authentic stories from the frontlines of grass-fed
lukas-budimaier-43828 How the grass-fed beef market has led to consumer-fed confusion

ButcherBox does not only want to be the purveyor of the best grass-fed meat, but we also want to share what we’ve learned about the meat industry, and grass-fed meat in particular, since launching this endeavor a couple of years ago.

One of the first things we discovered about grass-fed meats is how little customers know about the products they buy and eat.

There’s not that much to know, but, crazily, it’s very confusing for the consumer. Grass-fed beef, the expectation is, comes from cattle that have eaten grass or other green forage, while grazing, for their entire life. Seems pretty cut-and-dried, no pun intended.

However, transparency hasn’t always been the industry standard.

Confusion arrives with the use of labels such as “grass-fed, grain-finished,” which could trick consumers into thinking the meat they are eating is something it is not. Basically, “grass-fed, grain-finished” is the same thing as every cow raised.

Currently, 98 percent of beef consumed in the United States is grain-fed. However, every cow starts out the same way: It spends the first six months with its mother (for milk) and continues for about a year just grazing on grass (and other “forage” as in most regions of the country, it is impossible to grow cattle on grass all year round). At that point, the majority of cows go to a feedlot where they are fattened on grains for the last 90 to 160 days before slaughter.

Or, in some cases, the cattle continue to feed on grass. This is what people think of when they seek out truly grass-fed beef.

When a label says “grass-fed, grain-finished,” that’s just the same thing as every other steak at any supermarket. They were taken to a feedlot like other cattle, although that’s not what the labeling is trying to imply.

An example of grass-fed grain-finished marketing.
An example of grass-fed grain-finished marketing (with the branding removed). This is what they want consumers to imagine the cattle’s life entailed.

You can even have grass-fed and grain-fed cattle on the same ranch.

The entire system is built for grain-fed, not grass-fed production. Grain-finishing is more efficient and cheaper, and it adds weight a lot quicker to get the cattle primed for slaughter. It also gives the cattle the type of marbling and fat content that Americans have grown accustomed to in their beef. If you think about it, even the “quality” ratings we use to talk about our beef -choice, select, and prime- are homages to marbling and rapid weight gain.

Beef has been on the decline for years, and a big reason for that is because people think that steaks are unhealthy. The rationale for what makes beef unhealthy has to do with the artificial fattening of the cow. Not only do grain-finished cattle eat food that has not been a traditional part of their diet, but feedlot cows also have more antibiotics than those that grazed for their entire lives (that is until some stricter FDA rules were put in place to start this year tried to limit this practice).

So the logic is that grain-fed or finished cattle are not as healthy as grass-fed. Studies show that grain-fed cattle have less omega-3 and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) than grass-fed cows. Both of these fatty acids have some pretty great health benefits

And yet, the system is structured in a way where grass-fed is just not an option for most people who farm. They have limited resources and must focus on making their cattle operations as efficient as possible. Letting cattle graze for their entire lives does not work for them.

An example of grass-fed grass-finished marketing.

Some nefarious producers still want the financial benefits of shipping grass-fed beef. This led to the creation and use of the grass-fed, grain-finished label.

Mislabeling isn’t the only tactic that has confused consumers. We’ve heard a lot from people who’ve tried grass-fed beef before and didn’t like it, even saying that it tastes like shoe-leather. We cannot imagine how someone could think that grass-fed beef tastes anything other than delicious.

We discovered that what a lot of companies do is to sell dairy cows.  While most dairy cows are just fed grass, they are often old by the time they stop producing milk. In these instances, the reality wasn’t the sale of beef raised with the intention of being great quality meat, but that it was raised for dairy and got used for meat, under the implication that it was “grass-fed.” But as the market has grown, more and more companies have decided to raise grass-fed cows specifically for meat instead of dairy cows.

And so most of the beef on the market tastes a lot better than what people, who remember eating grass-fed meat but were actually eating dairy cow, have experienced.

These have long been problems for consumers. When someone buys grass-fed beef, they think they are getting an idyllic cow grazing in a field. Too often that isn’t the case

One of the challenges for the customer is that they have good intentions, they want to eat a quality product, and they want the benefit of eating a steak that’s better for them. But they can easily be led astray.

The key is for consumers to look for labels and brands that offer either 100% grass-fed meat or the grass-fed, grass-finished labeling. There are also a lot of various organizations that offer to certify that products are indeed fully grass-fed, this includes the American Grassfed Association and others; however, labeling is another can of worms that requires another post entirely.

ButcherBox is a brand that stands against all this confusion. We partner only with the farmers whose interests are aligned with our own. We want to bring the customers the best quality meats without any surprises.

And, we are willing to scour the globe to do that.

We think it’s time for consumers to stop being duped and to be able to access and high-quality trusted grass-fed meat.


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