented with grain to increase the efficiency of production and reduce the area needed to support the energy requirements of the herd. The USDA defines ‘grain feed’ as follows:

"Under the United States Grain Standards Act (GSA; 57 FR 3274; January 29, 1992) and therefore acceptable to be included in the diet as grain are; barley, canola, corn, flaxseed, mixed grain, oats, rye, sorghum, soybeans, sunflower seed, triticale, and wheat, and any other food grains, feed grains, and oilseeds for which standards are established under section 76 of the GSA.    Additional feedstuffs that are acceptable to be included in the diet as grain for AMS administered USDA Certified or USDA Audit and Accreditation Programs are rice, millet, amaranth, buckwheat, and distiller’s grain (with or without solubles)."  

A growing number of health and environmental proponents in the United States such as the Union of Concerned Scientists advocate raising cattle on pasture and other forage. Complete adoption of farming practices like grass-fed beef production systems would increase the amount of forage land needed to raise cattle but reduce cropland used to feed them.

Switching cows from grass to grain puts more money in the beef industry’s pockets and cheaper meat on the supermarket shelves. But there is a price to pay for this cheaper beef. The stomachs of cows are naturally pH neutral. A corn-based diet, however, creates an acidic environment that contributes to a host of health problems. Corn-fed cattle are prone to serious health conditions such as bloat, diarrhea, ulcers, liver disease, and a weakened immune system. To combat these health problems, cattle are continually fed antibiotics, which leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that increasingly render modern medicine ineffective.

An acidic intestinal tract also favors the growth of E .coli.  Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, states that the lethal strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7 is believed to have evolved in the gut of feedlot cattle. The development of a more acidic environment in cows intestinal tracts created an acid-resistant strain of the pathogen, which is able to survive the acidic conditions of the human stomach and prove fatal. In the documentary Food, Inc., Pollan states that switching feedlot cattle to a grass diet would eliminate most of the E. coli in the cow's digestive tracts.

Today, antibiotics are routinely fed to livestock, poultry, and fish on industrial farms to promote faster growth and to compensate for the disease-ridden and unsanitary conditions in which they are raised.  According to a new report by the FDA, approximately 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are fed to farm animals. This means that in the United States only 20 percent of antibiotics, which were originally developed to protect human health, are actually used to treat infections in people, but more importantly, how much antibiotics remain in the beef we consume everyday.


A ‘feedlot’ or ‘feed yard’ is a type of animal feeding operation (AFO) which is used in intensive animal farming for finishing livestock, notably, beef cattle, but also swine, horses, sheep, turkeys, chickens or ducks, prior to slaughter. Large beef feedlots are called ‘concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the United States and intensive livestock operations (ILOs) or confined feeding operations (CFOs) in Canada. They may contain thousands of animals in an array of pens. Most feedlots require some type of governmental permit and must have plans in place to deal with the large amount of waste that is generated. The Environmental Protection Agency has authority under the Clean Water Act to regulate all animal feeding operations in the United States. This authority is delegated to individual states in some cases. In Canada, regulation of feedlots is shared between all levels of government, and in Australia this role is handled by the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme (NFAS).

Prior to entering a feedlot, cattle spend most of their life nursing and then grazing on rangeland or on immature fields of grain such as green wheat pasture. Once cattle obtain an entry-level weight, about 650 to 700 pounds (300 kg), they are transferred to a feedlot to be fed a specialized animal feed which consists of corn, corn byproducts (some of which is derived from ethanol and high fructose corn syrup production), milo, barley, and other grains as well as roughage which may consist of alfalfa, corn stalks, sorghum, or other hay, cottonseed meal, and premixes composed of microingredients such as vitamins, minerals, chemical preservatives, antibiotics, fermentation products, and other essential ingredients that are purchased from premix companies, usually in sacked form, for blending into commercial rations. Because of the availability of these products, a farmer who uses his own grain can formulate his own rations and be assured his animals are getting the recommended levels of minerals and vitamins. In the American northwest and Canada, barley, low grade durum wheat, chick peas (garbanzo beans), oats and occasionally potatoes are used as feed.

In a typical feedlot, a cow's diet is roughly 62% roughage, 31% grain, 5% supplements (minerals and vitamins), and 2% premix. High-grain diets lower the pH in the animals' rumen. Due to the stressors of these conditions, and due to some illnesses, it is often necessary to give the animals antibiotics on occasion, and also not uncommon administered as a prophylactic.

Feedlot diets are engineered to encourage growth of muscle mass and the deposition of some fat (known as ‘marbling’ in butchered meat). The marbling is desirable to consumers, as it contributes to flavor and tenderness. The animal may gain an additional 400 pounds (180kg) during its approximate 200 days in the feedlot. Once cattle are fattened up to their finished weight, the ‘finished’ cattle are transported to a slaughterhouse.

Grass (Forage) Fed or Grass-Finished Beef

Similar to ‘naturally raised’ beef, grass-finished beef refers to how the cattle were managed prior to harvest and specifically, to the type of diet the cattle consumed. While most cattle spend the majority of their lives in pastures eating grass before moving to a feedlot for grain-finishing, grass finished beef cattle remain on a pasture and forage diet their entire lives.

Producing grass-finished beef in large volumes is difficult in North America where few regions have the growing season to make it possible. Most grass-finished beef is imported from Australia and New Zealand where grass is in greater abundance than feed corn and grows year-round.

  • Suitable types of grass for grazing can include bluegrass, orchardgrass, bromegrass, tall fescue and, in some situations, alfalfa. 
  • Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, ensilage and post-harvest crop residue without separated grain may be included in some producers’ feeding regimes. 
  • Most cattle go to market weighing between 1,000 and 1,250 pounds, which may take longer for grass-finished animals to achieve than grain-fed beef cattle. 

In 2006, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) proposed a standard for grass (forage) fed marketing claims. The proposal calls for producers to demonstrate 99 percent or more of their animals’ energy came from grass and/or forage, with the exception of milk consumed by animals prior to weaning. 

  • Forage is defined as any edible, non-woody plant material, other than separated grain, which can be grazed or harvested for feeding. 
  • An AMS-verified claim of grass (forage) fed is not the same as a claim of organic or freerange. These claims require additional standards and verification.
  • AMS is reviewing comments received in response to its proposal in order to define a U.S. standard grass (forage) fed claim.
There is a heated debate on the topic of whether cattle should be raised on diets primarily composed of pasture (grass) or a concentrated diet of grain, soy, and other supplements. The issue is often complicated by the political interests and confusion between labels such as ‘free range’, ‘organic’, or ‘natural’. Cattle raised on a primarily forage diet are termed grass-fed. 

100% Grass-fed

This is a further distinction for grass-fed beef that asserts that the beef has been raised without any grain or cereal supplements or finishing.


Pasture-raised (and free-range), frankly, is a miss-leading term because it evokes an image that is considerably different than what it actually means.  Pasture-raised really says nothing about what the cattle are feed, but rather, where they are feed.  So this could be anything from 100% grass-fed to the same grain-fed program used in feedlots.

Certified Organic Beef

Beef labeled as ‘certified organic’ must be from cattle that meet USDA National Organic Program (NOP) livestock production requirements. Grain-fed beef, naturally raised or grass-finished beef may be eligible for USDA's NOP certification if the additional requirements are met.

The Organic Foods Production Act, effective October 2002, sets the standards for all food labeled organic ( For beef, this means:
  • Cattle must be fed certified organic feed but may be given certain vitamins and minerals.
  • Organically raised cattle may not be given growth promoters or receive antibiotics. Any animal that is treated with antibiotics to ensure its health must be removed from the NOP.
  • Organically raised cattle must have access to pasture, however, they may be temporarily confined for specific reasons. In reality, most cattle in the United States, regardless of how they are raised, meet this requirement.

USDA Beef Grades

At this point, we might as well cover how the USDA ranks the beef you buy:
  • Prime grade is less commonly found in supermarkets, and if it is, it would be a specialty item offered at a full service meat counter. This beef is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking (broiling, roasting, or grilling).
  • Choice grade is still of high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib. They are very tender, juicy, and flavorful. They also do well with dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts, such as those from the rump, round, and blade chuck, can also be cooked with dry heat if not overcooked. Such cuts will be most tender if ‘braised’ ‘ roasted, or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.
  • Certified Angus Beef (CAB) is grade of sorts but it does not easily fit in this linear scale.  CAB begins with a breed of cattle and further stipulates, the maximum weight, thickness of fat, size requirements for the ribeye, texture, color, and so on. CAB fits in between Choice and Prime with overlap of both.
  • Select grade is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts (loin, rib, sirloin) should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.
  • Standard grade is frequently sold as ungraded or as ‘store brand’ meat.
  • Commercial grade is much the same as Standard grade.
  • Utility grade is seldom, if ever, sold at retail. It is used to make ground beef and processed products.
  • Cutter grade ’ same as above.
  • Canner grade ’ same as above.


So, what can we take away from all of this’  I would offer the following, though recognizing that standards are not always clear, comprehensive, well defined, nor uniformly applied:
  • Health - If your concerns are in regards to the healthful qualities of what you are eating, then choosing beef that is 100% grass-fed and at least naturally-raised if not organic (no hormones or antibiotics) may address some of your concerns. 
  • Epicurean - If your emphasis is more aligned with traditionally defined flavor and texture, you may still find your requirements better fulfilled by grain-fed beef, though organic 100% grass-fed beef is becoming more successfully ‘finished’ to yield more of the tenderness and marbling that is most commonly desirable.
  • Humane practices - If your concerns lie with the humane practices related to raising animals for food, you are probably kidding yourself, as in the end, the animal will be killed and butchered.  You would be better served going vegetarian or even vegan if you are willing to put your money where your mouth is.
  • Ecology - If you are also concerned about the impact to the planet in terms of things ranging from propagation of diseases, levels of methane output, waste by-products and pollutants, potentials for antibiotic resistant super pathogens and so on, then not only might you lean towards, organic and 100% grass-feed, but also locally produced and synergistic (small scale ecosystem) farming rotational systems such as what is exemplified by Polyface farms.
  • Sustainability - If you are concerned with sustainable practices with regards to our food supply while the human population continues to explode, then beyond the ecological considerations described above, you might consider moving to a diet is that is more plant-based because it is highly inefficient and no longer sustainable for all of us to be eating from the 'top of the food chain'.

Final Remarks

I hope this information supports you in making the dietary distinctions that you wish to make in alignment with your personal needs and desires.  This does still require your taking an active role in understanding these distinctions, having a philosophy regarding your food choices and then actively applying those distinctions in alignment with your philosophy.

There is a fair amount of banter laying responsibility solely at the feet of our government and the food industry industry when it comes to addressing our concerns about our food supply whether that concern is labeling (such as country of origin or GMO), cost, health, quality, sustainability or some combination. If you feel somewhat lacking in control and that in reality, your are being helplessly manipulated and controlled by the food industry;  this is a mistake.  Do not abdicate your voice nor eschew your responsibility.

The bottom line is that you are the consumer, and the consumer is king!  Just start changing your purchasing habits and the industry will get your message loud and clear.  But also accept the responsibility you have in this; if price is your first criteria, as it is for a lot of people, then the industry will optimize to meet your needs.  Whether those needs are explicitly or implicitly declared, you are telling the industry what they need to do to earn your business. To express concerns and criticisms in one way, yet to act inconsistently with those concerns and criticisms is to be (perhaps unwittingly, but all the same) hypocritical.

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