Animal products packaged with a grass-fed label are often thought to represent a better life for animals, a smaller footprint for our planet, and a healthier alternative for human consumption. But as shown below, any claims made for these labels are questionable even if the ruminants were mostly grass-fed.
The reason the claims all dubious for any generic labeling is that in 2016 the USDA stopped regulating the label, allowing producers to use the label no matter how much or little grass was used in feeding. And given that "most all beef cattle spend at least a portion of their lives on grass,", the notion that the grass-fed claim confers something special is questionable.
The American Grassfed Association, hardly an animal rights organization, agrees, saying that after the USDA announcement " grassfed will become just another feel-good marketing ploy used by the major meatpackers to dupe consumers into buying mass-produced, grain-fed, feedlot meat." More specific claims for generic labeling are discussed below.
The American Grassfed Association, also makes dubious claims for its own ''American Grass Fed'' label. Their standard requires inspections every 15 months, but the standards do not require the inspections be unannounced—a key provision for meaningful audits. Records of inspections are not public, so we do not know if there are violations, how they are handled, or if penalties have been levied. More specific claims for this label are discussed below.
Animal Welfare Claims
Some may suppose that a grass-fed label infers a better life for ruminants because they are eating their natural diet and doing so in roomy pastures. This is true only to the extent they are fed grass and the extent to which they are spending time in commodious pastures, neither of which are conferred by this unregulated label. Being fed grass does not necessarily mean their feeding is done in pastures. The animals may be eating hay, which is dried grass, in confinement.
In addition, the label says nothing about other injustices the animals may experience. It had few implications for animal welfare even before the USDA dropped enforcement in 2016,, as it didn't prohibit any cruelties such as dehorning and castration with anesthesia, harsh living conditions, rough handling, lack of veterinary care, and, of course, slaughter. The designation had only to do with feeding. Now that the label is not regulated it remains insignificant for animal welfare.
American Grass Fed
The standards for this private certification include sometimes vaguely worded stipulations on animal welfare that would provide a marginally better life for animals if the standards were strictly interpreted and enforced.
As one example of this vagueness, the standard says that "all livestock production methods and management must promote animal health, safety, and welfare..." Without explicit prohibitions on the mutilations mentioned earlier as well as the systemic cruelties in the industry, and in light of the pressures of production and profit. it seems likely that producers would incur the costs involved.
The notion that a grass-fed livestock economy is sustainable is based on ideas known as regenerative grazing and holistic land management. In our article on grazing we show the claims have little scientific foundation.
Perhaps most damaging to the idea of sustainability is the realization that we simply don't have enough land. A 2018 Harvard study concluded that the US has enough pasture to support only 27% of the current beef production."
The same study concluded that "a switch to purely grass-fed systems would likely result in higher environmental costs, including a 43% increase in methane emissions" which the EPA says have 28 to 36 times more global warming potential than carbon.
The Center for Biological Diversity sums it up in saying that "grazing wreaks ecological havoc on riparian areas, rivers, deserts, grasslands and forests alike — causing significant harm to species and the ecosystems on which they depend.
As a side note, while the beef industry is not the source of our assertions, it's interesting that even Beef Magazine "the beef cattle industry’s authoritative source," says that "the grain-fed model actually has the smallest footprint."
Human Health Claims
It’s easy to find carefully worded statements that such-and-such a product "contains numerous vitamins and minerals that are essential for a healthful, balanced diet." But it's the nutrients that are essential, not the product—nutrients that can easily be found in plant-based foods.
There are studies that show grass-fed beef has higher levels of some nutrients, but keep in mind, as detailed above, there is no standard definition of grass-fed. So the cattle may have eaten only a small percentage of grass in relation to their total diet. Also, we can find no evidence that these sometimes small increases in certain nutrients are enough to mitigate the health risks of red meat, as discussed below.
One study from Texas A&M reported that "there is no scientific evidence to support the claims that ground beef from grass-fed cattle is a healthier alternative to ground beef from conventionally raised, grain-fed cattle. While the particular study was for ground beef, we can find no studies that show appreciable health benefits of grass-fed beef over grain-fed beef.
All animal protein, whether from meat, dairy or other animal sources, carries risks that are not associated with plant protein. A review by Dr. Sofia Ochoa cites 42 studies showing that animal protein:
- elevates hormone-insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which stimulates cell division and growth in both healthy and cancer cells and "has been consistently associated with increased cancer risk, proliferation, and malignancy"
- "results in us having higher circulating levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO)," which "injures the lining of our vessels, creates inflammation, and facilitates the formation of cholesterol plaques in our blood vessels"
- causes the overproduction of the hormone fibroblast growth factor 23 (FGF23), which damages our blood vessels, can "lead to enlargement of the cardiac ventricle, and is associated with heart attacks, sudden death, and heart failure"
- can result in the overabsorption of heme iron, causing the conversion of other oxidants into highly reactive free radicals that "can damage different cell structures like proteins, membranes, and DNA" (heme iron "has also been associated with many kinds of gastrointestinal cancers")
- can result in a higher incidence of bone fractures because of animal protein's high concentrations of sulfur
- contributes to atherosclerosis—plaques of cholesterol that accumulate in the lining of our vessels; this condition is far less common on a vegan diet because absorbable cholesterol is not found in plants
This article was originally authored by Greg Fuller. The contents may have been edited since that time by others.
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- USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. “Grass Fed Marketing Claim Standard.” Accessed November 15, 2019. https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/beef/grassfed.
- Beef Magazine. “What’s More Sustainable: Grain-Fed or Grass-Fed Beef?,” December 8, 2016. https://www.beefmagazine.com/agenda/what-s-more-sustainable-grain-fed-or-grass-fed-beef.
- American Grassfed Association. “The Facts About The USDA’s AMS Grassfed Marketing Claim Recission,” January 18, 2016. https://www.americangrassfed.org/the-facts-about-the-usdas-ams-grassfed-marketing-claim-recission/
- American Grassfed Association. “American Grass Fed Home Page.” Accessed November 19, 2019. https://www.americangrassfed.org/.
- USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. “Grass Fed Small & Very Small Producer Program.” Accessed November 20, 2019. https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/auditing/grass-fed-SVS.
- American Grassfed Association. “AGA Grassfed Ruminant Standards.” Accessed November 19, 2019. https://www.americangrassfed.org/aga-grassfed-ruminant-standards/.
- Hayek, Matthew N, and Rachael Garrett. 2018. “Nationwide Shift to Grass-Fed Beef Requires Larger Cattle Population.” Environmental Research Letters (July 17). doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aad401.
- US EPA, OAR. “Understanding Global Warming Potentials.” Overviews and Factsheets. US EPA, January 12, 2016. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/understanding-global-warming-potentials.
- The Center for Biological Diversity. “Grazing.” Accessed November 27, 2019. https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/grazing/
- Farm Progress Agricultural Marketing. “BEEF.” Accessed November 16, 2019. https://marketing.farmprogress.com/brands/livestock/beef/.
- Medical News Today. “Red Meat: Good or Bad for Health?” Accessed November 25, 2019. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/315449.php
- Health.com. “Is Grass-Fed Beef Really Healthier? Here’s Everything You Need to Know.” Accessed November 25, 2019. https://www.health.com/nutrition/grass-fed-beef-tips.
- agt. “Ground Beef from Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Cattle: Does It Matter?” Animal Science, December 7, 2013. https://animalscience.tamu.edu/2013/12/07/ground-beef-from-grass-fed-and-grain-fed-cattle-does-it-matter/
- Ochoa, MD, Sofia Pineda. “7 Ways Animal Protein Is Damaging Your Health.” Forks Over Knives, December 31, 2016. Accessed October 22, 2019. https://www.forksoverknives.com/animalproteindangers/.