How to Evaluate Grass-Fed Beef Sold at Your Local Grocer
For those of you who do not live near grass-fed producers, one option is to look for grass-fed beef in your local grocery store. Publix, for example, sells USDA organic, grass-fed beef. Joey recommends looking for the country of origin on the label.
“The first thing to do is make sure that it’s a US-based product. That’s the first step,” he says. “It’s impossible to know your producer if you’re producer is from Uruguay or Australia. And we have no control over how that product is raised in Uruguay and Australia. Their standards are going to be different from ours, and there’s simply no way to have an oversight on that.Once you’ve established that it’s a US-based product, you can find out who the supplier is…
There are a number of larger-scale sellers of grass-fed product that are buying from these smaller producers… [C]all in and find out what their standards are and what their protocol is. All of them have different standards for their producers. You want to know what they’re allowing and what they’re not allowing.”
Joey also suggests thinking of grass-fed beef as a seasonal product, just like produce. While this might not be a very popular idea, it has some merit. All foods have a season in which it grows, followed by harvesting and consumption. You could buy it fresh, in season, and then freeze it of course. According to Joey, a steak or ground beef will stay fresh for up to a year if properly vacuum sealed and frozen.
Organic versus Grass-Fed and Finished Beef
It’s important to recognize that while the USDA 100% Organic label is good, it’s not necessarily a guarantee that the meat has been grass-fed and finished. In fact, the organic label is costly for ranchers, and many actually raise their cattle in ways that provide superior beef compared to beef bearing the organic label. In my mind, a truly grass-fed, grass-finished product is superior to organic.
One argument some ranchers will give is that they have to feed their animals grains because there’s no grass growing in the winter. While that may be true in some areas, there are many parts of the US where year-round pasturing is possible. Gabe Brown, whom I interviewed, is even doing it in North Dakota, so if there’s a will, there’s usually a way.
“It is certainly possible, in many years, to get away with not feeding any hay by extending that grazing season, either by having pastures that are more native, or supplementing pasture with cover crops that will not only provide a grazing medium but also are going to help build soil and organic matter,” Joey says. “The term ‘organic’ simply means that what it’s been fed qualifies under the organic label. That can include grains and a number of other things. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re getting the health benefits of the grass-finished product.
As I mentioned earlier, even a minute amount of grain, even though the starch is removed, eliminates the health benefits of the product. Grass-finished is much more important than organic… I also think local is important. We’re getting more and more global, and we need to draw back in a little bit and support our local economy. We do that by buying from local people as much as possible. Farmer’s markets are great place to find the product. You can obviously talk with producers there, whether it’s produce, beef, lamb, or whatever the case may be. I think that’s a great start for helping to support our overall economy.”
Getting to Know Your Farmer Is the Best Way to Ensure High-Quality Food
To make sure you’re getting the highest quality possible, your best bet is to get to know your local farmer or rancher—what his philosophy is and how he raises his herd. If at all possible, visit the farm to see the operation for yourself. Is it a clean and well-run farm? (Granted, you need to understand that “clean” does not mean sterile, when it comes to a farm environment.) Questions to ask include:
Do you give the animals hormones?
Are antibiotics used, and if so, when and why?
Are the animals confined in a yard or are they fed hay at any point during their growth? And if so, for how long?
Are the animals finished on hay or on pasture?
What is the pasture mix made of? Regional, native grasses, or coastal hay?
At what age is the animal finished? An ideal target for optimal fat content and taste is around 20-24-months, although some producers will go as long as 30 months, which is also fine.
When it comes to taste, several factors come into play, including genetics of the animal, the feed, and any vitamin and mineral supplements it may have been given. Typically, British cattle breeds such as Angus, Hereford, and British White, tend to be favored. Contrary to the CAFO model, smaller animals, also referred to as “heritage-sized” animals, tend to render higher-quality meat. “You’re looking for a shorter and wider animal, instead of a tall and leggy animal,” Joey says.