Loopholes in government labeling requirements mean beef raised elsewhere and shipped here can easily obscure its origin. 10/01/2020
Grass-fed beef is quickly becoming big business in the U.S. Many consumers are choosing grass-fed over traditional feedlot beef for its better taste and health benefits, and because it’s the more humane option, as the cattle enjoy open pastures rather than crowded, stressful feedlots.
Between 2012 and 2016, retail sales of grass-fed beef in America increased from $17 million to $272 million, a 16-fold increase (Stone Barns Center, 2017). Given the demand, you might be forgiven for thinking your grass-fed sirloin was raised in the U.S., especially because grass-fed beef is often labeled “Product of U.S.A.” But that’s often not the case.
To be clear, grass-fed beef raised somewhere other than the U.S. is not necessarily inferior; it can be produced at a standard just as high as that of the best American-raised beef. The challenge is that with foreign-raised “grass-fed beef” – especially the more inexpensive varieties becoming widely available in grocery stores - it can be hard to track precisely how it was produced.
Where’s The Beef (From)?
It doesn’t take much these days to get “Product of U.S.A.” on your product. Beef that’s imported to the U.S. and processed here, even by simply cutting it into smaller pieces, can earn the “Product of U.S.A.” label.
As a result, a significant portion of the grass-fed beef eaten by American consumers was actually raised in places like Australia, New Zealand, and Uruguay. An industry report estimated that in 2014, some 60 percent of grass-fed beef eaten by Americans was actually raised here. However, by 2017, that market share had dropped to just 20 to 25 percent (Stone Barns Center, 2017).
The reason for that precipitous decline was the 2015 repeal of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) requirements for beef and pork retailers. Prior to the repeal, cattle had to be actually raised in the U.S. to be labeled American-made. Today, they need only be processed here.
While American grass-fed cattle farmers can go toe-to-toe with other countries when it comes to taste, they can’t always compete on price. Large-scale producers of beef like Australia and New Zealand benefit from moderate temperatures that let cattle graze year-round, lowering costs. In America, farmers often supplement their herd’s diet with additional food in the winter, as their grazing grounds are covered in snow (Stone Barns Center, 2017). And many U.S. grass-fed cattle farms are small, family-run organizations, compared to the industrial-size operations in other countries. Those operations benefit from the cost savings brought by economies of scale.
The ease of acquiring a “Product of U.S.A.” stamp isn’t the only reason it can be difficult for consumers to know where their grass-fed beef originated. Most companies selling beef raised in another country don’t want to advertise it. Some obscure their beef’s provenance with clever marketing tactics, like plastering American flags on their packaging or including patriotic words in their company’s name or slogan (Aichner T, 2013). These strategies aren’t regulated by the Federal Trade Commission.
We could see more stringent requirements return one day if COOL regulations surrounding beef labeling are brought back. Several lawmakers have taken steps in that direction, including U.S. Senator Mike Rounds from South Dakota, who introduced the Beef Integrity Act in 2019. The bill would allow “Product of U.S.A.” labels to be used only on beef raised in America. However, the bill has yet to receive a vote in the senate.
Know Your Grass-Fed Cattle
So, what’s a conscientious consumer to do? Many people still want to make sure the beef they eat is grass-fed, and for good reason. Grass-fed beef has been shown in studies to be healthier, with a better ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids and more antioxidants (Daley et al., 2010).
Omega-3s are crucial for our bodies, playing a role in brain, joint and cardiovascular health, and more. Omega-6s are important as well, but too many can be bad for us. To get a good balance of fatty acids, scientists recommend eating lots of seafood, the main source of omega-3s, and staying away from omega-6-intensive seed oils such as soy oil, which is typically labeled “vegetable oil” (Patterson E, 2012).
In addition to the health benefits, grass-fed cattle offer a more humane option for meat-eaters. The animals are raised in pastures, out in the open, whereas conventionally-raised cattle are fattened in crowded feedlots, where they’re injected with growth hormones and antibiotics to ensure they’re ready for market on time.
Not all grass-fed beef is the same, either. Until a 2019 update to federal guidance, a cow could be considered grass-fed if it was raised on a feedlot and fed grass pellets, rather than roaming on an open range. Or, a cow could be fed grass early in its life and then sent to a feedlot for “finishing,” meaning the animal is stuffed with grain at the end of its life to fatten it up. Lax regulations meant these cows could be lumped in with those that actually spent their lives on open pasture eating native plants.
Ultimately, the best way to make sure your beef is truly humane, local, and naturally fed is to know your rancher, wherever he or she may happen to be in the world. At Vital Choice, we source our beef from a single place, Skagit River Ranch, in Washington State. (Read more: World-Beating Grass-Fed Beef.)
Ranchers George and Eiko Vojkovich have been raising organic-certified cattle for more than 20 years on 600 acres in the Skagit Valley without pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, or other unnatural additives. They raise a custom crossbreed of Angus and Wagyu beef, pairing heirloom ancestry with the noted tenderness of the Japanese Wagyu.
Cattle at Skagit River Ranch are pasture-raised their entire lives, dining on the diverse plant life growing on the ranch. Their diet includes alfalfa, chicory, ryegrass, clover, and more. And in the winter, George loads them up with silage, or fermented plants. This highly digestible feed is like “sauerkraut for cattle,” he says. In addition, the ranch is certified humane by the nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care.
The result is beef that’s healthy, tasty, and organic. No matter where your beef originates, it’s vital to know the whole story of how it was raised.
Aichner T. Country-of-origin marketing: A list of typical strategies with examples. Journal of Brand Management. 2013;21(1):81-93. doi:10.1057/bm.2013.24
Daley CA, Abbott A, Doyle PS, Nader GA, Larson S. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal. 2010;9(1). doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-10
Patterson E, Wall R, Fitzgerald GF, Ross RP, Stanton C. Health Implications of High Dietary Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. 2012;2012:1-16. doi:10.1155/2012/539426
Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Back to Grass: The Market Potential for U.S. Grass-fed Beef. 2017.