Grain-fed vs. Grass-fed – meat labeling terms (1)

(Updated March 2017)

How many times have you been grocery shopping or watching your favorite television program and you see and/or hear that organic meat is better? Grain-fed tastes better? Grass-fed is healthier? It can be confusing, overwhelming, and frustrating – who do you trust?  Below I will provide you with the facts and truth, as well as resources to do some homework of your own.This discussion on meat labeling terms will be presented in a series so as not to overwhelm you with the amount of information in one post!

Meat is a nutrient dense food product. Specifically, beef is a good source of protein, zinc, B vitamins, iron, and other essential nutrients! (Beef Nutrition, 2007).

Apple Jack 012
Getting my BBQ on for a meat cutting and tasting demonstration.


Conventional or grain-fed is how the majority of meat animals are raised in the U.S. Conventionally raised meat means the animal receives grain through a balanced diet for a certain time period before it is harvested. Grain aids in helping the animal grow more quickly. It also increases the marbling (intramuscular fat), improving meat quality by making the meat flavorful, juicy, and tender. U.S. consumers not only prefer and consume grain-fed beef, but it is also exported to other countries.

Cattle raised in a feedlot are more efficient, offsetting the greenhouse impact of additional transport and feed production needed. Efficient weight gain offsets higher carbon footprint, and better digestibility of grains means less methane production (Peters et al., 2010).

When it comes to carcass quality, grain-fed cattle have a brighter, more cherry-red appearing meat product; larger Rib Eye Area (REA); higher Kidney, Pelvic, Heart (KPH) fat percentages (internal fat around the kidneys, in the pelvic region, and around the heart); higher Hot Carcass Weight (HCW); and more fat thickness over the ribs (Harrison et al., 1978). More fat on the carcass and larger carcasses means that the carcass cools more slowly. When a carcass cools slowly there is less cold shortening (shrinking of muscle fibers; short muscle fibers mean the meat is less tender); which attributes to increased tenderness. Grass-fed carcasses can have a problem with cold shortening due to the fact the carcass is usually lighter in weight and there is very little fat (Brewer & Calkins, 2003; Schroder,et al., 1980).

Research also indicates that grain-fed beef is more tender (as determined by the Warner-Bratzler Shear Force test and sensory panels), is juicier from the increased marbling (intramuscular fat), and is overall more desirable (Brewer & Calkins, 2003; Schroeder, et al., 1980; and Melton, et al., 1982).

Grain-fed beef can be labeled organic, as long as the grains and forages the animal consumes are certified organic. Grain-fed beef can also be labeled as all-natural, since there was no further processing of the meat during processing to be all-natural. Grain-fed beef can also be labeled as organic and all-natural – this would mean the animal has eaten certified organic grains and forages for the duration of its life and that no further processing of the meat was done during processing.

AppleJack 2011 007
Grain-fed beef on the BBQ.


On January 12, 2016 the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) withdrew the grass-fed claim for ruminant livestock (cattle and sheep) and the meat products derived from them. This announcement came with mixed reactions. The truth is that the term was somewhat deceiving, as it indicated only animals in a grass-fed system eat grass, when in actuality cattle and sheep primarily eat grass for their entire lives. The only exception is when animals produced for meat receive grain in the final months of their lives or if an animal needs to be supplemented with grain to maintain body condition. On the other end of the spectrum it was upsetting to some that the government would no longer help provide standards for this program, a program that seemed to be growing in popularity with consumers.

This new announcement does not completely remove all verification, according to conference call notes, a person can apply to the USDA – Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) for a grass-fed claim on their label. Additionally, AMS will have the authority to audit a company to ensure they are truthful in their marketing.

Prior to this major change, grass-fed meat meant that the animal should only consume grass and forages for its lifetime with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. Acceptable feeds included: grass (annual and perennial), grass forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state, hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources are considered suitable feed sources. Mineral and vitamin supplementation may have also be included in the routine feeding regimen. Additionally, animals could not be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Depending on the cattle rancher/farmer, there are some variations to grass-fed. They are: finished on grass only, grown on grass then finished in dry lot, and feed high roughage ration in feedlot.

While it is common practice for producers of grass-fed meat to not give their animals additional hormones or antibiotics (McCluskey et al., 2005), there is no governing body to regulate this. If you want to purchase meat from animals that have not received growth hormones, antibiotics, or that have not consumed forages where pesticides were used, make sure you purchase your meat from a rancher/farmer or retailer that you trust to provide meat that meets your requirements.

Grass-fed beef is perceived to be healthier than conventionally (grain-fed) beef. Some health claims that can be made for grass-fed meat (specifically beef in this case) include:

  1. Some steak from grass-fed beef can be labeled as “lower in fat” than steak from conventionally (grain-fed) raised beef.
  2. Steak from grass-fed cattle can carry the health claim that foods low in total fat may reduce risk of cancer.
  3.  Steak and ground beef can be labeled “lean” or “extra lean”.
  4. Steak and ground beef from grass-fed cattle can carry the health claim that foods containing omega-3 fatty acids may reduce risk of heart disease (Clancy, 2006).

Other health claims indicate that grass-fed beef is higher in CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) and milk from pasture raised cows is higher in CLA and ALA (Alpha-Linoleic Acid (Clancy, 2006). Concerning fatty acids, grass-fed beef has 4% omega-3, 6% omega-6 minus CLA, and 3% CLA. Comparatively, grain-fed beef has 1% omega-3, 7% omega-6 minus CLA, and 1% CLA, respectively (Today’s Beef Choices, 2003). Interestingly, CLA is found naturally in meat and milk products of all animals – regardless of their feeding situation.

There are some limitations to grass-fed beef which include:

1. Increased production time – it takes twice as long for a grass-fed animal to be market ready. Grass-fed beef takes two to three years to finish, while conventionally (grain-fed) produced beef takes approximately 14 months.

2. Increased cost of production. Since it takes twice as long to reach an ideal harvest weight, it can cost twice as much to raise the animal.

3. Grass-fed animals produce more greenhouse gases because they grow more slowly, and are eating roughages for a longer period.

4. Less time on feed equals less emissions. Grass-fed creates more methane (high fiber diets are harder to digest) (Abend, 2010).

5. The seasonality of forage resources can be a challenge for producers (Brewer & Calkins, 2003; Schroeder et al., 1980).

6. Grass-fed beef has a darker muscle color, which generally means less customer appeal. (Schroeder et al., 1980; Reagan et al., 1977). Also, the flavor of the meat will change as the forages change; a grass-fed flavor may be detected.

7. Meat from grass-fed animals may be less tender, thus it will require more aging to help break down connective tissues (Brewer & Calkins, 2003; Schroeder et al., 1980; Melton et al., 1982).

Grass-fed beef is generally leaner, lower in fat, and has more omega-3 fatty acids. Beef should not be considered as a significant source of omega-3 fatty acids; fish (such as salmon, tuna, halibut, algae, krill), canola or soybean oil, some plants, walnuts, or ground flaxseed would be great options (Sacks, 2014; Omega-3 fatty acids, 2013).  Being leaner and lower in fat, grass-fed beef oftentimes sacrifices tenderness, juiciness, and flavor due to a decrease in marbling (the intramuscular fat) and an increase in connective tissue. It is important to prepare cuts of meat from grass-fed animals with moisture (or wet cooking methods); a dry heat cookery method may make the eating experience less desirable.

Just because meat is grass-fed does not mean it is produced in accordance to organic or all-natural standards (more on these later). Meat can be labeled as certified organic grass-fed, and this would mean the forages that the animal consumed met all organic certifications. Meat can also be labeled as all-natural grass-fed, and this would mean that the animal was grass-fed and there was no further processing of the meat during processing, but the forages consumed would not be considered organic. Finally, meat can be labeled grass-fed, organic, and all-natural – this would mean the animal has eaten certified organic forages for the duration of its life and that no further processing of the meat was done during processing. It should be mentioned that the more time and effort invested into growing a meat animal, the more the meat product may cost.

Ground beef (prime and grass-fed) in the supermarket, notice the price difference.

When trying to decide which meat option is best for you, it is important to purchase meats that support your values and beliefs, as well as meats that fit into your budget. Shopping around is always advisable too. You have many options when it comes to purchasing meat, you may be able to purchase meat directly from a rancher/farmer, a small or local butcher shop, your local retailer, a Farmer’s Market, or a bulk retailer. Finally, you may decide you prefer the taste of one of the meat types over another, and purchase based on taste and your family preference.

Other meat labeling articles you may be interested in include: organic and natural, no added hormones and no antibiotics, and humanely raised.


12 thoughts on “Grain-fed vs. Grass-fed – meat labeling terms (1)

  1. The grass vs. grain article and follow up, while touching on things most people don’t know, seems to avoid the most common issue in consumers’ minds: Thinking that grain-fed cattle must be given antibiotics because they are not “built” to consume corn, and that this contributes to antibiotics resistance.

  2. I have bought grassfed beef for several years now. We use it on the grill, stir fry, oven roasts, same as grain fed beef and it turns out great. Tenderness is not simply a function of marbling and a well finished grass-fed beef still has great marbling. We love it!

    1. That is great you have had good luck with the grass-fed beef. My experiences have been hit and miss. My friends that raise grass-fed beef are excited about the genetics they have been selecting for and grazing options! Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s