Grass Fed No More - USDA drops standard for grass fed beef

What YOU need to know and ask about your food now

Posted on Jan 12, 2016 by Jack McCann
Tags: news newsletter

"Grass-fed" History

Prior to 2007 there was no standard for what was required to say 'grass fed' on a meat label. Consumers kept asking for more clarity. So in 2007, the USDA AMS introduced a standard. Of course, it was so full of loopholes, many people are currently keeping their 'grass fed' cows on feedlots and feed them semi-loads of rejected conventional fruit from major fruit canning companies and waste products from industry like cotton gin waste, waste candy (plastic and all), and sawdust.

I had no idea this was done until a good friend toured a farm good enough to supply grass-fed beef to a national chain. The tour was to show off best-practices(!) No one is intentionally trying to do something wrong here. I used to see this all the time as a consultant. A lot of well-meaning people, far enough removed from the situation, end up making decisions that made things so much worse.

So all of this and even some grain qualifies as '100% grass fed' under the USDA AMS and FSIS standards and you'll find these products in every major supermarket.

What Changed Today?

Now even those loose USDA AMS 'grass fed' standards are extinct. The FSIS still has their standard in place which allows for the shortcuts listed above. So in practice, today's announcement is just a good reminder for how the labels in the store don't mean what we as consumers think they mean.

"I used to see this all the time as a consultant. A lot of well-meaning people, far enough removed from the situation, end up making decisions that made things so much worse."

People often ask us why TC Farm's grass fed beef is better and costs a little bit more than what you'll find in the store. The thing about our group is that we only will raise our animals the way that people actually expect. No shortcuts, no manipulated label claims, no tricks.

We will stick with the pasture... thanks.

Tips for Buying Real Beef:

  1. Learn what real grass fed beef is, your tastebuds will thank you. Reading Mark Schatzker's fun book Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef is a great start. The premise is that a journalist in Canada somehow convinces a publisher to send him on a junket around the world to find the best tasting steak. He travels all over and tries many traditional raising methods as well as the best 'prime' Texas beef you can imagine. Eventually he tries to raise his own using what he learned.
  2. Ask questions. All the time. If you're in a restaurant and they are serving 'grass fed' beef, ask what farm it is actually from TODAY and look at their website. Ask the questions below.
  3. Put up with a little inconvenience. Grass fed beef or dairy isn't as healthy for you out of season. What do you think that 'grass fed' beef at the butcher counter was eating in January? Look for meat that is processed only when the grass is lush and green. Frozen beef is best.
  4. Remember 'organic beef' is often raised almost exactly like conventional 'natural' beef, but they use lots of organic corn and soy instead. Skip the nice expensive labels if they can't even pretend it is '100% grass fed'.
"The only way we will change the food system is if we ask these kinds of questions on a regular basis."

Things to Ask about Your Beef:

  • Besides hay and pasture, what do you feed your steers?
  • Are you sure that your hay isn't GMO alfalfa?
  • Do you allow any hormones or any sort of growth drugs?
  • How old are your steers at processing? (answer should be 22+ months)
  • How often are you rotating your steers to new pasture? (answer ideally is every day, but at least every couple of weeks is a minimum)
  • What is the hanging weight of your typical steer? (answer should be less than 750 lbs)
  • Do you dry age your beef? if so, how long? (answer should be yes and at least 14 days, steaks are best at 21+ days)
  • Is this ground beef from cull range cows out west or healthy young steers? (answer should be from young healthy steers, but much of the 'grass fed' ground beef isn't)

The only way we will change the food system is if we ask these kids of questions on a regular basis. Every farmer should be comfortable answering them and it is OK if they aren't the right fit for your family. Even TC Farm isn't a perfect fit for everyone despite how hard we work to make our group fit different demographics and types of cook.

So join us... ask the questions at every grocery store and every restaurant and you'll change the world with each meal.

Unmet Expectations

When we as consumers buy 'grass fed' products in the store, we think these animals are raised on pasture and eat grass. We don't think they are raised 100% conventional, but with 'less' grain. In reality feeding a slurry of fruit waste and cotton gin is LESS healthy than a typical feedlot. You're better off buying some 'natural' beef even though 'natural' means next to nothing as well... oh, by the way, the USDA AMS also removed their standard for 'natural' today...

Finding the Best Beef

Years ago when Betsy and I were looking for real grass fed beef, we called many, many local farms. We asked lots of very specific questions about the type of pasture, the frequency of rotation, genetics, etc. We then selected a few farms to tour and get taste tests from.

Even those who were doing it all 'perfect' had mixed results. I was amazed how after touring the farm, many (frankly) tasted bad, like swamp water. The reason is that most beef raised on pasture is raised on low-quality wetland or scrub areas because the 'better' land is all used for conventional corn/soy. This gets into the meat and also causes stress on the animals. The result is a lower quality product. It is better then supermarket 'grass fed' beef, but it sure wasn't tasty.

Taste the Difference - Try One Bite

Try one bite. If you'd like to try what dry aged, rotationally grazed, high quality beef tastes like, look for a farmer who is raising food the way you trust. (You can always check out what makes our beef unique.)

What do you think? Do you have any thoughts about this or questions we can answer here? And if you found any of this useful, please share with your friends!

Updated 1/15/16 to include link to FSIS standards.

Comments (1)

  1. James:
    Jun 05, 2020 at 09:27 PM

    Two things to note:

    1. Frame score dictates hanging weight to a large degree. I've seen proper grass-finished on pure pasture hang at 800-900lbs simply because the genetics allow. Shouldn't discriminate the big boys.

    2. Open cows in the European dairy world are highly treasured. They pay more than steers in CH but less than veal per pound. Heifers are easier to finish than steers, beginners should start there. I cannot see how taste would vary from heifer/steer of same age class.

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