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Dear Mark: Grass-Fed vs Grain-Finished, Lamb Feedlots, and What About Grass-Fed Eggs?

For today’s edition of Dear Mark [1], I’m answering a few questions about grass-feeding several of you raised in last week’s comment section [2]. First, is there a difference between grass-fed and grass-finished?What is the difference between grass-fed and grass-finished? Next, is it true that lamb is by definition grass-fed? Are there actually lamb feedlots, or can we be certain that the lamb we eat lived a fairly decent, grassy life? And finally, what about grass-fed eggs? Does such a thing even exist? After all, when most of us think about happy egg producers, i.e. fowl, are they munching away on their fair share of freshly sprouted greens?

Let’s find out:

Is there a difference between Grass-Fed and Grass-Fed/Grass-Finished?

Until recently, “grass-fed” meant that the meat was USDA-certified 100% grass-fed and finished. But in January, the USDA stopped verifying [3] that meat advertised as grass-fed is actually grass-fed, instead urging producers to come up with their own standards. Until that happens, producers can slap the label on however they like. And sure, most cows do spend the first part of their lives on pasture before moving to the grain feedlot, but the label simply doesn’t tell us anything definitively anymore. Legally. I imagine that most beef with the grass-fed label is indeed grass-fed, at least primarily. But there’s a lot of wiggle room.

If you’re at all in doubt, dig down deep. That’s the beauty of having a smartphone in your pocket when you shop. You can look at the package, get the name of the farm [4] (or ask the butcher or manager for the name), google it, and discover how the farm feeds their animals or get contact info so you can inquire yourself.

Grass-fed means just that: the cow ate some grass during its life. It may have eaten nothing but grass. It may have eaten a little grass and the rest grain. It may have eaten mostly grass and then spent a few weeks or months on grain to fatten up. Most cows are technically “grass-fed,” because most cows start out on pasture before moving to the feedlot.

Grass-finished means the animal ate only grass and other stuff throughout its life [5]: hay, silage (kind of a fermented grass), forbs (herbaceous flowering plants that are not grasses), vegetative grains (grains that look more like grasses, before they become the grains we know), browse (random vegetation that’s neither forb nor grass), and crop residue (one of my favorite beef ranchers gave his cows leftovers from the vegetables he grew).

Grain-finished means the animal was moved onto grains after. It can last for the better part of a year or for just a few weeks. The longer a ruminant spends on grain, the more grass-based benefits are abolished from the meat [6]. You don’t go from grain to grass, typically. Maybe there’s some weirdo out there starting his calves on corn and moving them onto grass for finishing, but I highly doubt it.

Isn’t lamb, by definition, grass-fed? That was my understanding and I’ve never heard anything about sheep feedlots. If you like lamb, it makes it easier to get grass fed meat on your regular grocery store run. Not quite the same as beef, but you can do a lot of tasty meals with lamb even with picky eaters.

That’s a common misconception. I wish it weren’t. I wish lamb were raised exclusively on grass and wild forage. They’re suited for it. They thrive on it. And yes, a large portion of lamb are grass-fed for their entire lives, and lamb is more likely to be grass-fed than beef, but not all of them. It ultimately depends where you get your lamb.

New Zealand lamb: 100% grass-fed [7]. If a drought occurs, they may have to provide hay, but even that is just dried grass so it qualifies.

Australian lamb: The marketing page [8] for Aussie lamb says the country’s animals “graze on natural Australian grasslands throughout their lives” and are only supplemented with grain “if a regional drought occurs.” And it appears to be true, for the most part. But according to the department of agriculture in Victoria, Australia [9], intensive feedlot feeding of lamb is “steadily increasing” to meet the growing demand for “lambs that meet market specifications.” There are definitely lamb feedlots, as the Australian article discusses the benefits and drawbacks of different types of lamb feedlots.

Icelandic lamb: 100% grass-fed, from what I could gather.

American lamb: Except for those “marketed directly from the pasture [10],” most American lamb is finished with grain. Feedlots absolutely exist [11]. In my experience, smaller producers of lamb, the guys you’ll see hawking their wares at the farmer’s markets, produce exclusively grass-fed lamb. Just ask to be sure.

 

What about eggs?

Eggs are a little different. Chickens may nibble on grass. They’ll peck at it. They’ll enjoy the occasional lawn salad, absolutely. But they are omnivores through and through. They need denser sources of protein. So “grass-fed” is a misnomer.

Free-range is like “grass-fed”; it doesn’t mean much [12]. A free-range chicken might get a little patio bereft of plant and wildlife outside the hen house to scratch around in. But it’s eating the same stuff the battery-raised chickens eat: corn and soy.

With access to grasses, weeds, and all the delicious invertebrates that populate such an environment, pasture-raised chickens produce the very best eggs.  They’re eating worms, crickets, ticks, spiders, rolypolies, larvae, ants. If it’s got an exoskeleton, they’re eating it. They may even eat a few vertebrates, like lizards, if they cross paths. This changes the nutrient composition of the eggs. Research [13] shows that pasture-raised eggs are higher [14] in vitamin E, omega-3s, beta-carotene, and vitamin A.

These are meaningful differences. When people were randomized to eat either pasture-raised eggs or conventional eggs [15], those who ate pastured eggs had blood lipids that were more resistant to oxidative damage. People eating the conventional omega-6 heavy eggs had 40% more oxidized LDL.

Regular old eggs are still a pretty good food. Most of the studies showing the relative innocuousness and even benefit of eating daily eggs aren’t using pastured eggs. They’re using the standard stuff you get at the standard grocery store. Still: just imagine the results if a large study used only pasture-raised eggs from bug-eating, grass-chewing chickens!

The best eggs I’ve ever had came from the Big Island of Hawaii. I bought them off a little old lady posted up in the Captain Cook area with an umbrella, a lawn chair, and a cooler full of eggs from her backyard chickens. A brief chat revealed they ate fallen mangos, avocados, mac nuts, and whatever bugs they could dig up in her backyard. The yolks were enormous and sunset-orange (usually, bigger yolks are more diluted and less rich), the whites were tough and cohesive (took forever for them to slip through my fingers when separating yolks; I bet they’d have made a great meringue). Even store-bought Big Island eggs costing $4 a dozen were better than most mainland pastured eggs going for $8 a dozen. So if you’re ever in the tropics, eat the eggs!

I hope that clears up some of your questions about grass-fed animal products.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!