“Grass-Fed” On The Label: What It Does (And Doesn’t) Tell You

Grass-Fed Cows

I spied a new product in my grocery store the other day โ€” vacuum-packed beef sold under Safeway’s Open Nature brand. The label indicated this beef came from grass-fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free cows. Woo-hoo! It was more expensive than the stuff packed in the butcher case โ€” but not by much. And since we’ve been buying grass-fed beef from a local rancher, this new supermarket offering piqued my curiosity.

But I took a step back… What does the “grass-fed” label really mean? My research into food labeling regulations has opened my eyes, and the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve come to suspect that many (most?) labels are just full of crap (and frankly downright insulting at times). So I mentally added a “Research Grass-Fed Meat Labels” task to my to-do list and did some analysis for all of us.

How the USDA Defines “Grass-Fed”

The USDA’s 2007 voluntary standard, “United States Standards for Livestock and Meat Marketing Claims, Grass (Forage) Fed Claim for Ruminant Livestock and the Meat Products Derived From Such Livestock“, governs grass-fed claims using the following criteria:

  • Animals must eat only grass and forage throughout their lives, except when consuming milk before weaning. They can’t eat or be fed grain or grain byproducts, but food from cereal crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state is ok.
  • They must have “continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” The growing season is defined as the time between average last frost and average first frost in the animal’s locale. During winter months or drought conditions, they must continue to eat only grass and forage โ€” no grain.
  • Animals may be given routine mineral and vitamin supplements. Producers have to document anything not considered routine.

How the USDA’s Grass-Fed Standard Works

Under the standard, producers must obtain a USDA evaluation prior to using the grass-fed label or marketing a product as grass-fed. Evaluation procedures are documented in the USDA’s Quality Systems Verification Programs (QSVP), a pre-existing set of programs designed to “provide independent verification that special processes and/or marketing claims are clearly defined and verified by an independent third party.”

What the Standard Doesn’t Tell You

The “access to pasture during the growing season” requirement means that animals could be confined to pens or feedlots during much of the year. Additionally, producers who had been previously certified under the USDA’s QSVP requirements were grandfathered in on the grass-fed label. Any farmer using the term “grass-fed” before the 2007 standard was created can continue to use it, whether he now complies with the standard or not.

My Takeaways

The grass-fed label appeals to me because I want my food to come from animals that were raised under natural conditions, particularly now that I know the horrific truths about how much of our meat is produced. And I want to support ranchers and companies that feel the same way I do. But I won’t blindly believe that “grass-fed” implies all that.

I did some research on Safeway’s Open Nature grass-fed beef and have no reason to suspect its meats aren’t produced in line with my interests. Its website states its animals are humanely and sustainably raised, vegetarian fed, and free of antibiotics, hormones, and preservatives. This is refreshing and inspiring to see from a major supermarket chain. Will I buy it? Maybe, maybe not. I love supporting my local grass-fed beef producer, but he’s not always down the street waiting for me to drop by and pick up a Friday night steak. I like having options. I will most likely give this meat a try.

Here’s what’s really cool to me: If I do buy this product, it will be with open eyes. It’s powerful to be able to hit the web, do a bit of research, and find a wealth of reliable sources that empower us through information. Way to go, researchers, scientists, consumer advocates, educational groups, writers, and food lovers.

Are You Obsessed With Food Labels Like I am?

Here are a few posts you should check out:

Would you buy Open Nature’s grass-fed beef based on what I’ve learned? Share your thoughts.

Image Credit: krossbow via flickr/CC

Written by Mary Gerush


Leave a Reply
  1. I’ve been quiet a long time but need to comment on grass fed labeling etc. Vegetarian diet does not mean grass fed, corn, soy, and all grain is vegetarian. For once I agree with the government! I think the definition of grass fed in the federal register for labeling requirements is correct. According to it and in my opinion grass fed means just that, only grass. The American Grass Fed Association (AGA) also has a definition. But once again, contrary to my definition, it allows for supplementation with a number of non forage products including cottonseed and its byproducts, peanuts its byproducts, and others . Feeding these is not allowed according to USDA grass fed.
    I was recently questioned by a consumer on the true definition of grass fed and her concern after reading the AGA standards on their website. Following up on that conversation I wrote a letter to the president of the AGA expressing my disagreement with the feeding practices allowed. I received a reply defending it for various reasons. Since that exchange the standards have disappeared from their website. We have to be transparent to retain the trust of the consumer. Case in point “pink slime”. The product may be perfectly safe but the fact it was kept quiet and not on labels allowed for a press feeding frenzy when it was “exposed”. Being on the defensive is not a real good marketing plan. We need to tell the consumer what our product really is and let them decide. Its that simple.
    The drought of the last 2 years has separated the men from the boys and the women from the girls in this business and the only ones that have survived are the really good pasture managers and the cheaters. The only way to really know what your buying is to know where and by whom your meat is produced and have faith in their values.
    Unfortunately when the “major” chains get in the business this gets difficult. The grass fed at Safeway is imported from Australia as is the case at Sprouts. Whole Foods used to supplement their locally produced products with imports. I do not know if they still do or not because the recently implemented country of origin labeling laws also have a few loopholes. It might be a little difficult to have a relationship with some rancher 8000 miles away.
    In conclusion that label may say “USDA grass fed”, ” AGA approved”, “vegetarian”, “no antibiotics” etc. etc. etc. but I think a customer would put a little more faith in what I tell them about MY product than all of the above. Lets face it, I have a lot more blood, sweat, tears and reputation at stake than a lot of the people in the ivory towers.

  2. Jon, Thank you so much for your comments. I’ve started buying beef from a local rancher at the farmers market, so I appreciate your comments about having a relationship with the person you’re buying your food from. Turns out, I am your neighbor! I live in North Dallas, and I’m pretty sure I’ve bought your beef at Urban Acres. Unfortunately, I don’t get down there very often, but I will seek you out. Thanks for doing what you do to give us healthier food options.

  3. I have been buying the grass fed beef after I had read their website on the meat. They seem to be doing it the way I prefer nd you’re right, the meat isn’t much more expensive than regular beef. Its color always appears more natural to me and the taste is wonderful. Thank you for sharing your info ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Mary, thanks for your article. I was suspicious of the labels but now I know what they mean.

    However, I would like to warn you about believing whatever a marketing department puts on their website. (And also a couple suggestions when researching brands.) They can use any terms they like virtually unregulated, or get some certification in which they pledge to follow certain standards…and as John pointed out, anyone who previously used the term “grass-fed” can continue to use it!

    To wit, you said, “I did some research on Safewayโ€™s Open Nature grass-fed beef and have no reason to suspect its meats arenโ€™t produced in line with my interests. Its website states its animals are humanely and sustainably raised, vegetarian fed, and free of antibiotics, hormones, and preservatives.”

    Notice it doesn’t even SAY “grass-fed”!

    John pointed out that “Vegetarian diet does not mean grass fed, corn, soy, and all grain is vegetarian.”

    Also, when it comes to enforceable standards, he said, “The grass fed at Safeway is imported from Australia as is the case at Sprouts…country of origin labeling laws also have a few loopholes.”

    That means distributors can get around USDA inspections by buying beef from elsewhere. What are Australia’s laws? I have no clue.

    But here is a suggestion when looking for meat…find out what the brand-name REQUIRES from its farms in terms of ACTUAL CONTRACTS, PROHIBITIONS, and INSPECTIONS.

    For example, Verde and Strauss have extremely strict standards, including inspections and blood tests, pre-authorization for ANY medications, etc. The only gripe I have is allowing cows to graze on post-harvest corn stalks in the fall (though if I remember, that was for lactating cows), only because I know 50-70% of “organic” corn is grown from contaminated seed which was cross-pollinated during production, and a large portion of that is Monsanto’s seed which produces AGENT ORANGE throughout the plant. It’s not as bad as eating the corn itself (MAYBE), but how does that affect the cattle’s tissues and fats?

    Verde and Strauss specialize in the grass-fed/pasture-raised industry, and their applications (and in one case the entire contract) is downloadable from their website. You can see exactly what rules and inspections ranches must agree to.

    Open Nature made me suspicious when a friend told me about it a few weeks ago, because the supermarket chain had it on sale for ONLY $2 PER POUND! Highly suspicious.

    Unfortunately, it costs about $8 per pound for Verde, and I can’t really afford it, but I’m very careful overall with my budget so I can make these decisions where it counts. I know what I’m eating, and even the taste of the juices (fat) is excellent!

  5. Iโ€™m still not convinced. I want to know why itโ€™s not โ€œ100% Grass Fedโ€ like other labels. Iโ€™m feeling tricked.


  7. Do not feel tricked! it is the very bet meat I have ever eaten, and the package does say it is grass fed!

  8. Iโ€™m suspicious when it says โ€œGrass Fedโ€ but not โ€œGrass Finishedโ€. Iโ€™ve lived near feed lots and just donโ€™t want to feed into that industry. I also donโ€™t want to eat a bunch of grain, unless it is the grain itself, which I mostly avoid. Inflammation has been a bane to our health and the USDA food pyramid is just feeding pockets of industries. Being closer to food sources is enlightening.
    Support the neighborhood, even if itโ€™s inconvenient…trying to live local.
    Thanks for the post.

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