We see “pasture-raised” on a beef label in the grocery store and it brings to mind cattle enjoying meadows and hillsides in the sunshine. We see “grass-fed” on another label and know that must certainly indicate a natural diet for the animal and a healthier product for us. Both imply a significant improvement over confinement feedlot operations, diets rich in soy, corn, antibiotics, and other unnatural practices. But do the labels mean what we think?

Pasture-Raised, Defined

According to Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices, animals must spend “at least some portion of their lives on pasture or with access to a pasture, not continually confined indoors,” to qualify as “pasture-raised.” Obviously, as in the case of “free-range” eggs, this leaves a lot of room for interpretation, a wide variety of practices, and more than a few loopholes to exploit.

For instance, most all cattle, even feedlot beef, are born on pasture and raised there at least until they’re weaned. But few of us would consider feedlot beef “pasture-raised!” Cattle with “access to pasture” can still be fed a diet that includes antibiotics and grains, or get hormone implants to boost growth. The USDA allows producers to use “pasture-raised” if they also define their practices, so the definition can vary from farm to farm, label to label. Additionally, the USDA does NOT verify the claim (beyond reviewing the paperwork) or require any third-party verification.

Grass-Fed, Defined

“Grass-fed” was a little more clear for a while, but in 2016 the USDA withdrew its standards for this label. Previously, the standards included the requirement that “grass, forbs, and forage needed to be 99 percent or more of the energy source for the lifetime of a ruminant species after weaning.” Currently, there is no governmental standard that defines “grass-fed.”

Verified Labels

This doesn’t mean that there’s no hope. Several private agencies and organizations have stepped up to define terms and certify products with clear standards. For instance, the American Grassfed Association (AGA) is a respected certifying body with high standards, clearly communicated to both producers and consumers, and their label of approval carries a lot of weight. They do on-farm inspections, audits, and their American Grassfed label on beef means it was

  • only ever fed grass, hay, forage, and mother’s milk
  • never confined in a feedlot
  • never treated with hormones or antibiotics
  • born and raised on American family farms

If this is what you expect from a “grass-fed” or “pasture-raised” label, you can trust Rafter W Ranch. These standards have been ours since we started, and even if you can’t make it to our Simla, Colorado ranch for a visit, you can trust that our shop is stocked with only the best — no loopholes, and AGA certified.