Of course "grass-fed" beef doesn’'t mean "grain-fed"!

The food blogs have been buzzing this week with the news that a new "grass-fed" standard for meat was released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. My favorite headline of all was “USDA limits grass fed label to meat that actually is”—from Ethicurean.com, who has been following this issue very closely.

It took five years and lots of wrangling from farmers and advocates of grass-fed livestock to make sure that the standard is finally in place. But why all the hooplah and controversy over labeling? At first glance, the issue seems pretty simple: Meat that is labeled as "grass-fed" should come from animals that ate only grass, not corn and soybeans. Similarly, cows that were fed grain (in the feedlots and industrial dairies that dot the Western U.S.) should not be labeled as "grass-fed" when they reach grocery store shelves. Right?

The problem is, big beef wanted to cash in as well, especially since beef and other products that come from grass-fed animals, including milk, butter, and eggs, are so popular right now. Grass feeding enables animals to range more freely, and their products are usually better tasting and contain more health-boosting Omega 3s. (Check out Kate Clancy’s excellent report on the health benefits of pasture-raised products). But the beef industry was stamping the "grass-fed" label on cattle that had actually been fed grain nearly their entire lives (all cows start off eating grass, but if they’re sent to industrial feedlots, they spend the last few months of their lives being finished on grain). Some producers were even feeding feedlot-confined animals with hay and corn stalks and other agricultural leftovers, then labeling them as "grass-fed."

The new standard is voluntary, but livestock farmers who wish to advertise their more-responsible practices to consumers can request that the USDA conduct an audit of their production methods to verify that their "grass-fed" animals are indeed foraging and eating grass. The meat from verified farms can then carry a "claim” or label that says the meat is grass-fed. The standard goes into effect on November 15, just in time for the growing number of small farmers and producers in the United States who raise their animals on grass to sell their products for the holiday season. For a complete list, see the Eat Well Guide and the EatWild website.