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From August 22, 2006                                                                                                        

Factory Farms Push to Label Beef as “Grass-fed”
(Beyond Pesticides, August 22, 2006)
On August 10, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ended its public comment period on its proposed rule to include beef partially raised on grain in feedlots. As when the USDA proposed a rule to give organic foods a definition in the 1990s, it now seeks to create government verification of a category of labels currently on meat, from “grass-fed” to “grass-fed, grain supplemented” to “pasture-raised.” The USDA’s proposed rule is designed to give clarity to consumers buying meat labeled “grass-fed,” which can mean anything from 100% pasture-raised to feedlot animals fed grass clippings. The voluntary guidelines proposed by the USDA are as follows: “Grass (Forage) Fed: Grass (annual and perennial), forbs (legumes, brassicas), browse, forage, or stockpiled forages, and post-harvest crop residue without separated grain shall be at least 99 percent of the energy source for the lifetime of the ruminant species, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. Routine vitamin and mineral supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen.”

Eatwild, which markets itself as “The #1 Site for Grass-Fed Food & Facts,” reports that “the proposed definition has been rejected by most producers of grass-fed meat.” Indeed, the USDA’s proposal states that it had already received 29 comments suggesting that the standard, as written, be eliminated for being “not acceptable, too lax and misleading.” Additional comments ranged from suggesting the USDA require all grass-fed meat be fed 100% grass or forage to 80%, supplemented by traditional grain-based feeding.

Among the benefits associated with grass-fed meat are higher levels of beta carotene (vitamin A), conjugated linoleic acid, and Omega-3 fatty acids, which are important in reducing cholesterol, diabetes, cancer and high-blood pressure. In addition, grass-fed meat is also lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than meat fattened on grain in feedlots in the months prior to slaughter. Grass-fed meat also thrives on small-scale production, which tend to feature greater sustainability and pasturing than the feedlot system. This increases populations of less popular cattle, such as the Dutch belted, which have not been emphasized as heavily as Holsteins, which are used by 90% of US dairy farmers. As Don Schrider, a conservancy spokesman said, “As we approach a monoculture, we really have to wonder if that’s the wisest decision for 200 years from now.” Grass-feeding can aid the prevention of this because, according to Schrider, “a lot [less populous breeds] fit into grass-fed or organic production.”

Another benefit, which may become more of a perception than a reality with the USDA’s proposal, is that grass-fed meat is free-range and spends no time in overcrowded feedlots. According to Dr. Patricia Whisnant, president of the American Grassfed Association, “We are pretty close to our customers, and their perception of grass-fed means animals that go from birth to harvest on pasture, not in a feedlot. They also think pasture-raised means no hormones and no antibiotics.” As Eatwild claims, animals labeled USDA Grass-fed could be raised in confinement on a diet of hay (which is less nutritious than fresh grass) and given antibiotics and hormones to speed up their growth.

Beyond Pesticides beleives that organic beef is still the best choice for health and environmental reasons. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic livestock are given access to the outdoors, fresh air, water, sunshine, grass and pasture, and are fed 100 percent organic feed. Any shelter provided must be designed to allow the animal comfort and the opportunity to exercise. Organic practices prohibit feeding animal parts of any kind to ruminants that, by nature, eat a vegetarian diet. Thus, no animal byproducts of any sort are incorporated in organic feed at any time. Organic livestock cannot be fed plastic pellets for roughage, or formulas containing urea or manure. They cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones. All of these are allowable practices in conventional agriculture. For an animal to be raised for organic beef, its mother must have been fed organic feed for at least the last third of gestation. To read specific organic livestock requirements, including feed, health care practices, and living conditions, see the USDA Organic Program website.

While the public comment period has ended, you can still send the USDA your opinion on the meaning of grass-fed meat at their website.