It’s a pretty picture, but it might not reflect reality.
“All Natural.” “Naturally Raised.” “Grass Fed.” These phrases conjure up images of contented cattle grazing freely on pastures.
It’s a pretty picture, but it might not reflect reality. As consumers demand a healthier, more sustainable alternative to feedlot produced beef, many manufacturers are relying on confusing terminology to meet that demand—even though the meat they’re selling is often the feedlot beef consumers are trying to avoid.
For example, “Natural” or “All Natural” simply means, as per USDA regulations, that the meat doesn’t contain any artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it’s minimally processed. What’s missing from that definition? Any indication of how the animal was raised. Cattle could have been routinely fed antibiotics or growth hormones, and they may have spent part of their lives at a feedlot.
What about “Naturally Raised”? The USDA actually doesn’t allow this term to be used on food labels. However, some companies still use the phrase on their websites or blogs—even though there are no published standards or an official definition of what it means.
“Grass Fed” does have an official definition: animals must be fed grass and have access to pasture during the grass growing season. However, there isn’t any third party verification of this claim—all farmers need to do is submit a signed statement. Farms are never inspected to ensure that the animals are actually being fed grass.
In addition, “grass fed” only covers the animal’s diet. The animals could be confined on dirt feedlots outside the grass growing season and could be routinely dosed with antibiotics or growth hormones. As long as the animals are being fed cut grass or even grass pellets, they can still be considered “grass fed”.
Another thing to keep in mind is that many manufacturers use multiple beef suppliers, including imported products. Since “grass fed” has a legal USDA definition that’s weak at best and isn’t independently verified, it’s unclear what consumers are getting with imported meat. For instance, “Organic Grass Fed” is almost always imported from Uruguay and Australia, however, there isn’t a strict definition for it. In addition, that “Product of USA” label isn’t a guarantee that the cattle were raised in the United States: it just means that the meat was processed here (for example, a large piece of meat was cut into smaller ones).
That clears up which labels to be wary of, but what label should consumers look for to make sure that they’re getting meat from cattle that spent their lives grazing on pastures? Look for the 100% grass fed label from the American Grassfed Association.