Grass-fed butter. Organic chicken. Run of the mill beef. Is there really a significant difference between all these labels? Afterall, the price difference is pretty substantial. Is it really worth the additional expense?
Let’s find out.
What does “grass-fed organic” mean?
“Grass-fed organic” sounds simple enough, but the guidelines to use this label are not. In fact, “grass-fed” and “organic” are two different things, and it’s possible to have one without the other. Let’s look a little closer at the difference using cows as our guide.
“Grass-fed” indicates that livestock was free to roam in a pasture where they grazed exclusively on grass, barfed it up to chew on some more, and mooed and pooped and meandered until they landed on your dinner plate.
Or, as the US. Food Safety and Inspection Service describes it:
““Grass Fed” or “100% Grass Fed” claims may only be applied to meat and meat product labels derived from cattle that were only (100%) fed grass (forage) after being weaned from their mother’s milk. The diet must be derived solely from forage, and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season until slaughter.”
My description is so much more eloquent, but I suppose the FSIS is more credible, so there you go.
Anyway, the term “organic” is less about grassy pastures and more about the restricted use of artificial contaminants commonly found in the farming industry. If a meat product is certified organic, then the animal from which it came was not exposed to pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, or other artificial substances. It also indicates that the animals involved were not confined to isolated areas with over-crowding and unclean conditions, had some access to an outdoor pasture, and were given a diet of organic grain and grass.
In other words, you can be assured that the source of your grass-fed steak spent its life grazing in a lovely grass-filled meadow, but there’s no guarantee the grass it consumed wasn’t treated with pesticides. And that organic hamburger you’re about to eat for sure isn’t filled with artificial contaminants, but how much time it spent munching on grass in open fields is much less certain.
If we talk about grass-fed only, benefits of products from grass fed cows include increase nutrition such as higher omega 3 fatty acid content, higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid , higher levels of vitamin E, beta carotene and B-vitamins as well as better coloring and flavor. (ref 3, 4, 5). But, it does not specify nor indicate the grassy pastures or toxins the cows were exposed to were limited.
Environmental Toxins and Butter
The toxins in the environment in which the animal is exposed to is directly related to the toxins found in its dairy products such as butter or whole milk.
How does this work? Toxins, such as persistent organic pollutants (POP) that a mammal consumes is stored in the adipose or fat tissues. (ref 1). When it comes to cattle, this in turn directly affects the fat found in the the products produced such as butter or cream. In fact, butter is used as an indicator of regional pollutants (ref 2). The more toxins the dairy cows are exposed to in their environment, the higher the concentration of the POPs in the butter.
This makes a strong case for organic. A study published on the web by Environmental Science and Technology utilized the levels of toxins in the cows milk to measure the amount of POPs trapped in the snow and ice melt at various a altitudes in the mountains.
Looks like grass-fed isn’t the only title you are going to want to make sure your labels have. Organic plays an important role too!
A Closer Look at Feedlots, Antibiotics, and Hormones
Since a grass-fed organic steak doesn’t look and (some would argue) taste much different than its regularly-farmed counterpart, it’s easy to dismiss the impact each has on our health. Yet, as more studies are conducted we are learning that farming practices designed for mass production might do more harm than good.
Most of the meat you find at the local grocery store comes from a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), or what’s more commonly known as a “factory farm.” Ultimately, a CAFO’s goal is to produce as much meat in the shortest time possible while keeping costs low.
One way they do this is by raising animals – cows in this case – in what’s called a “feedlot.” A feedlot is a confined space holding up to 1000 head of cattle.
Imagine sharing your 10 x 10 bedroom with 10-15 people. That’s sort of like a feedlot.
From a factory farming standpoint, feedlots are necessary since raising that amount of cattle on an open range would be next to impossible both financially and environmentally. Since meat is a primary food staple in the American diet, farmers found a way to meet the demand without imposing on thousands of acres of natural resources.
Seemed like a good idea in the beginning.
While cows are herbivores, their digestive systems are vastly different from other plant-loving species. Officially known as the “ruminant digestive system” – or what most of us unofficially call “having a whole bunch of stomachs” – a cow’s digestive tract processes high fiber-low, carbohydrate plant material through a complex series of regurgitations, fermentations, and other –tations too boring to expand on. But the point is; cows have a very specific system designed for “roughage feedstuffs,” which is a fancy term for plant material that is found when grazing the rolling hills. Examples of roughage feedstuffs are grass, hay, and straw.
In simple terms, grass fed cattle are not only enjoying the freedom that green pastures provide, but they are also eating a well-balanced meal while getting their exercise. If there was a magazine for cows, these babies would be the cover models.
Feedlot cattle, on the other hand, are fed a diet of grains like corn, wheat, and barley. Grain is not only more cost-effective than grass for farmers, but it also causes faster weight gain, can be fed in small spaces, and expedites the birth-to-slaughter timeline.
However, while corn and wheat may be okay for other herbivores, their low fiber and high carbohydrate composition can be fatal for ruminants like cows. That’s because grains cause rumen acidosis – an over-production of bacteria in the gut – which damages a cow’s digestive flora causing inflammation, ulcers, and other conditions that can lead to death when untreated.
In fact, many CAFOs routinely give their cattle antibiotics to prevent not only feed-related conditions like rumen acidosis, but also to promote growth and to protect them from other illnesses associated with living in feedlots like footrot or infections carried by other cows in close proximity.
Ultimately, the use of antibiotics in feedlots is necessary as it would be very difficult to survive in one without them. It’d be like taking your kid to that plastic forest play area in the mall. They might go in healthy, but chances are it won’t stay that way when they come out.
The use of hormones in cattle is pretty straight forward. Time is money, so the sooner a cow reaches its ideal weight for slaughter, the better. In addition to its cost-effectiveness and portability, grain is also an excellent way to fatten up cattle quickly. And when I say “fatten up,” I mean this literally. Like humans, when cows over-eat unhealthy foods, the weight they gain is more fluff than muscle.
Interestingly, the more marbling – fat swirls – a cut of beef has, the higher its quality in culinary circles. More on that later.
While grain and antibiotics in and of themselves are given to speed up the growing process, many CAFOs inject their cattle with hormone implants to increase weight gain too. While some of these supplemented hormones are “natural” – estrogen, progesterone, testosterone – others are artificial. All are approved by the FDA.
The Effect of All This on Humans
Using antibiotics and hormones in food sources and its effect on human health is highly controversial. Depending on who you ask or what research you find (and who funded that research), credible support seems to be available on both sides of the debate. With that in mind, here are some things to consider:
Antibiotic resistance is an undisputed health crisis worldwide. Most agree that antibiotics are over-used, allowing bacteria the opportunity to develop adaptations that render once-treatable conditions useless. While the cause(s) for this is still being investigated, there is growing evidence that antibiotic-resistance is also linked to what we eat. Like humans, over-exposure to an antibiotic allows bacteria within a cow’s gut to develop resistance against the medicine’s effectiveness. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria then make their way into the meat we eat. Now we have antibiotic-resistant bacteria living in us.
So that hamburger you just ate may make it impossible for doctors to treat that tuberculosis you accidentally contracted. Bummer.
While the Centers for Disease Control recognize the antibiotic-resistant epidemic, their use in agriculture is still approved by the FDA. However, as of 2017, the FDA no longer allows “medically-important antibiotics” – antibiotics that humans use too – as a method of improving growth rates. However, long-term or open-ended prevention uses do not fall under this law.
In other words, “medically-important” antibiotics can still be used as a prevention strategy in standard meat, but not as a growth promoter.
Loophole. Semantics. Either way, antibiotics are still finding their way into factory farmed meat.
As for hormones given to boost growth, the FDA states that all are safe for animals and the humans who eat them. Yet, one study found that both naturally-occurring and synthetic hormones were linked to cancer, birth defects, and other abnormalities in experimental animals. To date, there are no similar links to humans. Some also speculate that hormones found in meat and dairy products may contribute to early puberty in girls. However, there are no studies confirming this.
Worth the risk? It’s up to you.
One thing that cannot be disputed is the quality of grass-fed certified organic beef as compared to its factory farmed counterparts. Because like people, the quality of food that livestock eat has a direct correlation to how healthy they are. In turn, how healthy they are impacts how healthy we are.
Cattle that eat “roughage feedstuffs” are lower in fat than standard beef. Because of the lower fat content of grass-fed beef, some feel the flavor is altered as compared to its factory farmed brethren. That being said, studies report that grass-fed beef is higher in omega 3 fatty acids, has better conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) concentrations, and is far richer in antioxidants than grain-fed beef.
Grain-fed beef, on the other hand, offer higher levels of harmful saturated fats, lower concentrations of Vitamins A and B, and contain more calories overall. Add the potential for antibiotic-resistant bacteria and exposure to additional hormones, it does beg the question: Is it worth it?
In Defense of the Farming Industry
I am not trying to demonize farming practices or the farmers who use them. In fact, factory farms were developed in response to the high demand consumers place on meat-derived products. With our current food system, if CAFOs didn’t exist and cattle continued to roam the countryside today, we’d have no countryside left. Habitats for wild animals would be demolished. They’d be the bovine equivalent of a plague of locusts.
That being said, if you are uncomfortable with the potential health risks and lackluster conditions that CAFOs present, buying local from a farmer you trust is an excellent way to support sustainable truly grass-fed and/or organic animals. I have been buying locally for the last 15 years and have become a faithful customer to those that uphold their values by providing healthy animals to nourish my body. Sustainable farming on a larger scale is also entirely possible as shown in Micheal Pollans’ model of farming. Check his website out at Michealpollan.com.
Another way to avoid potential health concerns from meat is to decrease your consumption of it all together. If consumer demand decreases, so will the need for factory farms. Plant-based diets are growing in popularity, and for good reason: Plant agriculture produces far fewer greenhouse gasses (cow waste – a substantial side effect of factory farming – is the third largest contributor to these emissions), is not destructive to natural resources, creates clean air, and is far more humane for our animal friends.
Credible “Grass-fed” and “Organic” Labels to Look For
Investing in grass-fed organic products is worth the investment to your health. Be sure to look for labels that confirm you are buying exactly what you are paying for. While companies cannot use the word “organic” on a label without USDA approval, they can say “no antibiotics” or “hormone free” without any type of third-party verification. Also, while the USDA does require paper documentation from companies claiming their meat products are “grass-fed,” they do not verify this through on-site inspections (so it is impossible to know if the claims are 100% true). It is also important to note that the FDA does not have any regulations preventing the use of “grass-fed” claims on dairy products. The only way to know for certain that a product is truly “grass-fed” and/or “organic” is to look for the following labels (as recommended by Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices):
- Only products using this seal are certified organic. If a company uses the words “organic” on a label without this seal, there is no verification of this fact and they can be fined for stating as such.
- No genetic engineering
- Fed 100% certified organic feed
- Not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones
- Allowed year-round access to the outdoors
- Verified via onsite inspection
- Raised on an organic farm
- Fed only grass/forage
- Pastures not treated with chemicals/do not contain GMO plants
- Verified via onsite inspection
- Fed only grass/forage
- Exclusively pasture-raised
- Never treated with antibiotics or hormones
- All animals born and raised on American family farms
- 100% grassfed/forage
- Exclusively raised outdoors on pasture or range
- Never given antibiotics or hormones
- Specific standard requirement for animal welfare (living and at time of slaughter)
- Verified via onsite inspection
What are your thoughts on grass-fed and organic products? Did you know the difference? Does it matter? Write your comments below. I’d love to hear your opinions.