Grass-Fed Beef Fed Corn? Deciphering Beef Labels

In the last few weeks this has been a question I've gotten NUMEROUS times, so it's time for a blog post!

As a consumer looking for the healthiest beef options to feed your family, labels can make this so confusing. You have Organic, All-Natural, Pasture-Raised, Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished, and it's been so long since I've had to shop the grocery store for meat I'm probably missing some but I think I'll start with these.

It wasn't very many years ago I was a grocery store shopper who looked for the cheapest ground beef and would bring the giant package home, split it all up into smaller chunks and refreeze. You know, being thrifty. 

Cheap food has its place, I've been peanut butter sandwich poor, and I know inexpensive commodity goods help keep bellies full. I judge no one for making that decision for their family, especially when the choices are $2 ground beef or a box of Twinkies. 

The amount of hunger happening in this country and across the world is staggering and the issues making cheap food a necessity are way bigger than I can even begin to address right now. The food system is a mess and there are massive food access issues for so many people despite the huge amount of food products produced and wasted in this country. 

I also believe that as local farmers and local food consumers we are the ones able to really create change in our communities. I'm seeing it in programs like the Donation Station at the Chillicothe Farmer's Market. The booth is staffed by volunteers who collect leftover produce, eggs, meat, milk from vendors at the end of the market day along with donations from market goers then distribute these products that may otherwise have ended up in the compost pile to those who need it most.  

Along with my little tangent on feeding our local community, this blog post is simply to help decode some of the labels you'll see and hear as you're shopping for local beef, and also so you know what questions you'll want to ask to be sure you're getting the product you want. 

It's not my style to criticize other methods of production or say my way of raising beef is the way everyone should be doing it. What we prefer and what works for our farm doesn't work for everyone. What's most important to me is that you know what you're buying and that you make efforts to buy it locally. 

Ok, let's dive into the labels.

Organic - I think we all have this vision in our head that organic cattle are grass-fed on lush green pastures and live a superior life to those raised conventionally. The reality is, if you're buying organic beef from any grocery store the animal was more than likely raised in confinement just like a conventional steer. The only difference was they were fed organic grain and no antibiotics or growth hormones. 

There's been a big scandal lately about the US importing a bunch of cheap, and fake, organic grain from China. So your organic beef may or may not actually be organic unless you know your farmer and can ask them about their feed source. 

All-Natural - This is a super vague term that really doesn't mean a whole lot when you see it on any food label. Typically in the beef world it means the cattle were not given a growth hormone implant or antibiotics. They are usually fed conventional grain in a feedlot type setting. 

If you're buying locally, this is still going to be far superior to anything you'll find at the grocery store, but ask your farmer questions so you know their production practices and what you're getting. 

Pasture-Raised - this isn't a term I had seen applied to beef until recently, but what this usually means is that cattle were given access to pasture while being fed grain.

I've known some farms that have lots of pasture acreage and a significant portion of the animals diet came from forage, but I've also seen others where they are basically on a lot with very little grass and the majority of their diet came from grain. Ask questions and go visit the farm! 

Grass-Fed - here's the big shocker - the label "Grass-Fed" can be applied to cattle that ate grass for part of their life but then were "finished" on grain. 

The reason this matters is because once a steer starts eating grain, the ratio of Omega 3's to Omega 6's immediately begins to change along with the concentration of CLA's, vitamins and minerals that come straight from the forage diet the cattle are consuming.

I'm not a fan of this being allowed to still be labeled grass-fed because I think it's misleading.

Never hesitate to ask questions about any farmers feeding practices and if the beef you're buying has been fed grain. 

Grass-Finished - These cattle have been fed and finished on nothing but grass and forage. If you're searching for grass-fed beef, this is probably the product you're looking for. You'll still want to ask questions about feeding and management practices such as growth hormone and antibiotic use if that's important to you, although usually that's not something farmers producing this type of beef are into. 

Another question I've gotten is - can you really raise 100% grass-fed and finished beef in Ohio? What happens in winter time when the grass isn't growing? 

The answer is yes - it is possible and here's how! In the Spring/Summer/Fall they are out on pasture grazing and in the Winter we feed them hay, which is just dried and baled forage. We don't have enough land to make this a reality yet, but some farms are able to stockpile dormant forage to graze through most of the winter months too. Unless the snow is really deep, cows will still stick their faces into the snow to eat. 

Finishing beef on forage alone does take more management from the farmer and longer for the animal to grow, but it's what I feel creates the quality of product I want to feed my family, and what works well for our farm. 

No matter which type of beef you buy or the farm it comes from, it's important to seek out local options. 

Buying locally supports profitable family farms and rural economies, it keeps beef from traveling across the country and world to get to store shelves, it tastes better, and it allows you as a consumer to have a connection to your farmer and food. 

Happy Beef Shopping Friends! 

~ Dana