What’s behind the Term Grass Fed Beef

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The stomach of a cow is a complicated thing, and it’s designed toallow the cow to eat grass. According to the U.S. Department ofAgriculture, when you hear the term “grass fed beef,” itmeans the cow has been allowed to graze on grass throughout itslifetime rather than being housed in a barn and fed large amounts ofcorn-based feed. The latter cow is considered corn-fed or grain-fed,as opposed to grass-fed.

The two agricultural practices create a polarization along severalissues: environmental, financial, and the ethical treatment ofagricultural livestock. When you, as a consumer, make a purchasingdecision between grass fed beef and grain fed beef, you are having animpact on the agricultural industry and the divide between the twoschools of thought. However, even grass fed cow’s are allowed to beconfined to feeding lots per Animal Welfare Approved.

Cows are herbivores

Cows are physiologically designed to eat grass. When fed grains,the rumen – the “stomach” of the cow’s digestive system develops a thick slime that prevents the cow from releasing methaneper a Frontline interview with former Harper’s Magazine Editor,Michael Pollan. This is confirmed by the University of Nebraska thatstates cows cannot necessarily release all their gas.

This is a substantial problem for cows, and on ranches in whichcows are penned in and fed grain, this condition, known as bloat, isa fairly common occurrence. Other health issues result as well, such as acidosis and liver failure.

Why feed cows grain?

Critics claim cows get sick because they aren’t meant to eatgrain, however the American Farm Bureau Federation state that is amyth because grains such as corn are grass. Still, corn and othercereal grains, fatten the cows far more quickly than if they wereleft to graze a field. After World War II, the demand for meatincreased and eventually, the cattle ranches evolved into the farmfactories seen today in the agricultural industry.

It goes to the heart of supply and demand. Consumers want beef andthey want it at cheap prices. Penning in the animals and feeding themgrain allows ranchers to supply the demand for well-marbled,inexpensive beef. The financial reality for ranchers is that corn-fedor grain-fed cattle make more money.

Defining grass fed

Economic realities notwithstanding, some ranchers are opting toraise cattle on grassy lands, or raise “grass fed” beef. Ifa package of beef then is labeled, “grass fed,” does it mean the cowspent its life ambling about a pretty pasture of grass, hedgerows,and flowers, nibbling its way to the natural state of cow obesity?

The USDA defines grass fed as the feedbeing “derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annualand perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cerealgrain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Animals cannot befed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access tograss feed during the growing season.”

To the consumer, then, a package of meat bearing the words ‘grassfed’ on the label should mean the animal has not eaten corn or maturecereal grains, and is given access to grass feed whether that feed isin open pasture or not.

So why isn’t all beef grass fed?

Grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fats and higher in omega-3fats, a combination that is marketed as more hearthealthy. Grass fed beef is raised in a more natural way; that is,the cattle isn’t necessarily penned in and force fed grains.

Environmentally, giving over grassy pastures that cows could feedfrom to growing corn to fatten the cows isn’t a sound practice forthe health of the planet.

So why, if grass feed is healthier for humans, healthier for theplanet, and more humane for the animal, isn’t all cattle grass fed?

The financial incentive still lies with grain fed beef. It’s oftenconsidered a cheaper, faster way to fatten cattle and get it tomarket. Pasture raised cattle fatten more slowly, and require muchmore land than cattle raised in pens. Despite this, the Union ofConcerned Scientists claims grass-fed cows are more profitable. Wereconsumers to refrain from purchasing grain fed beef, and demand onlygrass fed beef, then the financial incentive would be more clearlydefined.