Right now, grass-fed beef is in — often touted for its supposedly healthier nutritional profile. But what exactly does grass-fed mean? Is this a real difference, or just another fancy label designed to sell meat to conscious consumers?
Many terms used in meat labeling — “pasture-raised,” “raised humanely” and “natural” for instance — all tend to be more marketing than accurate descriptions of how animals are raised. The average consumer overestimates the health, environment and welfare credentials of these terms — and “grass-fed” is no exception.
Unfortunately for consumers, even in those cases where standards and definitions are laid out by the USDA, there exist few federal regulations governing many of these marketing terms, so sometimes the reality behind products doesn’t match the description.
What Is the Difference Between Grass-Fed vs. Grass-Finished?
What Is Grass-Fed Beef?
According to the USDA, grass-fed beef is meat from a cow that has continuous access to grass throughout its lifetime — with the potential exception of its mother’s milk during infancy. It’s not green grass from a suburban lawn though, these cows commonly eat the stalks of legumes, grains, perennial grasses and other vegetation (but not the actual grain or legumes).
However, the USDA definition was only used to certify beef as grass-fed from 2007 to 2016. In 2016 the marketing service of the agency decided it had been exceeding its statutory authority, and that producers would need to develop their own standards for grass-fed beef, with the USDA only helping to directly certify the smallest producers.
The American Grassfed Association (AGA) follows the same principles as the USDA definition, and certifies ruminants as raised on 100 percent grass diets if they eat only grass and species-appropriate forage from weaning to harvest. The Food Alliance also certifies meat as grass-fed with the same basic rules, but allows for use of genetically modified crops, unlike the AGA.
What Is Grass-Finished Beef?
However, according to some beef industry players, like Verde farms, Grassland Beef, or National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the term “grass-fed” has been used to refer to meat that comes from animals who ate grass at some point in their lives but who may also have been fed on grain during their final months. They prefer the term “grass-finished” to describe cows that have only eaten grass.
To add to the confusion, many researchers essentially use the terms “grass-fed” and “grass-finished” interchangeably.
So, when is beef grass-fed and when is it grass-finished? Well, there is no single hard-and-fast rule, despite the existence of many certification standards. There exists no formal, universally accepted distinction between the terms “grass-fed” and “grass-finished.”
Which Is Better, Grass-Fed or Grass-Finished?
Since “grass-fed” and “grass-finished” can be defined in different ways, it is impossible to answer which one is better, and by which metric — better for you, the planet or the cow?
Consumers who are interested in the healthfulness and sustainability of their foods should investigate the specific claims of the brands they are interested in. They should also be aware that all forms of beef production are damaging to the environment, especially biodiversity and climate pollution, despite greenwashed marketing efforts, and even when cattle are farmed to the highest certifications available.
What Is Grain-Fed Beef?
Grain-fed beef is an easier term to define. This description covers the more than 95 percent of beef cattle who are given a diet of grain for the last four months or so of their lives (roughly a quarter to a third of their whole lifespan) as they are fattened for slaughter on feedlots.
Why Is Grass-Fed Bad? Why is Grass-Finished Bad?
Although beef cows raised on pasture even for part of their lives have more outdoor space to roam than industrially farmed chickens or pigs, the grass-fed label is no guarantee that they are treated well. Grass-fed solely refers to the type of food the cow receives, not their welfare.
Dairy cows in particular spend most of their lives indoors, cramped together with other cows. And many cows raised entirely on outdoor ranches still experience poor welfare if and when they are dehorned, mutilated or branded.
Animals on all types of farms are also killed according to when they are profitable rather than their natural lifespans. Grass-fed animals can be killed in horrific and inhumane ways, usually if they receive inadequate stunning prior to slaughter.
Damage to the Environment
Grass-fed beef contributes to all the same environmental problems as regular beef — releasing the same amount of methane emissions, contributing to deforestation and land-use change. The beef industry is, in fact, one of the biggest polluters on the planet, as beef represents the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, which are somewhere between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of total human-caused emissions globally.
Advocates for grass-fed beef tend to argue it is healthier for the planet, but grass-fed beef requires massive amounts of land. Environmental researchers from Harvard University investigated the sustainability claims of grass-fed beef and found that a nationwide shift to a grass-fed system would require a large increase of both cattle herds and agricultural land. They argue that “only reductions in beef consumption can guarantee reductions in the environmental impact of US food systems,” not a pastoral system.
Why Is Grain-Fed Bad?
Grain-fed beef production is responsible for the same problems as grass-fed beef: the industry emits methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and also requires large amounts of land — though usually less than beef raised entirely on pasture.
Cows who are grain-fed are more likely to be kept on a feedlot for part of their lives, where they can be exposed to extremes of heat and cold, rough handling and disease outbreaks.
A Brief History of the North American Meat Industry
For millennia, Indigenous peoples have been hunting in North America, especially the bison in the Greater Plains regions. Unlike their counterparts in Eurasia, North American peoples never domesticated any animals for food, choosing instead to hunt bison or other animals in a sustainable manner.
But this manner of meat consumption changed with the arrival of Europeans. From the 18th century, colonial ranchers and the U.S. military moved west, took land from Indigenous peoples and killed off the bison. The system of mass ranching transformed the North American continent, reverberating for centuries in the 19th century near-extinction of the bison, the 1930s Dust Bowl and the biodiversity crisis that continues to this day.
The ranching system gave birth to the famous cowboy culture, in which cowboys (called vaqueros in Mexico) herded cattle as they grazed, and eventually to slaughterhouses. After 1875 and the invention of refrigerated rail cars, meat could be delivered across ever greater distances. Eventually, as consumption increased, cities like Chicago thrived as meatpacking giants, delivering food to entire sections of the country.
Over time, meat and beef in particular became status symbols in American life. Expensive cuts of meat, like tenderloins or rib-eyes, came to signify wealth, class and even masculinity. Meat consumption rose rapidly. The meat industry ramped up production to keep up with ravenous consumers. During the 1950s, meat producers began shifting their herds away from diets of grass to diets of grain to improve efficiency. Slaughterhouses, ranches, factory farms and meatpacking plants started proliferating across North America, the United States in particular.
In the 21st century, meatpacking has consolidated around a few central players. Gone are the days of the cowboys’ independence. Now, small farms struggle to survive under the weight of meat monopolies.
In the same vein, U.S. meat consumption is at an all-time high, with chicken more popular than beef for the first time in history. Not only is this consumption far above dietary guidelines, but it is wreaking havoc on the environment, causing drought, water pollution and climate change.
What You Can Do
Consumers who are mindful of what they put into their bodies might worry less about the small nutritional differences between grass-fed, grain-fed and grass-finished, and more about whether the way we eat beef is a sustainable choice. Beef’s impact on the planet cannot be mitigated by switching from grain to grass. Leading climate research institutions agree that a sustainable diet is defined by eating less meat and more plant-rich options. You can find more information on our Take Action page.
Björn Jóhann Ólafsson is an Icelandic-American writer who examines the psychology of eating animals, the environmental footprint of the meat industry, and the plant-based meat industry. He lives in Spain with his two lovebirds.