What does “grass-fed beef” really mean? And why should I care? (Part 2)

In last week’s post, we discussed how grass-fed beef has significantly higher amounts of beneficial omega-3 fats, as well as containing considerably higher levels of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. This week, let’s delve into conventionally-raised beef.
So what does it mean if your beef package does not say “100% grass fed”, “USDA Organic”, or any of the other claims you may be hoping for?  Well, it’s generally safe to assume that a farmer who is feeding his cattle grass, and is not using hormones or antibiotics, will label the meat as such.  If you don’t see any of the above labels, it’s very likely that the cattle are eating mostly grain, and are likely given hormones and antibiotics regularly.  This beef can be referred to as “conventionally-raised” cattle.

Many ranchers believe grain-fed beef tastes better; it has more marbling and a richer flavor.  However, since grain is not a normal part of cattle’s diet, feeding cattle this way greatly increases their susceptibility to disease, and most farmers and ranchers mix antibiotics into the packaged feed in order to attempt to ward of the diseases that come with feeding cattle an unnatural diet.  In this case, cattle aren’t even being given antibiotics only when they’re sick; they’re fed antibiotics prophylactically!  Over 80% of the antibiotics manufactured in this country (and 95% of the antibiotics that are categorized as “medically important” for human use) are used as food for cattle, poultry, and pigs.  That’s right – they aren’t even medicine, they’re “food”.    And only 5% of “medically important” antibiotics are being taken by humans; all the rest is going to animals.  These drugs are not being given to the animals only when they’re sick; they’re being given preventatively, so the animals can be kept in living conditions, and fed food, that would normally make them ill.  Additionally, it was discovered that feeding antibiotics to cattle would cause them to gain weight, so the antibiotics are used (along with growth hormones and steroids) to fatten up the cattle as well.

You can probably guess why eating this conventionally-raised beef is bad, and the reasons are indeed numerous.  However, one worth highlighting is the likely contribution of conventionally-raised beef (and poultry and pigs) to the epidemic of drug-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs”.  The Centers for Disease control, or CDC, has declared antibiotic resistance as one of the five greatest known health threats in our country.  In 2013, the CDC attributed issues with antibiotic resistance to more than two million illnesses, 20 million dollars in health care costs, and 23,000 deaths.  It’s assumed those numbers will only continue to grow.  Frighteningly, when a person claims they haven’t taken any antibiotics in years, it’s very likely untrue; most people get small doses of antibiotics in their food on an almost daily basis.

Along with being fed grain, silage, antibiotics, hormones, and steroids, most cattle are also being fed parts of other animals.  Due to the fear of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or “mad cow”) the FDA banned the feeding of cattle to cattle many years ago.  However, these animals (who are naturally plant eaters) are still allowed to be force-fed the excrement, gelatin, blood, and fat of other animals, including parts of pigs, horses, and poultry.

There is one last item of note.  Ground beef and steaks that are prepackaged in foam trays with clear plastic wrap often have carbon monoxide added to them.  This is called “modified atmospheric packaging” (or MAP) and is used to make the meat look artificially red, vibrant, and fresh.  The FDA considers the carbon monoxide to be an allowable “food additive”, and does not require it to be listed on the labelling.  The Consumers Union conducted a test of ground beef found in supermarket packages, and discovered that 20% of these were spoiled, but still looked appetizing due to the added carbon monoxide… yet another reason to purchase beef from other sellers and producers.

So now that you know why you should choose grass-fed beef, how can you decipher all of the labeling terminology out there?  Which labels are regulated, and which are not?  Stay tuned for next week’s final post in our three part series, where we will provide an in-depth discussion of the various labels used to sell and market beef.

Credit: Much of this information comes from “Real Food Fake Food”, by Larry Olmsted, a book I highly recommend.


Sarah is a Certified Nutrition Specialist (“CNS”), a national credential awarded by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (https://nutritionspecialists.org ) and a Licensed Dietician/Nutritionist in the state of Florida. She can be found at https://sarahgehawellness.com