Monday, January 5, 2009

All Beef Is Grass-Fed

Thanks to Caron Golden, a San Diego based food writer and radio host (@carondg on Twitter), on December 29, I was alerted to a news story covering a taste test in a Portland, Oregon-area elementary school comparing burgers from grass-fed vs. grain-fed cattle.

I found the story disheartening, so much that I’ve spent the last week trying to track down the author or other participants in the study to clarify what I saw as significant flaws. Today I spoke with Cory Schreiber of the Oregon Department of Agriculture – what a great person - who confirmed some of my fears.

The two-part study, funded by the USDA but managed by Oregon State University, had two key findings. The first was that the school children could tell the difference between the grass-fed and grain-fed patties. The second was that about half (45 of 91) preferred the grass-fed burgers.

Based on these results, the school district elected to stick with commodity beef, with a representative explaining, “For now, since there was not a strong preference for the grass-fed patty, and it is more expensive, we will not be able to afford to serve the grass-fed patty on a regular basis."

So what’s wrong with this picture? Too many things to count but let’s just focus on the big one.

These kids were NOT, I repeat, NOT comparing grass-fed with grain-fed beef.

Actually, the burgers were both created using grain-fed beef. The article even says this up front, citing the "grass-fed" beef supplier as saying: “[The patties are] made from Angus steers in Oregon and Washington that are raised on grass, but for the last four months of their lives are fed grain and corn to fatten them up.”

How could the journalist get this wrong?

Oh wait, it gets worse.

The study was not set up to determine the relative merits of grass-fed vs. grain-fed hamburgers in the first place. The grant program that funded it was created to help interested parties evaluate the merits and costs of investing more into locally produced food.

It’s simple and unfortunate. This is a complicated category of food and there are a heck of a lot of fuzzy definitions floating around out there (and frankly, a fair amount of obsfucation, too, but that’s a whole other conversation). However, if you’re a reporter covering this news, I think it’s worth taking the time to ask questions, to clarify and confirm. And then keep an eye out for any editing that might inadvertantly change the meaning of the story.

Unfortunately, this story is being widely circulated. Not only is this hurting the prospects of those who do produce grass-fed or naturally raised beef, but it also underminessupport of the promotion of locally sourced products in our nation’s schools.

How can you help? Help others understand the differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Here's something easy to remember:

ALL Beef Is Grass-Fed.

Yes, all. It’s just that some beef is fed only grass right up to their last day. The other 98 percent or more may be fed grass early in life but are finished on a diet of grasses and grains. This is an important distinction as the diet has a huge affect on taste and texture. In addition, a grass-only diet is a more natural diet for cattle and a proper grass-only program can keep land healthy and even help fight global warming.

If you know me at all, you know that I am a strong proponent of grass-fed beef. But I take a practical view, knowing that it will take years, even decades, to transition the industry to a grass-fed only system. So, I’m willing to support top-notch grain-finishers who meet or exceed my company’s minimum (and quite high) standards, thinking of it as like supporting a farm in transition to organic. But, there is a difference and consumers (as well as journalists) should know and understand this.

If you want the benefits of grass-fed beef -- Eat Wild is an excellent reference -- ask your butcher or grocer or farmer or online purveyor if it is GRASS-ONLY beef.

Don’t be surprised if the seller doesn’t know what you’re talking about but ask anyway. We need to create transparency in this category. Consumers have a right to know what exactly they’re eating and sellers should be more interested in providing consumers what they want, as well as educating themselves. It’s their business after all.

ps Sorry for the more strident tone. Perhaps I'll be smart enough to come back and edit this at a later date ;-)


we are never full said...

really thought provoking. this is a travesty. good luck tracking down the idiots who wrote/"researched"/published this crap. you should see the horrors my low-income students eat for their lunches (which are basically free)

Michelle said...

Please retain the strident tone. Don't edit it. Great article and written from the heart.

Carrie Oliver said...

Amy & Jonny (We Are Never Full).

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! I feel badly for the folks who ran the study, or at least Cory, to whom I spoke; their intentions were good, trying to find ways to support healthier, more locally sourced food.

I didn't write this but I'm not sure basing the decision on preference was the right call. I've tasted steaks and had a preference for the flavor/texture of one ranch over the others, but would have been thrilled with any of the four, they were all were delicious. Or as one person said to me, after all, if you asked the kids their preference between broccoli or a brownie...

Purchase intent (blind and with no price and then with price and source known) might have been a better metric.

Would love to hear more about the school lunches, are these provided by the USDA?

Carrie Oliver said...


Thanks for the support. I generally prefer to promote the positive rather than point out the negative. This story touched a nerve, it is SO hard for us to figure out what's on our plate. A lot of folks would really like to eat "grass-fed" beef. I've taken to calling it "grass-only" beef, maybe that will catch on.

Anonymous said...

Thoughtful article. I've always heard of livestock as either grass-finished or grain-finished. That usually gives the consumer a clear idea of how the livestock was raised. In my opinion how an animal is finished depends on the breed. Not all breeds of cattle are best suited to being "grass-fed" but some are quite delicious on a grass-fed and finished diet. If the wrong breed is used on grass-fed then I think most people will prefer a grain-finished beef. The right cow on the right diet is what really makes the different.

Carrie Oliver said...

Hi, Katherine,

Grass-finished vs. grain-finished is another great way to differentiate the two! I started using “grass-only” after talking with some 30 or so butchers who kept trying to sell me “grass-fed” beef that I knew to be grain-finished. Even butchers are confused by meat labels and claims.

Regarding breed, not sure if this is what you're getting at but no question, many if not most of the cattle in North America, have been bred to finish easily on grain. They grow bigger faster and marble well. This genetic pool - no matter the breed - might not do so well on a grass-only diet.

This is a tricky subject, perhaps the question you raise is worth it’s own post! Maybe even a guest post.

ps What’s exciting to me is that we all have different preferences for flavor and texture, so it may be that as long as it’s healthy for the livestock and land, there may be no “bad” breed for grass-only beef.

Anonymous said...

Dear Carrie!
Greetings from Shizuoka, Japan!
I'm just curious:
In the Us do you a similar system to that in force in France and the EU that gives a special appellation to beef from cattle raised outside with a prescribed minimum of living space and fed with natural grass? (Even including hay harvested in the same meadows for winter feed)

Carrie Oliver said...

Robert-Gilles, I am just seeing your comment, so sorry!

The short answer is "no." There is no one definition of cattle grown in more natural, low stress conditions. A few good people have attempted to set a standard but as soon as that's done, someone else seems to find a loophole or gray area and cheat a bit. It's all very confusing.

I've taught myself to ask certain questions to determine whether the beef I'm buying or helping someone else sell is from cattle raised in good conditions. The beauty is that low-stress and proper diet, when combined with an outstanding butcher, lead to better flavor and texture.

I have created a definition of artisan beef, a list of minimum criteria that a producer / processor / butcher need to meet or exceed. But to avoid the trap of people skirting the definition, I publicize all the protocols used in a side-by-side format so people can compare and contrast.

ps I AM interested in creating appellations for beef. Let me know if you'd like to chat about that!

Erin said...

If anyone is interesting in purchasing grass-fed beef, Tualatin Acres Farm, located just outside of Portland Oregon sells 100% grass-fed beef. They also never use hormones or antibiotics. For more information, check out their site at