By guest blogger Carrie Balkcom, executive director for the American Grassfed Association
The explosion in the demand for grassfed meat has lead to many confusing labeling issues. Rodale.com published a starting primer of what to look for when purchasing sustainably raised grassfed meats in January of this year. To continue the education, here’s some more information for you—the consumer—so you can make informed choices.
In 2007 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a legal definition for the term grassfed in the federal registry, which is the government’s “dictionary of terms” for labeling. The USDA’s definition of grassfed does require that the animal eat a 100 percent forage-based diet, but this label does not guarantee that the animal has not been given antibiotics or added hormones. And it does not guarantee how or where the animal was fed grass. The USDA does not guarantee that the meat you are eating was produced on an American family farm (it could be foreign beef). To further confuse the issue, anyone who was using the term “grassfed” prior to the filing of the definition can continue to use the term, even if they’re not following the current requirements.
As mentioned on Rodale.com, going to the farm is the ultimate way to find out for yourself how your food’s being grown. It’s also the most cost-effective way, since you are negotiating directly with the farm, on the farm. And it’s always a great way to spend a few hours out in the country. You might get connections from the farmer to other products (cheese, milk, butter, and vegetables and fruits that you can buy locally).
If you don’t have a farm close enough to you to do this, here are some important points:
• Farmer’s markets can be a great way to buy grassfed meat, but again, you have to be careful. If the farmer is standing at the booth, he or she is going to tell you (with pride) whether they are selling grassfed or not. I find in my local farmer’s markets that there are many booths that are not manned by family farms, but folks who are reselling a product and who know nothing about the product. Some farmer’s markets are now requiring third-party grassfed certification from American Grassfed Association (AGA) for the vendors to use the term at their booths.
• Online shopping. You look at pretty pictures of the farm, but read the fine print. If the website says “Fed an all-vegetarian diet,” then they’re feeding something other than grass. You’ll need to follow up for clarification as to what is in that vegetarian diet.
• Know the terminology. Grassfed versus grass-finished? Be careful with this terminology. “Grass-finished” has no legal definition, so again, you’re on your own, and need to ask the farmer. It does not mean that the animal has been on pasture for its entire life; you could be buying beef that has been fed grain.
• Look for the seal. The AGA is the only producer-run grassfed organization in the country that has a trademarked third-party audit (which means someone has been to the farm, and verified that the farmer is not feeding grain, not using hormones or antibiotics, and not feeding grain or grass in confinement). You can find the seal on producers’ individual websites, or on the AGA website.