Continuing with our mini-series, after our first installment, let’s turn to a buzzword that has gotten a lot of attention in the last years: grass-fed and/or pasture-raised animal products.
What is the label’s motto/what does it stand for?
The idea of grass-fed ruminants and pasture-raised other animals is that this production method is much more close to their natural environment and results in better animal welfare, better quality meat products and less environmental stress. Ruminants (cows, goats, sheep, etc.) are designed to eat and digest mainly fibrous grasses, plants and shrubs, and not starchy, low-fibre grains which they would get in an industrial setting. Therefore, pastured animals avoid a number of disorders that regularly occur in industrialized animal operations, such as “subacute acidosis”, which have to be combatted with the use of antibiotics. In addition, the meat of grass-fed beef, bison, lamb and goat is healthier for humans, too (according to this website, which based its information on this study, it has “less total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories. It also has more vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and a number of health-promoting fats, including omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid“).
Also animals that do not eat grass benefit from being outside in a pastured setting as opposed to inside confinement. Pigs, chicken, ducks, and geese for example all have natural behaviors such as rooting, grazing, and roosting that can only occur in an outside setting. Furthermore, their manure can thus be spread across the fields and enhance fertility instead of being a waste product.
What does the label guarantee?
This calls for differentiation, since there are a number of labels and claims:
- Grassfed (as certified by the American Grassfed Association): All livestock production must be pasture/grass/forage based, and animals must have continuous access to pasture. All animals must be maintained at all times on land with at least 75% forage cover or unbroken ground, and animals are not allowed to be confined to a pen, feedlot or other area where forages or crops are not grown during the growing season.Their diets must be exclusively derived of grass, forbs, or cereal grain crops in the vegetatative (pre-grain) state for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. They can also be fed hay or silage in times of low forage quality, but animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts (starch and protein sources). Under this standard, ruminant animals may not be given hormones or antibiotics. Note that there is also a USDA grassfed standard that only requires continuous access to pasture, but does not prevent animals from spending parts of their lives in confined pens or feedlots.
- Pastured or pasture-raised is a claim without its own independent certification, which means that it can mean whatever you want it to mean. According to this article, it has “no rules, no formal definition, no regulation, and therefore no enforcement behind it“. Thus, a lot of bona fide local farmers use it to differentiate their products from those originating from industrial agriculture, but other brands might try to invoke a bucolic, romanticized production method without any base in reality.
What does it not guarantee?
- The grassfed label is not equivalent to organic, for example, in that it doesn’t make claims on how the feed was treated. On the other hand, organic meat can still be fed with organically produced grains that cause the health issues mentioned above (though it is not allowed to be treated with antibiotics in the feed to preempt against those diseases).
- Again, for pasture-raised claims, it is not guaranteed that animals are kept outside at all times, or even at all, since there are no independent certifications other than companies’ own definitions of what they take to be “pasture-raised”. These can be different depending on whether you are referring to meat, eggs or dairy. In addition, if you are talking of “pasture-raised” beef, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the cows were also grass-fed – they could be spending a part of their time outdoors but still be fed grains alongside.
How accountable is it?
- The AGA grassfed label is subject to a rigorous certification process and producers are audited annually by independent, third parties to ensure continuing compliance with the standards. So pretty accountable.
- See above – it’s not independently audited so it depends on how much you trust your farmer/the company.
What products can you buy with it?
- Logically, grassfed products are only available from ruminants: beef, bison, goat, lamb and sheep. But you can get “grassfed” milk as well, which is won from grassfed cows (duh.)
- In contrast, pastured or pasture-raised products are also available from animals that spend time outsides but do not consume grass: mainly poultry, eggs, and pork.
Are there drawbacks?
- If you are in the US, from my research it is better to go for the AGA label, since it is more comprehensive and rigorous than the USDA one – if you choose a USDA-labelled grassfed product, you might pay a premium price and yet support producers that confine their animals for a lot of the year and just feed them hay. Furthermore, it seems that the idea has not yet been taken up in Europe, since I couldn’t find a European-based label; on the other hand, some of the production methods might be inherently grassfed, but just not labelled as such – anybody out there know more?
- In the case of pastured/pasture-raised, here again, you might be lured into thinking you are supporting better animal welfare standards and pay a premium price without it actually being true.
Verdict – Top or Flop?
Grassfed beef, milk and ruminant meat has had a hype around it for years, and with good reason, it seems – the taste is lauded to be better, it is healthier, it is more sustainable and allows for a more natural life for the animals. So go ahead, but be careful to pick the right label!
As for pasture-raised and pastured claims, this is a great idea as long as it is actually true – so research the company and/or the farm the products come from before committing!
What are your experiences with grass-fed/pastured products? Has anybody found them in Europe (or other respective countries)?