A Guide to Buying Grass-fed Beef
What is Grass-Fed Beef?
Buying grass-fed beef can be confusing, and understanding what to look for is key. Grass-fed beef is raised using sustainable methods that take into consideration raising beef for future generations. Currently, the amount of environmental degradation and pollution caused by Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations, or CAFOs (the way most meat is raised in the United States) cannot be maintained and still sustain future generations. Fortunately, there are farms and ranches in the United States raising beef in a way that has environmental benefits. Let’s explore some basic definitions and concepts, so that you can successfully buy sustainable beef to cook at home.
“Grass-fed” refers to what the animal eats. Cattle are ruminants, which means they are built to eat grass, and efficiently turn it into energy. Alternatively, CAFOs rely on grain, mostly corn and soy based, to feed their animals. Cattle and other animals are not built to eat grain as a main form of sustenance in the long term. Animals fed this way over time can get sick, which can lead to antibiotic overuse, and other issues.
Pastured, or pasture-raised, referring to raising animals outdoors with access to grass. This is the healthiest option, as cows’ bodies are naturally built to digest grass. The ecologically sustainable methods of raising grass-fed and pastured beef are NOT regulated terms in the United States, therefore, I advocate buying directly from the farmer, and asking about their beef-raising practices.
Grass-Finished vs. Grass-Fed Beef
All cows eat grass for some portion of their lives, so the “grass-fed” moniker can be confusing. Add in that “grass-fed” is not a regulated term in the United States, and once again, it is hard to trust labels. And this is why I go back to buying grass-fed beef directly from the farmer, who you can ask if the beef they are selling is from an animal that eats grass all of its life or just part of its life. Some people PREFER grain-fed beef, for flavor and fat content. For me, the benefits of buying grass-fed beef just make more sense.
Organic means the animal is fed organically grown grain. But recall from above, eating grain is not ideal for their long-term health. However, if my choice is to buy conventionally raised beef or organic beef (not necessarily grass-fed), I purchase the organic. Cattle raised for organic beef must have ACCESS to the outdoors. However, this does not necessarily mean the animal is going outside. Organic beef cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics.
Natural and Sustainable Beef
“Natural” and “Sustainable” are not regulated terms. They do not mean much on a label in a grocery store and definitely do not guarantee any of the practices mentioned above. If you see this label, talk to the farmer or producer of the beef if you can, and ask them if the animals are grass-fed and/or pasture-raised.
USDA: Prime, Source, and Select Beef
These labels refer to how much marbling (fat) is in the meat, not how the animals have been raised or treated.
Why Buy Grass-Fed Beef?
Grass-fed beef, in general, costs more than its conventionally raised counterpart, as it takes longer to produce. However, investment in grass-fed and pastured beef is worth the return. Nutritionally speaking, 100% grass-fed, pastured beef is shown to be higher in Vitamin E and Omega 3’s, as well as other beneficial nutritional components. Some, including Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, believe that “cattle are necessary to the restoration and future health of this planet and its people“. She debunks certain myths about the amount of energy it takes to produce beef. Niman also makes some good points in this article, saying rather than singling out meat as a major contributor to global warming, everyone who eats can lower their contribution to global warming by avoiding processed foods and those from industrial farms, reduce food waste, and buying food locally and in season.
Should I Buy Grass-Feed Beef Fresh or Frozen?
A lot of grass-fed pastured beef, especially if delivered to your home, is frozen. Fresh is not always better than buying frozen. In the case of small farm, small-scale produced beef, frozen is often the only choice that farmers have to efficiently get product to their consumers. Buying frozen grass-fed pastured meat is totally fine, and very common.
What About Chicken and Other Meats?
While the terms above apply to other animals that are ruminants, like cows (eat grass as the mainstay of their diet), there are some differences when purchasing other meats. I will explain these differences in a later article.
Where to Buy Grass-Fed Beef
The best way to buy grass-fed beef is directly from the farmer. In Southern California, where I live, there are many options to buy sustainable beef directly from the farmers producing it.
J & J Grassfed Beef
An operation started by two friends, Jack Rice and Jay Shipman, J & J Grassfed beef is one of my favorite farms. This family-run operation raises cattle in Northern California and is currently securing ranch land in the Tehachapi region as well. J & J raises their cattle on pesticide and herbicide free pastures, using no hormones, steroids, or antibiotics on their animals. I have purchased their beef for years, even before starting this blog, and I am excited to be working with them, creating recipes specific to their products. Ordering and home delivery are available from J and J on a monthly basis.
More Grass-Fed Meat
Buy Grass-Fed Beef: Retail Options
Retail locations in southern California are another option for buying grass-fed beef. Some include Belcampo Meat Company in L.A. and Electric City Butcher in Santa Ana. There are also other small farmers and ranchers not mentioned above offering grass-fed beef and other meats at farmer’s markets throughout the Los Angeles area. Some include Santa Monica, Hollywood, and Torrance farmers’ markets. While meats are available at “big box” health food stores, I prefer to buy directly from the producers, or small retail operations. That way I can ask the farmer questions, or someone who buys directly from the farmer.
For areas outside of Southern California, check out Local Harvest or Eat Wild to locate your local grass-fed beef operation. National companies such as U.S. Wellness Meats or Butcher Box, work with multiple farmers to deliver product to their customers nationwide.
Cooking Grass-Fed Beef
Since grass-fed beef typically has a lower fat content than CAFO-raised beef, it usually benefits from cooking at lower temperatures. Check out this recipe for Steak and Egg Breakfast Tacos and this one for Turkish-Style Beef Kofte Kebabs.
Beef raised in CAFOs is an environmental disaster. However, environmentally friendly options do exist, and can be part of a healthy diet. For me, buying grass-fed beef comes down to priorities. I want to buy food that is more nutritious, better for the environment, and supports small and local farmers and their communities. This is better for all of us.