Grass Fed Beef, Pt. I: An Intro to Grass Fed Beef

This is the first part in a 4-part series relating to grass-fed beef – we will present an introduction to grass-fed beef (that is this article), examine the pros, the cons, and then we will present you with our own assessment of whether grass fed really is better, or if it is not as good as you would hope!

Happy cows!

Happy cows!

We love beef – as a nation, as families, and as individuals… really the whole world over (barring specific religions) is in love with a lovely pink and marbled piece of meat. It probably goes back to our primal instinct to eat the highest-energy food available to make the hours of hunting and gathering give us enough energy to keep going.

Or, maybe it just tastes godly, and for that reason alone we seek it out!

I know that I love beef, and I am sure that you are here because you are also in love with the sizzle of the steak, the smell of the searing beef, and the taste of a perfectly cooked piece of meat. Better yet, smother it with onions and mushrooms… maybe serve it with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and some roasted broccoli…

But NEVER serve it with steak sauce (Sorry/not sorry, A-1)… because properly cooked steak is one of the best tasting things on the planet!

However, most of us know that there are various qualities of steak – to learn more about meat qualities (and get a killer selection of recipes), make sure to request our complementary e-book on all things meat.

With all of the information we gave you in that book, there is still one key thing that we did not cover in that book, and it is important that we talk about it… and that thing is grass-fed beef.

What is Grass-Fed Beef?

Most of us have heard the term “grass fed beef” in recent years, as it is a new trend that is taking us back to what is considered a “more natural” diet for steers. The thought process is that grass-fed beef is of higher quality than grain fed beef, and we all know that quality is absolutely critical when we are thinking about eating beef… I know that I do not want to eat a lousy cut of steak, and I know that most other people (especially since you are here) do not want to eat poor quality meat, either.

But we have digressed… the question I am supposed to be answering is:

“What is grass-fed beef?”

Classic example of Grass-Fed cows and steers.

Classic example of Grass-Fed cows and steers.

The first point that you have to realize when you are talking about grass fed beef is that the USDA does not have a standard definition for what is considered grass-fed, nor do any of the certifying bodies have a standard, or even similar, list of requirements. This creates some concerns, and it raises some issues as to what the quality of grass fed beef would be considered. However, there is 100% grass-fed beef, which is required to be as such; if the beef is advertised as such, then it needs to be 100% grass fed.

If you are going to go with grass-fed beef, then you want to be certain that it is 100% grass-fed to be sure that you are getting what you are paying for!

Despite this confusion and controversy, grass-fed beef is considered to be beef that comes from any steer that has been able to graze and eat grass and other plants that it can find within its pasture – no added grains, and the steers are permitted to roam free and happy.

Really… that is all that it means.

However, to add to the confusion, this does not really mean that all grass-fed steers are allowed to roam free, and it also does not mean that all grain-fed steers are kept in stalls… generally while the original idea behind grass fed versus grain fed was that the grass-fed steer would eat nothing but easy-access vegetation and grass, and that they would not be given grains.

Why the terms Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed are just… Wrong

The information provided above shows that grass fed and grain fed do not mean what most people think that they mean – after all, there is no governing body that tells us what grass-fed really means, and there is no governing body that tells us what grain-fed really means.

All we can ascertain is the following:

• Grass-fed beef comes from steers that consume “mostly” grass

• Grain-fed beef comes from steers that consume “mostly” grains

Does anyone else see a problem here?

Really, all “mostly” means is that the steer was fed at least 51% of its diet from a specific source… would you really consider a steer grass-fed if it only got 51% of its food from its natural sources, and the other 49% of the time it was fed grains?

To me, it sounds like the whole process is problematic… I am not saying that you should or should not buy grass-fed beef, but I am saying that you should strongly consider the source, know where the meat is coming from, and be absolutely certain that your meat is what you expect.

On the subject of expectations, we then have to consider one other major point… a common misconception that many people have about grass-fed beef or grain-fed beef…

Neither Grass-Fed nor Grain-Fed Translates to Organic Meat

Most people, when they think about allowing the steer to “live naturally” immediately shift towards the idea that this meat is the same thing as organic meat.

This is not correct, as these are two very different aspects of the meat industry. As we have seen, grass-fed meat has no defined rules behind what makes it considered grass-fed, and this is not considered important by the USDA.

Organic meat, on the other hand, must meet very specific criteria… however, this criterion adds another layer of confusion to the issue we are talking about.

Let me try to explain this as simply as I can…

Grass-fed or grain fed beef talks about what the animal is given – grass or grain (to keep it simple). We have covered this at this point, and I am certain that you, the savvy and meat-loving reader, understand this point.

Organic meat usually has less to do with what the steer (or other animal) is fed or given, and it relates to what it is not given. For example, whatever the animal is fed has not been treated with pesticides, nor has it been GMO modified, and the steer in question also must have had antibiotics either removed or restricted from their diet. Of course, this is a VERY brief explanation of organic meat, and there are other aspects to consider; but in the end, this means one key thing:

Organic meat and grass-fed meat do NOT mean the same thing.

Example of grain-fed cows and steers - fed grains and alfalfa

Example of grain-fed cows and steers - fed grains and alfalfa

I can here people asking now… “Why is my grass-fed meat so expensive if it is not the same as organic?”

I have an answer for you – grain fed steers are given antibiotics and heavy foods to fatten them up quicker, and they are then sent to the abattoir after 14-16 months on average, while the grass-fed steers will need to be fed and care for going on 18-36 months, typically closer to the 36 month time frame.

That is your answer… the longer the animal lives before it is sent to the abattoir, the more it costs to raise, and then that cost goes to you, dear consumer.

This article is not on organic beef, so I am not going to spend a lot of time talking about it, but it is important to make the point that organic and grass-fed are not interchangeable terms. There are many grain-fed animals that are certified organic, and there are those that are not. Likewise, with grass-fed beef; some are organic, and some are not.

The point here… Please do not make the mistake of thinking that your grass-fed beef is automatically organic, because it is not.

So, what do we do now?

Now, we dive deeper into the idea of grass-fed versus grain-fed meat. Right now, we are not saying this is a good thing or this is a bad thing (for that, read on for Part II and Part III of this series), but is just informational.

If you are adamant about having grass-fed beef, you have to go to lengths to be sure that you are not getting a “self-certified” and falsely claimed grain-fed cut of beef. Granted, you might not know the difference if you are not a huge meat fan, but why pay more for something that is not what it says it is?

American Grass-fed Association.

If you are going to get grass-fed beef, ensure that you are getting beef that is American Grass-fed Association certified. The American Grassfed Association is a third-party organization that has stricter standards for what is considered grass-fed versus grain-fed than the USDA does, and as such it is widely considered to be a trusted mark that proves the meat is what it says it is. However, many businesses that sell meat either cannot afford this third-party certification, or they do not see the value in another entity being involved in them producing quality foods. Just because something does not bear the certification of the American Grassfed Association does not mean it would not meet certification, it just means that those involved did not pay to have the certification.

Do your own Research.

When you absolutely cannot find the American Grass-fed certification (which you probably won’t in most cases), then the best bet is to do your own research into the company that you will be buying from.

In most cases, either go to your local butcher, or go to a local farmer’s market and talk directly with people who know about their meat and their steers. Ask the right questions, get the answers, and based on the knowledge that your butcher or seller at the farmer’s market offers, you can make an educated decision about the quality and reality of whether or not the grass-fed beef they are selling is the real deal.

The Conclusion is…

Nope… Sorry… we are not there just yet!

This first piece was an intro into the question, controversy, and differences that exist within grass-fed and grain-fed beef. However, there is plenty more to discuss – we have to talk about the pros, the cons, and then (and only then) we will offer you our conclusion as to which one is a better choice.

Bearing that in mind, make sure to check in next week! If you have not subscribed, please do so that you can get the best and most up-to-date information that we put out there.

Leave your comments below – and if you have your burning questions about meat, please ask! Maybe we will even write a post (or a whole series) on your question.

Until next time, live well, eat well, and be wel