What You Should Know About Beef Production Claims

Joel Salatin, a Tendergrass partner farmer, with his grass fed cows.

I’m grateful to have our friend David Maren of Tendergrass Farms back to pen today’s guest post. This is the last post in a three part series on the assertions that retailers make about the way their poultry, pork, and beef is raised. And don’t miss the free grass fed steak coupon code that he’s generously provided at the end of the post!

This is the third and final post in my series about animal production claims. In the previous two posts I’ve endeavored to expose some of the confusing and deceptive claims that marketers make about the way that their chickens, turkeys, and pigs are raised. Today my goal is to help you better understand the options you’re presented with when you want to purchase beef. In a previous post, Mark gave an overview of the differences between grass fed and grain fed beef where he touched on everything from taste to nutritional profiles and even pricing and availability.  This post has a much narrower goal of helping you figure out what exactly you’re being offered, whether it claims to be grass fed, grain fed, pasture raised, free range, all natural, or organic. Mark’s verdict in his post was that while you need to be eating lots of good beef, grass fed beef isn’t always going to be available or affordable for everyone. This post will help you understand the whole spectrum of beef options that you have to choose from whether or not grass fed is what you’re going for.

Bovine American History and Conventional Beef

Before World War II virtually all beef in this country was raised from birth to slaughter on pasture where 100% of their nutrients came from forage: grass, clover, and other green leafy plants. Generally speaking, cows were born, weaned, grazed, and finished all on the same farm. However, starting in the late 1940’s, the model of beef production started to shift dramatically toward feedlots. The primary factors that lead to this change were an increasing consumer demand for well-marbled beef that is more easily produced with grain feeding than grass, low grain prices, and the advent of penicillin which made it possible to keep vast numbers of cows in one place without rampant disease.1

As a result of this trend, today’s conventional grain-finished beef industry produces the vast majority of beef on the market. The conventional beef industry is divided into two sectors: cow-calf operations and feeding operations. Nearly all cows that end up in feedlots originally came from pastures. Cow-calf farms, often located in areas where the land cannot easily be used for row crops, usually keep herds of 40 to 100 or more female cows that give birth to calves that are weaned and sold at regional buying stations. The number of months that these animals spend on pasture with their mothers depends a lot on the local geography, climate, and season. The buying stations put together tractor-trailer loads of these feeder calves and ship them to the Great Plains where corn and soybeans are cheap and feedlots are plentiful. The number of months that these cattle are fed grain in feedlots varies from about 4 to 12 months. In addition to genetically modified corn and soy, feedlot rations are often comprised of cheaper ingredients including everything from urea to candy (ground up with the wrappers and all). Unless you see labeling claims or other point of sale claims (website claims, etc.) stating otherwise, it is safe to assume that you are being offered conventional feedlot-finished beef.

McAllen Ranch Beef

An example of all-natural, pasture-fed, antibiotic free, and growth hormone free claims. This is from the McAllen Ranch Beef site.

All Natural, Pasture-Fed

The first time I came across McAllen Ranch Beef was in a sponsored Google search result. At the time, McAllen Ranch was paying Google to display an ad for their website whenever a person googled “grass fed beef.” Out of curiosity, I clicked through to their website to see what they had to offer. I noticed almost immediately that on their website itself, the term “grass fed” had been replaced with terms like all-natural, pasture-fed, antibiotic free, and growth hormone free. That was the first red flag. The second was the fact that the company was based just north of the Mexican border in south Texas, an area where there is very little grass to speak of. When I gave them a call they admitted that in fact the vast majority of their beef was technically not grass fed because their cows were fed grain. As with so many of the other examples of marketing that we’ve looked at so far in the previous two posts, it appears to me that McAllen Ranch is not actually lying on their website. Let’s take a look at their claims one by one.

As we covered in detail in the pork production claims post, “all-natural” doesn’t necessarily refer to the way that the animal was raised. As with dry aged beef, “all-natural” refers to the way that the meat is handled postmortem. As long as it is free from added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances it can be called “all-natural” no matter how it was raised. This means that a huge percentage of the all-natural beef on the market today is raised in feedlots with GMO-feed, artificial hormones, and antibiotics. For example, after writing the last post on pork claims I had a phone conversation with Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch, who shared with me his disgust regarding the fact that Niman Ranch now buys all of their all natural beef directly from feedlots.

McAllen Ranch beef is also “pasture-fed.” This might be the trickiest claim of all. When most people hear “pasture-fed” they think “grass-fed” but there’s a very important distinction between these two terms. Pasture-fed, pastured, or pasture raised are all synonymous terms that mean that the animal was raised in a pasture of some form but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the animal exclusively ate grass while on pasture. In many areas of the world such as south Texas, grass is scarce and grain feeding is the only viable way to get cows to grow up to a good weight for slaughter quickly. By using the term “pasture-raised,” McAllen Ranch can raise their cows with large amounts of grain and very small amounts of forage without technically breaking the law as they would be doing if they called their beef “grass fed.” While not commonly used in the beef industry, the claim “free range” means virtually the same thing.

Antibiotic Free, Artificial Growth Hormone Free

In contrast, the terms “antibiotic free” and “hormone free” are actually very meaningful. While McAllen Ranch beef may not be grass fed, the fact that it is raised without the use of artificial hormone implants and subtherapeutic antibiotics is significant. This is because today almost all beef in the US is raised with the use both of those substances. Subtherapeutic antibiotics are used in beef production much as I described in the articles on pork and poultry. Instead of being used as a therapy for a specific veterinary diagnosis, subtherapeutic antibiotics are added to a cow’s daily ration to maximize its “performance” when packed into feedlots with tens of thousands of other potentially sick cows.

Similarly, conventionally raised feedlot beef is usually implanted with a pellet containing either estrogen or androgen hormones to maximize their growth. Note that in the US this is only legal in lamb and beef production. The pellet is typically implanted under the skin in the ear of the animal being that the ear doesn’t typically enter the food supply. As you can imagine, cows that are given artificial hormone implants grow much faster than artificial hormone free cows. Nearly all beef in the US is raised with both artificial hormones and subtherapeutic antibiotics.

Applegate Organic Roast Beef

A package of Applegate brand certified organic roast beef.

Certified Organic Beef

Certified Organic Beef production is regulated by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). The NOP protocols that pertain to certified organic ruminants (animals that chew their cud such as cows and sheep) state that the animals must be raised on “pasture [with] daily grazing throughout the grazing season(s).2 At this point it would appear that the organic regulation would require certified organic beef to be raised with the same standards as “pasture-fed” beef with the added requirement of only certified organic feed being used. There is, however, a loophole in the regulation that states that “yards, feeding pads, or feedlots” may be used for “ruminant slaughter stock” as long as the feedlot feeding period does not exceed 120 days (or 1/5 of the animal’s total life). Keep in mind that many conventional non-organic feedlots don’t keep their animals on the feedlot for more than 120 days either. It would be impractical for me to list every NOP requirement for certified organic beef in this post but it is important to point out that they do not allow the use of artificial hormones or antibiotics.3

The fact that a certain beef product is certified organic does not necessarily mean that it is not also grass fed. The Applegate product pictured above is not made from grass fed beef, but Applegate does have at least one certified organic grass fed beef product that I’m aware of. Another example of a company that offers certified organic grass fed beef is TX Bar Organics. Just remember that it isn’t safe to assume that all certified organic beef is 100% grass fed.

Tendergrass Farms Grass Fed Ground Beef

A product claiming to be “grass fed” as well as “grass finished.” This screenshot is from the Tendergrass Farms website.

Grass Fed, Grass Finished

The USDA standard for grass fed beef requires that grass and forage be the food source for grass fed cows for the entirety of the animal’s life. The standard does allow, of course, for grass fed calves to drink their mother’s milk but they cannot be fed grain and must have “continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” Stockpiled forage such as hay is acceptable and used widely in grass fed beef production, typically just in the winter. Notice that because the term “grass fed” can only be used when the animal is fed forage for the entirety of the animal’s life, the term “grass finished” doesn’t actually add any meaning when used in conjunction with “grass fed.” Here at Tendergrass Farms we originally didn’t use the term “grass finished” but we started getting so many phone calls from customers asking if our beef was grass fed and grass finished that we decided to use that language on our website to help clarify the issue. Many other grass fed beef farms and organizations use the same language to describe their 100% grass fed beef.

The USDA defines forage as “grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state.” Legumes are plants from the bean family such as alfalfa or clover and brassicas are plants from the cabbage family such as rape. Note that cereal grain crops such as rye are allowed for use as forage for grass fed beef as long as the cows eat the rye shoots before they form grain heads. Out of all of these legally acceptable options, perennial grasses and clovers are by far the most commonly used. They require the least work to grow and are easily stored for winter as hay. The alternatives such as brassicas and annual grasses often provide more nutrient-dense forage which enables cows to grow more quickly, but the labor costs involved with planting and feeding annuals is very high compared with perennials so this method is less common.

One of the problems with the USDA definition for grass fed beef is that it has a loophole that allows for the use of grain “to ensure the animal’s well being at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions.” One local grass fed beef company here in Virginia once disclosed to me that they have an internal policy with regard to this loophole that allows their farmers to feed up to 2% of the animal’s weight in grain per day during the winter months. Assuming that their cows weigh about 1000 pounds and given the fact that there are about 5 “winter months” in this part of the country, their policy would allow for each grass fed cow to be fed about 1.5 tons of grain per year. Amazingly, it can still be marketed as “grass fed beef.” As absurd as this idea might sound to the farmers here at Tendergrass and many other reputable grass fed beef organizations, this practice is not uncommon. As always, there’s no good alternative to doing your homework, asking your farmer exactly how their animals are raised, and tracking down for yourself the real story behind the label.

So where do we go from here?

Throughout this series of posts I’ve hammered the idea of not making assumptions about your meat sources and I’ve encouraged you to hold your suppliers accountable. The best way to do this is to take the time to get to know your suppliers. Call them up. Email them. Read the fine print on their websites. Ask the hard questions. Today, the internet makes this a lot easier than it was years ago. You might be surprised at what you find out. Here at Tendergrass we have an entire page called Grass Fed Standards where we tell you just how our meats are raised and most other companies that are honest will have similar materials readily available. Generally speaking, the more closely connected you can be to the farmer who raised your meat, the better. Just because the grass fed beef you’re offered might be raised in New Zealand or Australia (like the Applegate product above) doesn’t mean that it was necessarily raised according to low production standards, but it’s often nearly impossible to hold your farmer accountable when you (and your retailer) don’t even know who they are.

Go against the grain, get 5 free grass fed beef steaks

For those of you who think that grass fed beef sounds like the best option of all we’ve created a coupon code that’ll give you five (5) free 1/2 pound dry aged grass fed sirloin tip steaks (a $79.95 value) with all orders over $199 which will also qualify your order for Free Shipping. Just head over to the Tendergrass Farms online grass fed meats store and toss $199 of our yummy grass fed beef, pastured pork, pastured chicken, or pastured turkey into your cart. When you’re ready to check out just apply the coupon code GO-AGAINST-THE-GRAIN and five grass fed sirloin tip steaks will be miraculously added to your cart at a price of $0.00 (expires 9/30/13, limited to 50 redemptions, while supplies last).

Tip: If $199 sounds like a big first order just grab a couple friends from the gym and place an order together.


1There’s a great summary of the history of beef production in the USA over at LivingHistoryFarm.org

2You can read the full NOP regulations in the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (ECFR).

3The Illinois State Bar Association has a great little summary of the legal side of this.

David Maren is a husband, father, farmer, and co-founder of Tendergrass Farms. Tendergrass Farms is a cooperative-style online grass fed meats shop that exists as a bridge between the often geographically isolated family farmer and committed grass fed meats enthusiasts like yourself. The Tendergrass Farms vision is to sustain family farms through making it easy for you to purchase their meats by taking advantage of appropriate technology and ultra-efficient transportation models that enable their meats to be shipped to fans all around the USA.

If you’re not already a huge fan of Tendergrass Farms, you’re missing out: Go bookmark their site, like their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter, and check out their grass fed blog!

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